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British Colours 1747-1815, History and Appearance (2)

Problems in Reconstructing Historical British Colours

Three ways British colours are misrepresented


The "Standard References" on British Colours


So What’s the Problem?

There are three ways in which British colours of the period 1747-1815 (an arbitrary cut-off date based on end of the American War of 1812 and the Napoleonic Wars in Europe) are routinely misrepresented:

1)   The central designs are drawn far too large in proportion to the whole flag.


Left: original colour, 9th Regt of Foot.  Although this flag has been reassembled from mere rags of the original, note that embroidered wreath is only about 1/4 size of British union in corner.  Note also that white fimbriations to central cross are much wider than depicted in drawing on right, and nearly as wide as the corner-to-corner cross of St Andrew.  From Gherardi Davis, Regimental Colors in the War of the Revolution, 1907.  Right: Davis's drawing of same colour, in same book.


2)  The colours are drawn, particularly the King's colours, with the white fimbriation—the white strips that separate the red cross of St George from the blue field of the flag, far too narrow, and often as not, the white corner-to-corner cross of St Andrew far too wide, both of which give the colours a very different appearance from their actual appearance in life. These mistakes are compounded by the fact that most colours 1772 through the 1780’s were made with just the opposite attributes: their white fimbriations were wider, and the St Andrew’s cross narrower, than per regulation.

3)  The central designs are drawn so freely as to give the impression that there was little regularity among the regiments. In fact there were standardized designs, almost certainly associated with individual makers, which account for by far the largest number of colours that survive from the period, suggesting that those colours which have not survived, would nevertheless have been very much like those that have.


Simply put, the "standard" references are wrong, or at least misleading. Samuel Milne Milne’s Standards and Colours of the Army has been the standard reference on British colours since its publication in 1893. Milne’s desire to adequately portray the salient points of art and design in British colours, however, led him to draw the designs on the flags much larger than they would appear in life. This would be akin to doing uniform plates with buttons, lace, or belt plates at twice their natural size; it might better show the details of these uniform parts, but it could also lead to paintings, posters, second-generation book illustrations, movies, and re-enactors sporting uniforms with three-inch buttons and lace, and belt plates the size of typing paper. 

Left:  Milne's Plate of the King's colour of the 2d Battalion of the 1st, or Royal Regiment, c. 1747.  Milne purposely drew the central device larger than life.  Right:  Same colour made according to Napier's scale drawing.  Flags that have survived follow the standard pattern to a fairly high degree.


While Milne clearly stated his purpose in the introduction to his book, apparently very few have bothered to read it.  British colours have been drawn ever since with their central motifs far too large in relation to other parts of the overall design. In book after book, the central Union Wreath is shown spilling far out over the white fimbriation of the central cross on the King’s colour, or filling virtually the entire field of regimentals. Milne’s drawings might also be faulted for ignoring accurate proportions between the crosses and the white fimbriation on the colors, another mistake common to most later depictions.

Right:  Milne's drawing of King's colour, 2d Battalion, 20th Foot, 1800. The gold flame, or "pile wavy" descending from the upper staff corner indicated the Second Battalion of any regiment.

The very best of the old works is Andrew Ross Old Scottish Regimental Colours, published in 1885.  The plates are uniformly excellent and appear to have been made from photographs.   Unfortunately it is not well known, and where some of the flags in it were later re-drawn in Milne's Standards and Colours, it has been Milne's out-of -proportion pictures that have obviously been relied on by later illustrators.  Regimental Colors in the War of the Revolution, published in 1907 by American historian Gherardi Davis, gives information on British colours, illustrated with photographs and drawings of three that were actually carried in America. But describing specifics of pattern or design among the colours Davis dismisses as "probably… impossible, and in any event not especially interesting." Davis also left several fine water-colors that have been widely published in The American Heritage histories of the Revolution. Overall, Davis shows too few British colours to draw generalizations, and perhaps following Milne, some of his drawings show the component parts of the colours out of proportion.   Edward Richardson’s Standards and Colors of the American Revolution, 1982, while giving much useful information on American and French colors, is simply wrong in almost every respect when it comes to the British. Dino Lemonofides, British Infantry Colours, 1972, has acccurate text, but Milne-style out-of-proportion drawings.  The very handsome new British Colours and Standards 1747-1881, by Ian Sumner and Richard Hook, in the "Osprey Elite" series, includes most of the same mistakes as other books on the topic.

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