Wednesday, August 6, 2014

John Mollo and Naval Seamen

Some time ago, when I first got interested in uniforms of the late eighteenth century, I picked up one of the go-to guides to the clothing of officers, soldiers, militia, and seamen of the American War of Independence: John Mollo's Uniforms of the American Revolution.

If you haven't heard of John Mollo, he was one of the preeminent experts on uniforms of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. His historical work can be seen in costume movies like the Hornblower and Sharpe series, though he is most famous for his work on Star Wars.

Though Hollywood defines his career, the man does have real chops and Uniforms of the American Revolution is proof of that. Illustrations detailing the aspects of uniforms of the American, British, Hessian, Loyalist, and French forces are accompanied by brief descriptions. It's a great introductory piece.

Unfortunately, it is showing its age. The book was released in 1975, and quite a bit of research has been done since then, advancing our knowledge of the period. At that, despite Mollo's work, there is the occasional error.

Among these errors is his depiction of a British Royal Navy seaman.

At first glance, this doesn't look out of place. The uniform is largely the same as we've seen in many other images, and does not directly contradict anything we've seen. The issue comes from Mollo's supposed source.

The figure here is abased on a sailor who appears behind a group of naval officers in one of the paintings of the 25th regiment in Minorca, and to judge by his fur cap with a silver coat-of-arms on the front, he is probably meant to be a member of the admiral's or captain's barge. (p. 201-202)
I spent weeks searching for paintings of the 25th Regiment of Foot at Minorca, and there are a goodly number of them, but in none could I find this sailor as depicted. There is one that he is probably referring to, but it doesn't match up too well. Purely by accident, I did find this one in the National Maritime Museum:

The Tobacco Box, or Jack taking a Quid of Comfort in a Storm
In what is almost certainly an early nineteenth century piece, we find the exact same figure as in Mollo's book. The cap on his head is not clearly a barge cap. The 25th and Minorca are nowhere to be found. This is a piece by John Fairburn, whose works stretch from the 1790's into the 1820's. The lack of the long "s" ligature in the poem beneath the figure supports this rough date.

Of course, it was very popular at the time to copy other pieces. There is the possibility that this figure was "inspired" by a background figure on a painting from decades before. This is not a strong likelihood, and I have not yet found any evidence for it. Have any of you out there seen a similar figure in earlier works?


  1. Coincidentally, I am looking for the same thing. I did find one candidate for Mollo’s figure in a 25th Minorca painting entitled: Lady Johnstone, Wife of the Governor of Menorca, Accompanied by Officers of the 25th Regiment of Foot and the Royal Navy, and a Naval Seaman by Giuseppe Chiesa. The painting is in the National Army Museum collection. The figure is at the left edge of painting behind a naval and three 25th officers. The cap seems to fit if not much else. Your thoughts? Here is the link to the best version I could find online:

  2. Never mind, I see that you already figured this out in a later posting. Great blog, thanks!