Redcoats & Convicts: drapery studies of 19th-century costume

July 13, 2013

The Historic Houses Trust runs an annual historical re-enactment at Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney, one of eleven registered Australian convict sites and classified as World Heritage. The Barracks were built in 1818 to accommodate the male convicts of Sydney Town, prisoners shipped out from England. I’ve recently taken out an annual subscription membership of the HHT with the express aim of trying to draw one of their twelve historic properties one a month for twelve months.

There’s a merry band of modern-day men who play the parts of soldiers of the convict period, basing their costumes on the 73rd Regiment. British soldiers were sent to the other side of the world to keep law and order and his particular regiment operated here between 1810 and 1814. Some the soldiers died here, some returned to England, some married and established families to become citizens of the new colony. There once operated a theme park outside Sydney called Old Sydney Town, which I unfortunately never visited.

I know from my professional worklife how expensive historical costumes are to have made, complete with passable-looking accessories (if not genuine antiques), so I’m in awe of the work that’s gone not just into their costumes, but the accompanying historical research. I went along to sketch, not out of any interest in militaria, but partly because so much High Art we see and know from the 19th-century features this sort of costume and while it’s possible to see these costumes behind glass in museums, it’s another thing altogether to see them being worn in ‘real life’. If nothing else, this is reportage – how Sydneysiders like to spend their weekends.

Near the museum entrance I came upon “Earthly Delights”, a self-styled historical dance band. The provided music for a goodly bunch of dancers in period costume (one bloke was dancing carrying his baby, so I have to say that children were dancing as well). I had the good sense to take some reference photos for some more careful drawing later.


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My sketch from left shows the guitarist in a black coat; the flageolet-player in blue frock and straw hat; the violinist in tails and suit of dusty rose. The band leader (and dance master hectoring the dancers) was a Gentleman dressed in a blue coat and brown hat, playing the bagpipes. You’ll notice a woman at lower left. She’s crouched over a big round pot (lid nearby) and is cooking hominy grits from corn milled on-site earlier in the day. At far right, I included a man in a red felt hat and red felt jacket who seemed to be in charge of the tent devoted to ropemaking.

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This page of sketches started with a woodworker at far right. Wearing a much-used straw hat, he wore a white top imprinted with the convict prisoner arrow and was fashioning roof shingles by hand. Next to him is the woman cooking over her pot, a convict lunching with the typical bi-colour clothing: his was black and bright gold-yellow (an original is held in the Tasmanian Museum) plus an odd bishop’s mitre-looking hat. One of the 73rd Regiment played the part of a drummer and I immediately had the thought of Degas’ Drummer Boy.

I followed the 73rd Regiment soldiers round and round the Barracks yard as they mustered, paraded and fired their (very loud) muskets on the hour every hour. Eventually I got some reference photos of the soldiers standing still. I was keen to capture the fact they wore a small white bag off the shoulders on one side and a small black one off the shoulder on the other side, presumably to hold their ammunition.


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A group of three young men played convicts and I sketched their long white tunics and grey wool hats (far left). Watching the players shuffle about on a cold mid-Winter’s day, 17 degrees C, you got a feel for how it must have been in Winter here two hundred years ago. By then, the mustering of the soldiers took my attention, including the sergeant (perhaps a sergeant-at-arms, I’m not sure of the correct term) who wore a distinctive black beret with red pompom and a very impressive coat. You’ll notice that it is buttoned off his thighs. His trousers bear a strong resemblance to the contemporary boy’s winter uniform at Kings School, Parramatta, but that’s by-the-by. At far right, I caught his pose with hands on hips yelling at recalcitrant kids dragooned into the parade as pretend-recruits.

Who’s the bloke at far right with the straw boater? He was the flogger, judging by the cat-o’-nine-tails draped over his shoulder; I didn’t see him in action flogging the convicts on this occasion – presumably no-one was being mock-sentenced for this punishment in the courtroom set up inside the Barracks for the day.

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More following the soldiers around, I managed to catch a Gentleman and his Lady by the bookbinder’s stall ($10 handbound Convict Register notebooks on sale) and a group of damsels had turned up, straight out of Jane Austen. I was happiest with the soldiers far left: it had taken me all day to realise that I draw people live in the streets best at sight-size – any larger and distortion creeps in!

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Here’s a thumbnail of a soldier, along with (as the tv chefs say) “one I prepared earlier”, a watercolor thumbnail based on the advertising publicity. The 73rd Regiment operated in Sydney between 1810 and 1814 – at least the coats are. The regimental hat is black leather (“Stove Pipe Shako”) and note the red/white cockade plume is accurate. I’ve been careful to paint the the cross belt plate and pewter coat buttons.

While prepared as I was to see some soldiers, I was very pleasantly surprised to see the wide range of other costumes – that was unexpected! I only spent 90mins here at lunchtime. Next time, I’ll bring my own lunch to keep my strength up (the smell of the roasting meet all around was a bit much!) and persist with even more sketching, perhaps aiming for more and more detail as time goes by. I was thankful for being surrounded by ‘play actors’ since that made my presence as a sketcher all the more “anonymous”. While the historical re-enactors stopped stock-still for photographers, they weren’t going to stop for a sketcher so I was kept on my toes!


And lastly a view of St James’ Church (1821) from inside the Barracks yard. I imagined it as it might have looked back when convicts were marched over to their church every Sunday. I deliberately cut out the statue of Queen Victoria, the backdrop of contemporary architecture, even the later addition to the church of the portico. I kept it deliberately sketchy, under the influence of JMW Turner watercolors all week (surprisingly full of people) which I’ve been looking at this week. Turner himself back c1820 had already exhibited his first painting at the Academy and had spent a year in France; he was, by this time, already travelling regularly to Europe. While Sydney’s Governor Lachlan Macquarie was getting important public buildings constructed (such as St James’ Church), the French empress was enjoying Australian flora growing in her garden and Beethoven was composing his symphonies in Austria.

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Milini 150gsm sketchbook, A4, 5×7.5″ sketch (a standard these days for me) using a 4×5″ Albertian veil. Not interested in anything other than getting used to using an Albertian veil to measure as correctly as possible and aiming for some sort of pictorial space. I am addicted to tone, so that’s hard to give up in the name of correct measurement. I didn’t use my measuring stick, especially to compare the height of the church spire with the rest.

What’s next? Closer reading of Robert Hughes’, Fatal Shore – a cracking account of Sydney’s early days – and the recent Thalis & Cantrill tome on Sydney’s public buildings, as well as some more considered studio drawings based on the reference photos including referring to the work of Degas, Goya, Turner and others. Careful re-examination of period watercolor paintings featuring these buildings is in order. Attending the Open Day at Camden in September when the Regiment is probably slated to appear again and definitely returning next year to Hyde Park Barracks for more on-site sketching!


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