‘Our Uniform to 1900’ – A temporary exhibition

The museums new and fascinating temporary exhibition titled ‘Our Uniforms to 1900’ is currently on display. It features the paintings of two prolific military artists of the 19th and 20th centuries, Orlando Norie and Richard Simkin. Over the years, The Argylls have amassed a collection of their paintings featuring the uniforms worn by the 91st (The Argyllshire Highlanders) Regiments of Foot , the 93rd (Sutherland Highlanders) Regiment of Foot, and The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. The paintings by Norie and Simkin are vibrant portrayals of the uniforms worn by the Regiment in the period up to 1900. Today, we thought we’d look into these artists, give you a sneak peek into some of the pieces in this exhibition, and a bit that we can learn from each of these.

Image from the exhibition, featuring a painting by Simkin.
Photo credits: The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Regimental Museum

Orlando Norie

Orlando Norie was perhaps the most prolific painter of the British army in the 19th century, and it has been estimated that he painted well over 5000 pictures. Although his family were of Scottish descent, Norie was born in Bruges, Belgium, on 15th of January 1832. He spent most of his working life in Dunkirk where he painted many scenes, primarily in watercolour. His work was first recognised in the autumn of 1854 when his paintings of key battles were reproduced by the English print maker, Rudolf Ackermann.

An Officer of Princess Louise’s Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders c.1885 by Orlando Norie.
Photo credits: The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Regimental Museum.

The above painting ‘An Officer of Princess Louise’s Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders’ by Norie, is a beautiful watercolour of an Officer in full dress after amalgamation. The painting shows off the details of Highland dress worn by the Regiment and reflects Victorian romanticism for the kilt, tartan, and everything Scottish. The dirk is worn from an embroidered gold waist belt with a thistle design, and the cutaway of the red doublet allows room for the sporran, traditionally its top being four finger width from the bottom of the jacket. The painting shows the plaid pinned to the left shoulder with a plaid brooch. The origin of the plaid dates back to the time when the kilt was one piece of cloth wrapped around the body, ‘breacan an feileadh’, and it was worn by the 91st between 1799 to 1809. With the introduction of the ‘little kilt’ (‘feile bheag’) the plaid then became a separate piece of tartan wound round the body and over the shoulder, held in place by a plaid brooch.

The 93rd Highlanders under Lieutenant Colonel Ainslie at Balaklava 1854 by Orlando Norie.
Photo credits: The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Regimental Museum

This above watercolour by Norie depicts ‘The Thin Red Line’ at Balaklava. White plumes denote men of the Grenadier Company, and the red and white dicing in the bonnet is unique to the 93rd. To the right, the gold epaulettes are worn by the Officer, and the badger-head sporran is worn by the Sergeant. All the soldiers in the painting are wearing red and white hose-tops and spats. Buttoned canvas spats were worn over black brogues known as ‘Shoes Highland’ and performed the practical purpose of keeping mud and water out. On parade, these were also whitened with pipe clay but in the field they were natural canvas-coloured.

Richard Simkin

Richard Simkin was born in Herne Bay, Kent on the 5th of November 1850, and was the son of a commercial traveller also named Richard. After marrying his wife Harriet in 1880, he spent much of his time in Aldershot, Hampshire and may also have been a volunteer in the Artist Rifles. He was employed by the war office to design recruiting posters and to illustrate The Army and Navy Gazette. During his lifetime he produced thousands of watercolours, depicting the uniforms and campaigns of the British Army. Simkin also contributed illustrations to numerous publications, including the Boys Own magazine, The Graphic and others; many were published by Raphael Tuck and Sons.

The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders – Piper, Private, and Officer in Review Order post 1881 by Richard Simkin.
Photo credits: The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Regimental Museum.

The above painting by Simkin depicts dress following the amalgamation of the 91st and 93rd in 1881. The Officer’s collar dogs and belt buckle bear Princess Louise’s design of the Wild Boar of Argyll and the Wild Cat of Sutherland. The Piper wears a sporran of horse-hair, the Private wears the ‘swinging-six’ sporran, and the Officer wears a badger-head sporran. In this painting, the Piper is wearing red and black diced hose-tops (footless stockings) and spats. The Officer on the right wears the cross-belt over the sash (at the rear it went beneath). Sashes were worn across the left shoulder by both Officers and Senior NCOs and were made from crimson-coloured silk. They had the practical purpose of being used as stretchers in the event of wounding; the blood would not show and when spread out they were a body’s width and the height of a wearer.

Uniforms of the 98th (later the 91st) from 1794-1914 by Richard Simkin.
Photo credits: The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Regimental Museum.

This picture above by Simkin shows a comprehensive cross-section of the uniforms worn by The Argyllshire Highlanders from when the 98th was raised in 1794 up to amalgamation with the 93rd in 1881 and then to the start of WW1.  At the top you will find examples of an Officer and soldiers wearing the old belted plaid ‘breacan an feileadh’. The Regiment was then required by the War Office to adopt white breeches for wear in the Cape of Good Hope (1798-1803) and then grey trousers as worn by the British Army’s Line Infantry. However, the two figures in the bottom right are shown wearing tartan trews adopted from 1864. In Highland regiments, tartan trews served as less formal forms of uniform in barracks, replacing the kilt in the evening to allow soldiers to clean their day uniform. The Piper Major is shown wearing the uniform post amalgamation with the 93rd in 1881. In the centre are three Officers wearing the uniform of Princess Louise’s Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in 1914 – (from left to right) Service Dress and Full Dress, and a mounted Field Officer wearing tartan breeches. It also shows the variety of different headdress worn over the period.

The exhibition is open until the end of February and has more of these beautiful paintings on display by Norie and Simkin. There is also a selection of pieces of uniform on display from the museum collection.

Written by Caitlin Stewart, Digital Content Volunteer