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John Richard Coke Smyth; [Queen
Victoria]; [Prince Albert]. Sketches
of Costume by Coke Smyth.
London:
1842. Two folio volumes, original full
green morocco, manuscript titles.
125 original mounted watercolors with
penciled annotations. Notes by Queen
Victoria on at least three plates, and
one full-page group of pencil sketches
by Prince Albert, including a self-
portrait. $25,000.
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 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. Three of the English watercolors are annotated in pencil by QueenVictoria:
a noblewoman during the reign of Richard III, a nobleman in late fourteenth-
century dress, and a scene of two late fourteenth-century women in elaborate
headgear. 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 inWestminster
Abbey, including a recognizable portrait of himself wearing Edward’s crown.
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 of Hainault, 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.
After the folio’s publication, 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.
Publisher Colnaghi agreed to Smyth’s proposal, and issued a prospectus, but did
not attract enough subscribers to make the expensive project viable. These two
albums, bound by Colnaghi, remain the only record of Smyth’s vision. A stunning
group of original costume watercolors by an accomplished English painter,
annotated by Victoria and Albert.
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