Richard Hoover: Why did officer wear a turban in his portrait?

Thomas Reynell

Let’s try and bring him to life – this turbaned fellow bought from a Brit on eBay in 2004. The seller’s physical description was fine, almost poetic: “a bust portrait (18” in diameter) of a man wearing a turban. He has a young face with a soft expression and the colors are warm and rich. The white turban is highlighted while the background is dark. A very beautiful portrait.”

Nevertheless, the seller continued: ” A plaque on the frame carries the name of Thomas Reynell, which can be the name of the portrayed or the artist.”

And right there I had him: by 2004, the Google search engine was out of its infancy. So, when I entered my bid, I knew that Reynell – Sir Thomas Reynell – was no painter, but a Scottish-Irish officer with a 55-year blood-curdling career in the West Indies, Holland, Egypt, India and Spain. As a brevet-colonel, he commanded the First Battalion of the 71st Highlanders at Waterloo. Forming his men into their famous square, he repulsed three (some say five) French charges, thus helping wrap up the day for Wellington (Note: I remember that some depictions of the battle err by showing the squared Highlanders kilted; in fact the 71st wore tartan trousers). I also learned that Reynell rose to lieutenant general, even found his portrait on the National Portrait Gallery London website, dressed in flaming red, with medals, gloves, sword and ostrich plumes! The face is tied to that in my portrait by the fine nose, contoured (some might say) like a ski slope.

Yet the question persists – why did a young British officer have his picture taken in Indian duds? Searching Google, websites suggest that regimental homecomings and fare-thee-wells could be exciting events.

For example, I have read that the 1798 return from India of the 71st Highland Light Infantry (the regiment which Reynell would later command) was the madcap social event of the season, with two month’s leave granted officers and men, with London’s first families vying to bring a Highlander home for wining, dining and over-nightings. How many portraits must have been painted, and with Indian cultural reminders? In 1804, 27-year-old Reynell, now a major in the 40th Foot, left for India as deputy quartermaster general and, eventually, aide to Lord Cornwallis. It strikes me that our portrait has the youthful charm and humor commensurate with care-free departures. Perhaps it was a farewell remembrance for his widowed mother Anne (see below). The picture could hardly have reflected his return from India in 1808, age 31, after four years of heavy if not sorrowing responsibility.

Richard Hoover

But this is not all. There is also a powerful American Revolutionary War aspect to Reynell’s life. Last month I again conjured him up via Google only to discover he was born in Canada (April 9, 1777), the product of a radiantly beautiful Irish mother, Lady Anne, and a dashing lieutenant in the 62nd Foot, Thomas. The father was sent to Canada to fight under gentleman Johnny Burgoyne in the Great Northern Invasion of ’77, a campaign that ended in crushing British surrender at the Battle of Saratoga. With two of her four children, including 5-month-old Thomas, Anne trailed behind with the baggage and artillery. The 62ndregiment.org and other websites detail the deprivations and horrors suffered by this family, culminating in the father’s instantaneous death, shot through the head on Sept. 19 at the battle of Freeman’s Farm, the so-called First Battle of Saratoga. Further family ordeals followed – capture by the Americans, a prisoner of war existence, release by special act of the Continental Congress and eventual repatriation to Great Britain in 1779/80. Back home, Reynell life must have been strapped, given that the two brothers were sent to the army early; Richard at age 11 and Thomas at 16. Little remains known of the beautiful Lady Anne who, it seems, never remarried. Not even the date of her death.

Yet, on Google, traces of Lady Anne conquer time: “You will readily allow that it is the highest test of affection in a woman, to share with her husband the toils and hardships of the campaign, especially such a one as the present. What a trial of fortitude the late action must have been… .”  This was a quote from Ensign Thomas Anbury (24th Regiment) in his “Travels Through the Interior Parts of America” (London, 1789). And by searching Google for campfollowers of the British Army I find Lady Anne’s mention by a British society dedicated to commemorating the women and children who followed their soldier husbands and fathers. And on the Saratoga field, I see that the Marshall House has been restored, in whose cellar Lady Anne, baby Thomas and brother Samuel, together with their companions from other traveling families, took refuge during the battle (more information on this can be found at themarshallhouse.org)

Just see where antiques can lead!

Richard Hoover, a retired Foreign Service officer, resides in southern Warren County.