To historians and collectors, "provenance" is a magic word. It's the history of an item or artwork - where and by whom it was made, who owned it over time, and if it managed to be in the right historical place at the right time to make it extraordinary.
This ordinary-looking men's cloak scores big-time in provenance. The tailor who made may be forgotten (though the buttons have been identified as the work of R. Bushby, St. Martin's Lane, London), but not the man who bespoke it: Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington.
Unlike many of his officers, Wellington wasn't a clothes horse, and preferred simple, functional dress for battle instead of the flashy uniform that by rights he could have worn. Over his military career, he probably owned a number of other cloaks that looked just like this one: a single curved piece of of heavy blue wool, fulled to keep out rain and wind, with a velvet collar and facings and plain gilt buttons.
But this particular cloak is special, because it's believed to be the one that Wellington was wearing when he won the decisive Battle of Waterloo. There are mud spatters along the hem that could have come from the rain-soaked battlefield, spatters that have carefully been preserved for their significance.
That's a powerful provenance - but there's more. After the battle, Lady Caroline Lamb was one of the British ladies to rush to Brussels. Ostensibly she was there to tend to her brother, Colonel Frederic Ponsonby, who had been gravely wounded in the battle (see Loretta's post here), but it was widely believed her real reason was to pursue the celebrated duke. Lady Caroline was already notorious for her famous affair with the poet Lord Byron, while Wellington was equally famous for never saying no to a flattering lady. Although both were married, that inconvenient fact mattered little to these two, and they did in fact have a (likely meaningless) hook-up in the days after the battle. Lady Caroline claimed that Wellington gave this cloak to her as a souvenir, and it's tempting to imagine the Iron Duke protectively draping the cloak over her slender shoulders.
Intriguing, but probably not likely. Lady Caroline wasn't particularly sentimental about the cloak, and at some point she gave it to surgeon Sir Anthony Carlisle. In 1823, Carlisle in turn gave the cloak to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, a civil servant and collector, and the cloak remained in his family until this year, when it was put up for auction. Sotheby's had estimated it to sell for between £20,000-30,000. It sold for significantly more: £47,500. Fortunately, it was bought not by a private collector, but by the National Army Museum in London, where it will soon be on display.
For more about the cloak's history, see the Sotheby's listing here.
Above: Cloak, believed to have been worn by the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo, 1815; photograph courtesy of Sotheby's. Below: Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, c. 1820. The Huntingdon Library and Art Collections.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.