Humorous costume design, apparently a tinsmith or metalworker, and probably for a theatrical production in London. Dressed in blue tights and a cape and carrying a cane, his chest is decorated with breastplates that resemble a cast iron stove. His shorts and cape are printed or embroidered with pictures of kettles, and his stovepipe hat is literally made from a stovepipe and topped with a weather vane. The comical effect is enhanced by the contrast of this absurd outfit with his dignified bearing — he sports a long, neatly groomed mustache, a monocle, gloves and a cane.
This costume playfully derives from a tradition of physiognomic portraits dating back to 1695, when Nicolas Armessin II (generally known as “Larmessin”) published his Costumes Grotesques, whimsical depictions of members of various professions whose bodies or costumes were assembled from tools of the trade. Larmessin was following the precedent of assembling human forms from inanimate objects established in the late Renaissance, most notably in a series of allegorical portraits by the 16th century Mannerist painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo (c. 1527-1593). Although Arcimboldo’s men, depicted with heads formed from vegetables and plant matter, arguably had a disturbing surreal undercurrent, Larmessin depicted the faces and body proportions undistorted, like characters playfully dressed for a costume party. Costumes Grotesques met with great success, and was subsequently republished by Gerrit Valck in Germany and Gabriel Huquier in the 18th century, and widely influenced later artists and costume designers. See other examples of physiognomic portraits in our online exhibition The Eccentric Mind.
Arthur Benjamin Helsby was a costume designer for the London theatre in the last quarter of the 19th century. His poster design Cinderella at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane (1895) is a classic of the Art Nouveau era and remains a popular, widely reproduced image to this day.
This work comes from the estate of Lee B. Anderson (1918-2010), a prominent New York City collector, renowned for his eccentric taste, including Victorian Gothic Revival decorative arts.