One of the stand-out images from the British Folk Art exhibition currently at Tate Britain is George Smart (The Tailor of Frant)’s Goose Woman. Her bright red coat got us thinking about when else in art, film and photography, a red coat stays with us.

George Smart Goose Woman c 1840

George Smart
Goose Woman c.1840

Image courtesy Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery

Made in about 1840, the Goose Woman is an example of the small collages of people and animals that George Smart created to complement his existing profession as a tailor near Tunbridge Wells, Kent.  Smart’s collages often took Regency spa tourists and recognisable locals as his subjects, and in 1820, Dr John Evans of Islington wrote in the European Magazine:

His best production is a likeness of the Old Postman Bright and his Wife the former aged 97 the latter 87 both attesting the purity of the atmosphere in which they have lived by their longevity. These I purchased as a reward of his labours.

The red-coated Goose Woman is said to be this 87-year-old postman’s wife, carrying her geese to market (you can see their heads dangling from the cover of her basket). For a collage made over 170 years ago and one (we assume) most likely bought as a holiday souvenir rather than a precious work of art, her red felt coat remains remarkably eye-catching - we can imagine she, and her coat, were just as noticeable in the lanes around Frant, making her one of Smart’s most popular subjects.

Of course red coats run pretty deep in our culture, from Little Red Riding Hood to the Butlins’ activity leaders. Here are six more iconic red coats that stick with you.

Father Christmas, Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas

traditional image of Santa Claus in a red coat with toys pipe and holly in his hair

Merry Old Santa Claus by Thomas Nast
© Bettmann/CORBIS

Though it’s popularly thought that Coca-Cola created our modern day image of the red-coated Father Christmas, it’s not strictly true. While Haddon Sundblom’s paintings of jolly old Santa for Coke’s Christmas ads between 1931 and 1964 certainly cemented the idea of the fat, cheerful grandfatherly figure, his colour scheme had been around for a little longer than that - maybe even as far back as the original Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra in the 4th Century. His bishop’s vestments probably were red and fur-trimmed (though it’s unlikely he also had a team of magical reindeer).

In fact the popularisation of Santa as we think of him, opening letters at the North Pole and popping down the chimney probably began with Thomas Nast’s illustrations “Santa Claus and his works” in Harper’s Weekly in the 1860s and 70s. Here in the UK we probably have him to thank for our christmas stockings since Father Christmas didn’t bring gifts to British children before the 1870s.

The Foxhunter

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  • Henry Thomas Alken, 'The Belvoir Hunt: The Death' circa 1830-40

    Henry Thomas Alken
    The Belvoir Hunt: The Death circa 1830-40
    Oil on canvas
    support: 451 x 648 mm
    Presented by Paul Mellon through the British Sporting Art Trust 1979

    View the main page for this artwork

  • Henry Thomas Alken, 'The Belvoir Hunt: Full Cry' circa 1830-40

    Henry Thomas Alken
    The Belvoir Hunt: Full Cry circa 1830-40
    Oil on canvas
    support: 451 x 648 mm
    Presented by Paul Mellon through the British Sporting Art Trust 1979

    View the main page for this artwork

  • Henry Thomas Alken, 'The Belvoir Hunt: Jumping into and out of a Lane' circa 1830-40

    Henry Thomas Alken
    The Belvoir Hunt: Jumping into and out of a Lane circa 1830-40
    Oil on canvas
    support: 451 x 648 mm
    Presented by Paul Mellon through the British Sporting Art Trust 1979

    View the main page for this artwork

  • Henry Thomas Alken, 'The Belvoir Hunt: The Meet' circa 1830-40

    Henry Thomas Alken
    The Belvoir Hunt: The Meet circa 1830-40
    Oil on canvas
    support: 451 x 648 mm
    Presented by Paul Mellon through the British Sporting Art Trust 1979

    View the main page for this artwork

Mention a red coat in England and chances are, your thoughts will turn to fox hunting. Though not all hunts wear red coats, and whatever your thoughts on the hunting of foxes, the red coats of the hunt remain iconic, and are still regularly visible in the British landscape today.

These paintings by Henry Thomas Alken depict key moments in the chase of one of the oldest hunts, the Belvoir, based in Leicestershire and Lincolnshire.

The Death of Major Peirson

John Singleton Copley, 'The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781' 1783

John Singleton Copley
The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781 1783
Oil on canvas
support: 2515 x 3658 mm frame: 2790 x 3920 x 160 mm
Purchased 1864

View the main page for this artwork

The scarlet of the British army uniform is now kept for ceremonial occasions only (including of course standing guard at Buckingham Palace), but for much of the army’s history , the red tunic was the mark of a British soldier - even Tudor livery was red. Though now, with modern camouflage uniforms, wearing red seems like a disastrous idea, when wars were fought very differently, having a highly distinctive uniform did at least allow you to identify friend from foe in the smoke and grime of the battlefield.

This huge painting celebrates the British defence of Jersey against French invasion in 1781 - a great victory at a time when the war in north America looked set to be lost. It shows the rousing tale of the heroic death of the young Major, Francis Peirson, whose killing was immediately avenged by his manservant Pompey.

Don’t Look Now

Donald Sutherland clutching his daughter in the red coat in Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now, 1973

Donald Sutherland in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now
© 1973 STUDIOCANAL Films Ltd

The haunting image of the tiny figure in the red coat that runs through this film, from the British countryside to Venice, plays on our fears about death and grief with mounting apprehension and terror. The scene where the two protagonists’ daughter drowns while playing, wearing her red plastic mac, suffuses the rest of the film. Director Nicholas Roeg and cinematographer Tony Richmond ensured that the film’s palette of autumnal tones heightened the appearance of any flash of red and the colour was kept out of the rest of the production design, making it all the more striking, and frightening, when the coat flickers in and out of view.

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James Dean in Rebel without a Cause

American actors James Dean and Dennis Hopper on the set of Rebel Without a Cause, with Dean in his characteristic red jacket

American actors James Dean and Dennis Hopper on the set of Rebel Without a Cause, directed by Nicholas Ray.
© Sunset Boulevard/Corbis

James Dean’s final film was released the week after his untimely death in a car crash. The film became immediately iconic as did Dean’s jacket. Stories abound as to where the red jacket came from – was it a Baracuta? A McGregor Anti-freeze? Taken from a Red Cross worker? But it seems most likely that the costume designer Moss Mabry took the sort of jacket that the newly-coined ‘teenagers’ were wearing and honed its essence to create the quintessential jacket to mark you out as different to your parents. There’s no question that red is the colour of rebellion here.

Schindler’s List

Girl in Red coat in Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List, 1993

Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, 1993

Director Steven Spielberg used the now-iconic image of the girl in the red coat set against the crowd in black and white to highlight Oskar Schindler’s moment of epiphany, when he sees this single child suddenly standing out,  and thus determines to save as many people as he can from the concentration camp. As one of the only splashes of colour in the film, its stark and striking iconography is what has made this the key reference for the symbolism of the red coat – the image of the child that stands out in the crowd and elicits an emotional response. While today everyone with a smart phone has a set of photo filters that sets everything in black and white, but leaves a single figure or item in colour (normally red), this is where that cliché began.

British Folk Art is at Tate Britain till 31 August, so this is your last chance to see the Goose Woman in all her glory. Find out more, buy tickets and plan your visit. 

You can see The Death of Major Peirson every day, for free in the BP British art displays, also at Tate Britain.

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