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11 May 2021

Costume and colour

Written by Christina Young, University of Aberdeen, First Year Post-Graduate Student studying Scottish Heritage
18th-century portrait of a man with a long grey wig and a red outercoat
Alan Ramsay (1733–88). Field Marshal John Dalrymple, 2nd Earl of Stair (Newhailes Estate, National Trust for Scotland)
Hello, my name is Christina Young and I have spent some time looking into a portrait by Allan Ramsay. It was the extraordinary textile details in this painting that initially caught my eye. What I didn’t know was the research would take me back to my father and his role as a firefighter in Clinton, Connecticut.

Dressed for success

A man stands proudly looking out at the viewer, wearing a bright crimson red jacket with brass buttons marching down the front. Large cuffs are folded at his wrists, with puffs of white shirt billowing out onto his hands, and a precisely wrapped neck stock is gathered under his chin. His brown woollen trousers are tucked under a glistening breastplate, suggesting he is a military man. This is further emphasised by the tube he holds in his left hand – these were often used for carrying battle documents, such as plans and maps.

His wig is immaculately coiffured. He wears a blue sash and the size of the sleeves on his outercoat are not practical for battle and are clearly ceremonial. His tricorne hat, which is placed beside him, is similarly formal and is edged with gold braiding. His polished breastplate has no abrasions and no signs of wear; it looks far too expensive to be an ordinary infantry man’s armour. Without the breastplate this man simply looks like an aristocrat. The striking blue sash strung across the metallic breastplate is associated with the rank of Field Marshal. This is Field Marshal John Dalrymple, 2nd Earl of Stair, and this painting can be seen at Newhailes House, the home of his cousin, Sir James Dalrymple, 2nd Baronet of Hailes (1692–1751).

The details in a painting are similar to words in a poem, in that they efficiently and effectively tell a story; each piece of clothing and each object adds to the overall narrative. The document tube, for example, suggests the Field Marshal has control over battles and troops, literally holding the plan of action. This is a painting of an older man, who has built strength of character and leadership skills through experience overseeing battles. Ramsay has depicted a composed and professional leader, something of a requirement for a man wishing to be portrayed in his role as Field Marshal.

The 2nd Earl of Stair

John Dalrymple was born in 1673 to Elizabeth Dundas and John Dalrymple, 1st Earl of Stair. He was the grandson of Sir James Dalrymple, who extended Newhailes House and laid out the estate gardens in the early 18th century, which is why the portrait of him is currently hanging in the dining room there.

Records in the National Library of Scotland’s Dalrymple Collection tell us that the portrait was most likely completed during August 1745 and paid for by Sir James Dalrymple. James paid 16 guineas to have it delivered to Newhailes, which is roughly £2,800 today. Known for his extensive military background, being appointed Knight of the Thistle and Privy Councillor to George I, this painting portrays John late in his career, after he’d commanded an army at Dettingen in 1743, during the War of Austrian Succession. He retired soon after, at the astonishing age of 70.

Dancing with danger

This auspicious career did not begin under the best circumstances, for it emerged from a tragedy in his childhood.

Imagine that you and your sibling are playing in a hallway as children; you are running past doors, chasing each other. As you sprint down a dark hallway towards the front door, you enter the vestibule and notice two shiny pistols lying on a central table. These look like fun to play with. You cry out to your brother to grab a pistol and pretend to be at battle. What you don’t realise is that the pistols are loaded. When you aim it at him, the trigger lets go and you accidentally shoot him. This is exactly what happened to John Dalrymple when he was 8 years old.

The Annals and Correspondence of the Viscount and the 1st and 2nd Earls of Stair recall the incident, noting:

‘His second son, afterwards second Earl of Stair, then a boy about eight years of age, happened to be with his elder brother in the entrance hall of the house where two pistols were lying on the table. He took up one of the pistols, which proved to be loaded, and unwittingly shot his brother dead.’

The horror and fear triggered by this incident provoked John’s parents to cast him from the house and he was sent to live with and be tutored by a ‘clergyman’ for three years. After this, he was sent to Leiden in the Netherlands, where his grandfather Sir James Dalrymple was living in exile. John went on to study at Leiden University and caught the eye of Prince William of Orange, who remained a patron and friend for the rest of his life. Ironically, in exiling the boy for killing his brother, John’s parents led him into a military career. Following the death of his father in January 1707, he returned and was elected as one of 16 Scottish peer representatives for the newly formed parliament of Great Britain.

Young John to old John

18th-century portrait of a young man wearing a military breastplate and holding a document tube. In the background there are men on horseback fighting.
School of Godfrey Kneller. Portrait of Sir John Dalrymple, 2nd Earl of Stair c1710 (Government Art Collection, London. Image in Creative Commons)

An early portrait of John shows a young man from a wealthy family. His long wig, fashionable in the early 18th century, and his highly decorative breastplate, with swirls of golden details, along with the noble green sash (symbolising the Order of the Thistles) are all signs of status and style. He stands confidently staring at the viewer, while in the background men are in battle, fighting with swords on horseback. The dog looking up at him signifies loyalty. This painting is not clearly dated, although it’s likely that it was commissioned to mark his rise to earldom in 1707, along with induction into the ancient Order of the Thistle in 1710. At this stage, he was 37 years old, a man in the throes of an early and successful military career. It also reveals a man of great standing and was painted a few years before King George I made John an envoy, sending him to the French Court at Versailles and then appointing him Commander-in- Chief of the forces in Scotland.

Dress like a royal

Portrait of George II on a grey horse with two other men on horseback.
John Wootton (c1682–1764). George II at the Battle of Dettingen, with the Duke of Cumberland and Robert, 4th Earl of Holderness, 27 June 1743 (Creative Commons, courtesy National Army Museum)

John’s 1745 portrait at Newhailes was commissioned after his success at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743, as was a portrait of King George II, painted by the English artist John Wootton. It’s interesting to compare the military costumes in both paintings. King George is pictured on the grey horse in the centre of Wootton’s work, and we can see the addition of gold and silver braiding on the tricorne hats, blue saddle blankets on the horses and vibrant red outercoats.

The absence of decorative details on the 2nd Earl of Stair’s jacket and tricorne hat suggests that he was of a lower status than the Duke of Cumberland and Earl of Holderness, who accompany the king to survey the battlefield. So, while John’s decorative breastplate, tricorne hat and elaborate crimson jacket indicate a man of high standing, it’s clear his clothing provided him with a particular level of status, which would have been evident to a contemporary audience.

Red is the heart of the madder

In addition to their function as military costumes, these textiles give us a deeper insight into the importance of colour during the 18th century. Vibrant hues of red, such as those seen on the coats of John Dalrymple, King George II and his courtiers, would have been expensive as they were dyes shipped from abroad – from Asia, Europe and the Americas. By the 1740s, Europeans were making headway in recreating the popular ‘Turkey red’ colour, which used ingredients such as brazilwood, cochineal or kermes. However, they were not as fine as the real thing.

Originating in Asia, brazilwood resembles a deep crimson colour, but it tended to fade easily and was known to damage some textiles. Kermes came from insects found on the kermes oak, largely found in Italy. This was the most reliable red dye, with a strong resistance to fading and producing a brilliant crimson shade of red. Lastly, cochineal, the dried husks or shells of the Coccus cacti parasite, had been used in North America as far back as the 15th century, and was coveted for its deep scarlet hues.

Bright crimson and vibrant berry colours therefore symbolise a wealthy individual. Duller and more muddied tones of red were produced from the more widely available, and therefore less expensive, madder. This is one the oldest known dyes native to Europe, Africa and Eastern regions. Derived from ground-up plant roots and extracted in warm water, madder was an ideal dye for wools. Paintings can provide evidence of this – a winter scene of working folk by Klaes Molenaer, for example, depicts a man wearing a much earthier shade of red than we see in the military portraits. Scottish tartans would also have been predominantly dyed with madder.

Landscape painting of people skating outdoors on a frozen pond
Klaes Molenaer A Winter Landscape with Skaters c1650–76 (National Trust for Scotland, Crathes Castle)

Scottish tartan

Most tartans have a darker red base with brighter accents in the design. However, the red Stuart tartan marks itself out as the ‘Royal Stuart’ tartan, referencing the ‘High Stewards’ of Scotland, a family line that can be traced back to 1097. The crimson red base is more similar to the hues worn by the king and the 2nd Earl of Stair in their mid-1740s portraits. Ironically, the year John Dalrymple’s portrait was completed (1745) was the year of the Jacobite rising at Culloden. Their defeat led to the exile of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, which in turn led to a new law banning the wearing of tartan, except for those serving in military regiments. The 1747 law stated that:

… no Man or Boy, within that part of Great Britain called Scotland, other than such as should be employed as Officers and Soldiers in his Majesty’s forces, should on any Pretence whatsoever, wear or put on the Clothes, commonly called Highland Clothes: (that is to say) The Plaid, Philebeg or Little Kilt, Trowse, Shoulder belts, or any Part whatsoever of what peculiarly belongs to the Highland Garb, and that no Tartan, or Partly-couloured Plaid or Stuff shall be, used for Great Coats or for Upper Coats …

In some instances it appears that this law was not followed, or at least was adapted. A portrait of the two sons of Sir Alexander Macdonald, a chieftain with estates in the Isle of Skye, was commissioned in the late 1740s and clearly shows the young children posing in red Macdonald tartan. They are portrayed as men of a country estate, with their rifle and golf club (not as military men). The bright red tartan, made with the more expensive red dyes, is an expression of their wealth.

Two young boys dressed in red tartan outfits. One boy holds a golf club, the other a rifle.
Artist unknown. Attributed to William Mosman (c1749). Sir James Macdonald (1741–66) and Sir Alexander Macdonald (1744/45–95) (Creative Commons, courtesy of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery)

Clinton red

Looking at these uniforms got me thinking about my father, who has been a local firefighter since he was 13 years old, moving up through the ranks throughout the years. The four silver bars on the sleeve of his jacket signify his rank as a volunteer. he uniform has not been updated for some time, and it should actually have at least three more bars.

When he was serving as Lieutenant these bars were red. I remember walking into a banquet when I was a small child and being intrigued by what the red lines were on his sleeves. He pointed out the Chief, a rank above him and the head of the fire department, who had gold bars on his uniform. What strikes me, now I have researched the portrait of the 2nd Earl of Stair, is the recurring theme of red being a symbol of power, and an indicator of those who ‘manage’, while gold is a signifier of an ultimate leader. It’s fascinating to see that colour has been used to mark status this way for over 300 years.

On the left, a US firefighter's helmet and identity number; on the right a side view of a navy firefighter's jacket.
My father’s firefighter jacket (on the right), with his helmet and identity number (on the left)

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