Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Naval Uniforms of a Midshipman, Lieutenant, and Captain


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite on paper
Support: 190 x 112 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CXCIX 37 a

Catalogue entry

As identified by Finberg, this page is dedicated for the most part to annotated descriptions of uniforms.1 It follows another page two leaves previously on folio 36 verso (D17424) which describes different ranks of seafaring costume. Naval uniforms were unique in influencing a ships hierarchy. Positions issued with official garments were considered superior to those which were not, somewhat regardless of the theoretical dynamics.
The uniform sketches are situated across the bottom of the sheet and at left. The latter example demonstrates the attire of a midshipman, and is inscribed by Turner ‘Mid’. Midshipmen were usually young boys volunteering aboard a vessel in order to learn officer duties.2 Nicholas Blake and Richard Lawrence describe the midshipman uniform thus:
Full-dress Single-breasted blue-lined lapel-less blue coat with stand-up collar with a white patch with one button at its back edge; nine evenly spaced small buttons (fouled anchor but no rope border); blue cuffs with three buttons. White waistcoat, breeches, stockings. No epaulettes. Dirk, rather than a sword, on a black leather belt.
Undress Not regulated; typically a plain blue coat modelled on an officer’s, and grey breeches for everyday use.3
Turner’s sketch at far left appears to describe the torso of a midshipman in full dress. The coat is single breasted, without lapels or epaulettes, and a neat row of three buttons is picked out on the only visible cuff. Two diamond shapes either side of the figure’s neck appear to represent the erect collar outlined in Blake and Lawrence’s description. A darkly shaded belt cuts across the diagram at the waist, and the dirk – a small dagger – might be indicated hanging close to his left hip, although this is unclear. Turner also includes a tall top hat, the low brim of which seems to cover half of its model’s face.
Immediately below the midshipman uniform there is another brief description of naval costume, chiefly identified by an opulent epaulette at far left. Positioned on the right shoulder, it seems to shows the post-1812 full dress uniform of a lieutenant, characterised by a single gold epaulette worn on the right shoulder.4 The rest of the jacket is largely unelaborated, although appears to be single-breasted. A triangular shape hovering above the coat might constitute a hat. From 1800, lieutenants wore the bicorn hat.5

Maud Whatley
January 2016

Finberg 1909, I, p.608.
Nicholas Blake & Richard Lawrence, The Illustrated Companion to Nelson’s Navy, London 2005, p.72.
Ibid, pp.72–3.
Blake & Lawrence 2005, p.75.
Ibid., p.74.
Finberg 1909, I, p.608.
Blake & Lawrence 2005, p.77.

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