March blog: Dressing Sir Thomas

Sir Thomas Dyke Acland 10th Baronet.

The staggering, almost life-size portrait of Sir Thomas Dyke Acland, 10th Baronet, takes pride of place at the beginning of Killerton’s new installation telling the story of the family and their legacy.

Painted in 1818 by William Owen (1769-1825), the picture is much more than a simple portrait of a local landowner.

Sir Thomas Dyke Acland 10th Baronet.
Sir Thomas Dyke Acland 10th Baronet.

Sir Thomas (1787-1871) was a well-known and respected figure in the South West of England, having served as MP for Devonshire from 1812 to 1818. He was to serve again from 1820 to 1831 and represented North Devon from 1837 to 1857.

The portrait was commissioned as a tribute to Sir Thomas after he had lost his seat in the local elections. Standing on the mound at Rougemont Castle, Exeter he is posed in heroic style against a dramatic landscape. The portrait was nicknamed ‘Grandpa in a Thunderstorm’ by the Acland family.

What the well-dressed politician wore 200 years ago

The clothes in this portrait reflect the 10th Baronet’s youth and energy. Aged 31 in 1818, Acland is represented as a modern campaigner.

Matching suits of clothes were less common during this period than they had been in the 18th century. Here Sir Thomas wears a green fine wool cloth frock coat with tight fitting grey wool trousers. Full-skirted frock coats, tailored to fit the body, began to appear after 1815. The coat buttons are covered in the same wool or silk fabric to match. The coat has a high fastening collar with small notched lapels. The notches helped the collar to lie flat. The coat has blown open towards the hem revealing a lighter green silk lining…and Sir Thomas’s well-fitted trousers.  Trousers were still a relatively new male fashion at this time. Introduced to England as informal summer wear in about 1807, they were generally worn by most men by about 1825, replacing old fashioned knee-breeches for most occasions. Breeches tended to be worn by older men, or for the most formal Court and civic events. The fit of the trousers reveals Sir Thomas’s shapely calves. Look carefully at the bottom of the painting and you will see that the trousers are anchored tightly by the straps which fasten beneath his boots. The innovative straps were the latest thing in 1817-18.

Together with his stance the look reveals the still popular reference to classical statuary and his fashionable dress reveals a silhouette that enhanced the natural lines of the figure. Beneath the coat, a high-necked waistcoat made of silk or wool covers a white linen shirt and neckcloth. Sir Thomas' well-polished soft leather boots contrast with his worn gloves, probably made of York tan leather. Just removed, these rest near his beaver fur felt hat (silk top hats became more common later in the 19th century).

Formal but arranged in the latest taste, Sir Thomas’s hair-cut is also classically inspired while the natural figure and picturesque landscape suggest echoes of a fresher, more romantic style.

Shopping for clothes

All of Sir Thomas’s clothes would have been bespoke, hand-made and cut from supple British wool cloths to fit him perfectly.

The book of English trades: and library of the useful arts by John Souter was published in 1818. Illustrated with 70 engravings, it summarises the tailoring business beginning ‘The Tailor makes clothes for men and boys, and riding-habits for ladies.’

According to Souter, master tailors employed a foreman who measured the customers and cut the cloth, as well as less skilled workmen who were less able cutters, but would stitch the garments together. A good fit was paramount and sometimes a challenge for the tailor.

" A good workman…must be able not only to cut for the handsome and well-shaped, but bestow a good shape where nature has not granted it: he must make the clothes sit easy in spite of a stiff gait or awkward air: his hand and head must go together: he must be a nice cutter, and finish his work with elegance.’"
- John Souter

Paying the bills

A receipt for clothing addressed to Sir Thomas survives in the collections of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter.  The heading shows that Acland had ordered at least 20 pieces of clothing from Burn & Son 'Tailors to her Majesty’s Household’ of 71 St James’s Street, London. Sir Thomas settled the bill paying a total of £51 and 3 shillings (about £3,000) by cheque in 1859.

The bill reveals that, at 72, Sir Thomas did not spend unnecessarily on new clothes. Between February 25 and September 29 1859 Burn & Son made Sir Thomas a fine cloth dress coat faced with silk velvet costing £4 15 shillings, doeskin trousers at £2 5 shillings and a black waistcoat at £1 4 shillings and 6 pence. He commissioned his tailors to repair and alter an old dressing gown. The total cost came to 17 shillings, including new materials. Burn & Co also supplied a ‘Fashionable Black & White Cashmere Plaid Dressing Gown’ for 4 guineas, the equivalent of about £200.00 today. It’s interesting to compare the price with that of a Jermyn Street tailor in 2017. An off the peg cashmere dressing gown can set you back as much as £1,995!

Most of Sir Thomas’s clothes at this time were made in black, white and grey. This palette was appropiate for a man of his age and rank at a time when uniformly dark colours, particularly black, were beginning to be adopted by all upper class and professional men.

Servants were also well provided for, with Flintoff ( a footman) receiving a new (scarlet) suit of livery at a total of £3 3shillings and 6 pence, including a pair of cotton drawers ( 5 shillings) to wear beneath the ‘trowsers’.

Who wears the trousers?

Henry Singleton’s painting ‘A Pastor’s Fireside’ which hangs in the drawing room at Killerton, is a composite portrait painted after an unidentified event. This painting may allude to writer Jane Porter's novel of the same title (set on the island of St Kilda where the Acland's visited). This image contrasts conventional knee breeches with Sir Thomas’s romantic appearance.

The Pastor's Fireside
The Pastor's Fireside

The figure reading, known as ‘the Vicar of Silverton’, may be William Barker, who died at the tragically young age of 36 in 1841. He followed his father as incumbent of St Mary’s Silverton and St James’s, Broadclyst.  Barker wears a typical sombre black clerical ‘uniform’ of matching coat, waistcoat and knee breeches in contrast to Sir Thomas Acland’s modern dress, copied from William Owen’s 1818 portrait.