** artists illustrating boys fashions: Sir William Beechey

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. The late-18th and early-19th century of course is the definition of the Regency/Empire period. And Beechey is one of the most important artistst depicting the Regency.


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 acquaintedwith 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 18th and early 19th century dress. Returning to London in 1787, he began to make a name for himself, in portrait painting. 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.


Beechey has left us an important body of workl illustratin dashions in the late-18th and early-19th centuries. Rgis was the era in which the skeleton was a standard for boys from fashionmable families--the families that Beecly painted. They were the notables of English society, highly decorated military heros like Admiral John Jervis Horatio Viscount Nelson in their medal laden uniforms. It is charming family paintings, however, that provide wonderful insights into children's clothing. We also have found

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 (igure 1). 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 2.--This masterful Beechey portrait of the Ford children 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.

The Ford children (early 1790s)

Beechey about 1792 painted Sir Francis Ford's children giving a coin to a beggar (figure 2). (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.

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 Croft children (1803)

One of Beechey's most charming family portraits was the painting of the four sons of Sir Richard Croft of Croft Castle (figure 3). 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. The 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.

Master James Hatch

Boys were involved in 18th century wars tradition that continued into the 19th centyry. Younger boys might serve as drummer boys. In naval war they might serve as powdermonkeys. Upperclass boys as young as 12-13 years of age might also be involved. They served as ensigns or eessentially apprentice officers, at the time a rank in both the English army and navy. The boy here is identified as Master James Hatch. He was painted by Sir William Beechy in 1796. We have been unable to find ant information about James. Beechly desriped the portrait as "Marshall's Attendant at the Montem, Eton". The Motem is a hill near Eton wher new boys were initiated and had to collect tribute at a nearby road.

The Regency

Fashion in the new 19th century took radical turns. It was not the advent of a new century that was at play, although notably major changes occured with the advent of the 20th century as well. What occurred in the late-19th and early-20th centuries was the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. These were ground breaking events firmly breaking from centuries long established European traditions. The Enlightenment and the American Revolution laid the groundwork for the massive changes which began in France, hence the name of the era--the Empire era. This was based on Napoleon's Empire which stabilized France after the chaotic Revolutionary period. The British call it the Regency after the regency of the Prince of Wales who reigned while his father, George III, descended into periodic bouts of madness. The fashions, however were essentially the same with France the driving force of fashion even in the country's like Britain which fought both the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic forces. The Empire is notable for the era in which women's styles began to take precedence in the fashion world. Today we generally see women as girls as focusing on fashion more than men. Most people would be amazed as the attention men gave to fashion in the 18th and earlier centuries. The one instantly recognizable garment of the Empire era was the Empire dress. There were other important garments, but the Empire dress defined largely defined the era. The inspiration was the classical era of ancient Greece and Rome. The Empire dress was a radical departure from the elaborate fashions voluminous dresses of the 18th century and precious centuries. We no longer see the heavy brocades and voluminous lace as well as wigs (called periwigs) and powder of previous era. The Empire dresses were simple and made of light, largely unadorned fabric. Empire styles were virtually undress compared to what preceded them. The French Revolution was not just about the monarchy and King Louis XIV. It was about the whole edifice of feudal aristocracy. Aristocrats and even those associated with them were losing their heads in the Terror. No one in France wanted to even look like an aristocrat. The new politically correct fashion for women which adhered to classical ideals. Voluminous, elaborate dresses and tightly laced corsets were abandoned for the low-neckline, high-wasted, natural figure emblematic of the Empire Era.


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Created: May 12, 2000
Last updated: 7:15 PM 10/6/2021