[London]: 1842. Two folio volumes measuring 12.25 x 11.5 inches, original full green morocco, boards with multiple rules in blind and gilt, cornerpieces stamped in blind, raised bands with ornamental gilt ruling, compartments quadruple-ruled in gilt, cream coated endpapers, all edges gilt. Ink manuscript title in each volume: “Sketches of Costume by Coke Smyth / 1842.” 125 original watercolors with penciled annotations, mounted individually onto rectos of heavy card stock with cloth guards. Annotations by Queen Victoria on at least three plates, and one full-page group of pencil sketches by Prince Albert (including a self-portrait) mounted at the end of the second volume. Bindings signed “P & D Colnaghi & Co. Pall Mall East.” Foxing to endpapers and some mounts (affecting only a few plates), offsetting to blank pages facing watercolors, light shelfwear to bindings.
Two albums of original watercolors by noted English painter Coke Smyth (1808-1882), a vibrant series of historical costume designs, consulted by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert for inspiration as they planned their Bal Costumé of May 1842, with several annotations by Victoria and an entire page of original sketches by Albert. Smyth’s close connection with the the first Earl of Durham, Governor of Canada, and the recent success of his ambitious color-plate book Sketches in the Canadas, most likely account for the attention shown him by Victoria and Albert as they planned the first of three elaborate costume balls at Buckingham Palace. The 125 costume paintings in these albums are strikingly dynamic and fresh, without sacrificing attention to historical detail. The subjects are primarily European, with the second volume devoted largely to English costume, but there are almost two dozen examples of Greek, Turkish, and Arab dress as well, likely inspired by Smyth’s journey to Constantinople in the 1830s. Each portrait is captioned with a date and reign (“Elizabethan 1558.1603”), or, in the case of foreign subjects, occupation and region (“Itinerant Merchant / Constantinople”). Occasionally, Smyth provides direct views of historical monarchs, reproducing Moro’s portrait of Queen Mary and Van Dyck’s portrait of Charles I. Three of the English watercolors in the second volume are annotated in pencil by the queen. On plate 1, a noblewoman during the reign of Richard III, Victoria has written: “This will do.” On plate 2, a nobleman in late fourteenth-century dress, she notes: “this also,” with a note in a second hand dating the queen’s note “May 1842.” On plate 59, a scene of two late fourteenth-century women in elaborate headgear, Victoria has made a note that appears to read: “headdress longer.” These three plates are penciled with Xs, as are several others from the same historical period, which may indicate the interest of the Queen. On a blank leaf mounted at the end of the second volume, Prince Albert has sketched three designs for a costume based on Edward III’s effigy in Westminster Abbey. The largest of these sketches is a recognizable half-length portrait of Albert himself wearing Edward’s crown. The other two, less detailed, are outlines of the full-length costume and the king’s head and crown. Albert has sketched some individual details as well, such as the knot on Edward’s belt. While the royal party did not reproduce in detail any of the historical costume designs proposed by Smyth, their interest in his Plantagenet images appears to have guided their final choices. Victoria dressed as Queen Philippa, and Albert as King Edward III (in the costume he himself had sketched), accompanied by members of the royal household in late fourteenth-century dress. Smyth was commissioned to document the costumes at the ball, and those drawings were published in a commemorative folio of hand-colored lithographs entitled Souvenir of the Bal Costumé, given by Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria, at Buckingham Palace, May 12, 1842. The Drawings from the Original Dresses by Mr. Coke Smyth. This volume, with text by antiquarian James Planché, was published in 1843 by London printmakers Colnaghi, who also bound Smyth’s watercolor albums. After the publication of Souvenir of the Bal Costumé, Smyth pitched his own idea for a color-plate book, to be entitled The Costume of the Principal Nations of Europe from the Beginning of the 13th to the End of the 17th Century, based on these historical costume watercolors. Colnaghi agreed to Smyth’s proposal, and issued a prospectus, but did not attract enough subscribers to make the expensive project viable. These albums remain the only record of Smyth’s vision. Individual examples of Smyth’s work are found in the Public Archives of Canada (Ottawa); the John Ross Robertson Collection in the Metropolitan Toronto Central Library; the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto; the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum, London; the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the National Portrait Gallery, London, and the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh. A stunning group of original costume watercolors by an accomplished English painter, annotated by Victoria and Albert, a remarkable artifact of the Victorian era.