The Iconography of John Sobieski Stuart

In my previous post about the Sobieski Stuarts (and my non connection with them) I reproduced the above photograph, which is attributed to the noted early Scottish photographer, David Octavius Hill, who had set up a photographic studio with Robert Adamson in Edinburgh in the 1840’s.

Hill was one of the first to produce artistic photographs and in the course of his work photographed many of the great and the good of 1840’s Scotland.

I’ve stared at this photograph, and blown it up to as large a size I can display and I find the iconography quite fascinating.

Firstly, Sobieski Stuart seems to be wearing a frock coat styled after the manner of a British cavalry officers’ undress frock coat.

Such coats are still worn today by members of the British Royal Family on state occasions, and if you search for ‘nineteenth century British undress uniform’ you can turn up a number of images from tailors that make uniforms for re-enactors.

The salient point is that they are usually dark blue and have quite an elaborate set of cross ties, that when done up, would give a frogged appearance, but of course one never actually does them up or at least no one does in later photographs.

Interestingly, Sobieski Stuart has them buttoned up – I have no idea when the fashion for leaving them dangling started, and perhaps in the 1840’s this was how one wore them. However, by the time of the Crimean War some officers were leaving them undone


British Officer, Crimean war

Note also that in Sobieski Stuart’s photograph  the small decoration in approximately the place an officer would wear a medal ribbon or similar decoration as seen in the above image of a Crimean war British officer wearing an undress frock coat.

So we can say that Sobieski Stuart – even though he was a Welsh charlatan – is trying to project the image of being an officer and a gentleman.

And there is the hair and beard. In a time when few people, even among the great and the good, had elaborate haircuts the hair and beard are styled to look a little like those of Charles I

(image CC-BY from British Museum)

In short he is is trying both to make himself like the romantic and doomed Charles I, and yet suggest he is an officer or at least someone who has seen valiant service.

I find it interesting that, at a time when photography was so new, he would take the trouble to present himself so elaborately …

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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