Artists Illustrating Boys' Fashions: Sir William Beechey (1753-1839)

Figure 1.--This painting depicts Henry, Jane, Sara, and Catherine, the children of Henry Hoyle Oddie, a London lawyer who commissioned the portrait in 1789. Henry wears a classic skeleton suit with knee breeches as was the style in the years before the French Revolution in 1789.

Sir William Beechey was the foremost portraitist in Britain in the late 18th and early 19th century. He started his career painting portraits of the landed gentry around Norfolk. He was appointed as the court painter to Quenn Charlotte. He painited the cream of Regency society, including Lord Nelson. His charming portaits of families provide wonderful glimses into Regency society, including children's clothes.


British Painter, Sir William Beechey was born in Burford, Oxfordshire, on 12 December 1753, one of the five children of William Beechey and Hannah Read. Both his parents died when he was young, and he was brought up by his uncle Samuel, a solicitor, who intended him for the law.


While articled to a lawyer off Chancery Lane he became acquainted with a number of students of the Royal Academy of Arts, gave up his articles, and entered the Royal Academy in 1772. There is no evidence for assertions that he studied with Reynolds. Dawson Turner, who knew Beechey, states more plausibly that he studied with Johan Zoffany, but this could only have been before July 1772, when Zoffany left England for seven years' sojourn in Italy.


Beechey first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1776, and exhibited thereafter almost every year until his death more than sixty years later. He also exhibited regularly at the British Institution (founded 1806). He spent some time working with Johann Zoffany before setting up on his own in London. In 1782, he moved to Norwich, east England, where he painted the local gentry and their families. It was at this time he began painting some of the charming portraits of families--including children. These portraits provide wonderful examples of late 18thband early 19th century dress. Returning to London in 1787, he began to make a name for himself, in portrait painting.

Figure 2.--This masterful Beechey portrait was executecd about 1792-93. Note the boy is shown in a long pants skeleton suit in a bright red. The collar and hair is quite similar, however, to that of Henry Oddie painted in 1789.

Beechey in 1793 Beechey was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy and became Portrait Painter to Queen Charlotte. The 1790s marked the high tide of Beechey's professional success. Later eclipsed by Lawrence, he and John Hoppner were then still dividing the public honors in portraiture with that brilliant young star. In 1798, after painting his huge canvas of the king at a review in Hyde Park, Beechey was knighted and became a full Academician. Although he fell from favor at court for a while in 1804, he continued to paint royal portraits and was later Principal Portrait Painter to William IV. In 1836 he sold his collection of works of art and retired to Hampstead. There he died on 28 January 1839.


Beechey was mairred twice. Nothing is known about his first wife, who died sometime after 1784. He met his second wife in Norwhich. Anne Phyllis Jessop, whom Beechey married in 1793. They had fifteen children.

Family Portraits

Beechey painted the notables of English society, highly decorated military heros like Addmiral John Jervis Horatio Viscount Nelson in their medal laden uniforms. It is charming family paintings, however, that provide wonderful insights into children's clothing.

The Oddie children (1789)

One painting depicts Henry, Jane, Sara, and Catherine, the children of Henry Hoyle Oddie, a London lawyer who commissioned the portrait in 1789. Henry wears a skeleton suit, but with kneepants as long pants were just beginning to become fashionable for boys in the late 18th century. Beautifully painted, The Oddie Children is also noteworthy for its composition. Beechey masterfully links the four children through their poses, yet accords each of them individual prominence by silhouetting the fair-haired children against dark backgrounds and the dark-haired daughter against the pale sky. Above all, one imagines that it was Beechey's ability to capture the innocence and charm of childhood that must have especially delighted his patron. Note Henry's suit. It is a single colored suit with heavy use of buttons. He wears a jacket and matching vest--with two columns of buttons. Note the buttons on the boys knee breeches--more than the three buttons that were the usual number. Also note the girls' white dresses--diferentiated by the color of ribbons, both blue and pink. Also notice how the boy dominates the group and his perhaps favorite toy, a bow and arrow is introduced. As in all great portariture, on gets a feeling for the children's personality.

Figure 3.--The four sons of Sir Richard Croft of Croft Castle were painted by Beechey in 1803. Francis, aged 3, wears a white dress and a lace-edged muslin cap trimmed with blue ribbons. Herbert's sad expression and isolated position in relation to his brothers may be due to the fact that this is a posthumous portrait: he died in 1803 while a pupil at Westminster school. The brother in front wears a red jacketed skeleton. Notice the boy blowing bubbles. This was a popular artistic device as the artist could show case his skills by painting the bubble--first attempted by Chardin.

The Ford children (early 1790s)

Beechey about 1792 painted Sir Francis Ford's children giving a coin to a beggar. (It was exhibited in 1793.) One wionders of the choice of the subject. Some wealthy families would not have wanted their children pictured with a ragged beggar boy. The Ford children are a boy and girl. The contrast between the children is startling in fact the children themselves seem rather taken back by the condittion of the beggar boy. Note how the children's dog is shown well gromed and cared for, much better than the poor abandoned boy. The children look to be about 8 years old. The boy wears a very large black hat topped with a large plume. He wears long, but uncurrled hair. This is not necesarily a childlish hair style as many men in the 1790s were stll wearing their hair long. He had a bright red skeleton suit with matching pants and long pants. The sleleton suit has a large lace collar, but worn comfortably open. This is another example of the brigtht colors of boys' skeleton suits. This shows how long pants had begun to replace knee breeches by the early 1790s. The pants are worn characteristically above the ankles showing his white socks.

The Croft brothers (1803)

One of Beechey's most charming family portraits was the painting of the four sons of Sir Richard Croft of Croft Castle. He painted it in 1803. Francis, aged three, wears a white dress and a lace-edged muslin cap trimmed with blue ribbons. Also notice the matching necklace. The oldest boy, Herbert. has a sad expression. His isolated position in relation to his brothers may be due to the fact that this is a posthumous portrait. He died in 1803 while a pupil at Westminster school, a renowned English public school. e brother in front wears a red jacketed skeleton.

Beechey's charming family portraits chronicle the emergence of the first dedicated children's clothing. Boys are shown in sailor suits. Before the French Revolution (1789) they were always worn with knee breeches. As the turn of the 19th century apoproched they were increasingly worn with long pants. The different styles of collars are chrociled in his portraits. The increasongly popular tendency to dress boys of different ages destinctly are also clearly seen in his portraits.

Clothing Styles Depicted

Beechey's family portraits provide wonnderful examples of all the various clothing styles worn by boys in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Figure 3.--I do not have the details on this charming portrait yet, but believe it was painting about 1820. The younger boy in this detail of the photograph wears a long pants skeleton suit. Skeleton suits by the turn of the 19th century were mostly worn with long pants.


Young boys wore dresses just ike their sisters. Francis Croft at age 3 wears a dress that has no boyish design features what so ever. It is a white dress, a common color for boys wearing dresses. It is trimmed with blue ribbon. This might be taken as an indication that the child is a boy, but this portrait was painted before modern color conventions were established. Notice that the Oddie girls wear both pink and blue ribbons (figure 1). Not only does Francis wear a dress like any girl would wear, but he also wears a cap that a girl might have worn and a girlish looking necklace.

Knee breeches

Henry Oddie in the 1789 wears knee breeches. This was the yeat the French Revolution broke out. Gentlemen still wore knee breeches as did most boys. Some boys by the 1780s were wearing long trousers with their skeleton suits, but before the French Revolution knee breeches were still more common. They were considered uncouth by men of quality. Long pants were for rough laborers. The Duke of Wellington himself was once denied entry to a London club because he was wearing long trousers.

Long pants

Long pants became acceptable for boys from good families in the 1790s, one of the many influences of the French Revolution. Note how the boy in the Form family wears a long pants skeleton suit well before the turn of the 19th century. Boys of this age are noted for preferring to dress like their fathers. One winders what boys might have thought about wearing long pants which at the time were employed here as a juvenile style--rather than the knee breeches that their fathers and older brothers would have worn.

No adult gentleman at this time, certainly not the boy's father, would have worn long trousers in polite society. By the turn of the 19th century, most boys wore their skeleton suits with long trousers. They also began to be worn by school boys at this time. Gentlemen still, however, continued wearing knee breeches. It was not until the 1820s that they were commonly worn by men in polite society.


Lace trimmed collars were widely worn by boys in the late 18th century. Often they wore comfortable open collars. These styles reflected the writings of Rosseau and other social philosophers of thge day who had argued for specialized styles of clothing for children reflecting their needs. Until the late 18th century, children simply wore scaled down versions of their parent's clothes. Note how the two earlier portarits of the children (1789 and the eraly 1790s) show the boys in elaborate, but comfortable open cillars. After the turn of the 19th century collars become more varied. Open collars were also worn in the 1800s, but less comfortable looking closed collars also appeared--sometines high collars. This fashion trend can be seen with the Croft boy wearing the skeleton suit which was paonted in 1803.

Figure 4.--The boy in this detail of the Beechey portrait wears a long pants skeleton suit with a bright red blouse pr jacket. Note the high ruffled collar. Skeleton suits by the turn of the 19th century were mostly worn with long pants.

Skeleton suits

Skeleton suits were the first specialized child's style. Many consider them one of the most stylish boys' suits of all time. They were the principal boys' outfit from the late 19th century through the 1830s and were still worn in the 1840s. They are most associated today with the era of Charles Dickens and Kate Greenway. Notably it was a boys' style. Girls had to wait many more years before specialized clothes were designed for them. The forst skeleton suits were worn with knee breeches, but the classic skeleton suit was worn with long trousers. Buttons were liberally used on both the buttons and blouse/jacket. Notice that the Croft brother has three colums of buttons on his jacket. Also bright colors were often used on these outfits--such as the red jacket. Red appears to have been a particularly popular color for skeleton suits. After the skeleton suit passed out of style, for more than a 100 years, colors for boys clothing became such more muted--with only a few stylistic exceptions such as the Zouave suit of the mid-19th cerntury.

School uniform

While I can not be sure, I believe the white blouse, short black jacket, and brown long pants was priobably the clothes he wore at Winchester School--one of Englans's most famous public school. To what extent the school in 1803 set the dress standards or insisted on a uniform, I do not know at this time. The fact that he died at school is one indicator explaining why many wealthy children at the time were educated at home. It was noy until about 1870s that it became common to send almost all children from wealthy families to these schools.


Knee breeches for formal dress were normally worn with white stockings. With long pamts skeleton suits, white ankle socks were commonly worn. While sleleton suits were worn with long trousers, often they ended just at the ankles so that you could see the socks. Note how both boys in long pants sleleton suits wear white socks with black shoes. Given the social class of these children they almost certainly were silk stockings.


Boys in the late 19th century still commonly wore their hair long as does Henry Oddie and the Ford boy (figures 1 and 2). Note the Oddie boy's his hair is worn much like his sisters. Of course in 1789 men wore their hair long also--usually with wigs. By the turn of the 19th century short hair was common and wigs had virtually disappered, except innoccupations such as academia and the law courts. The change was quite abrupt--another impact of the French Revolution. Long hair and wigs was seen as a syle associated with the airistocracy. Interestingly, the short hair style crossed the Channel to England, even though the English supported the French monarchy and after the advent of Napoleon wa at war with France. The short hair was not, however, close cropped. The Croft boys, for example, wear their hair down to their ears (figure 2)

Figure 4.--Herbert was painted in the potrait postumously as he died while at his boarding school--Winchester College. He probably weas his school clothes in the portrait.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: May 12, 2000
Last updated: June 7, 2000