By Stephen Ede Borrett
Anyone beginning to research the uniforms of the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars will very quickly come across two small books published by the long-gone and much lamented Almark – Regiments at Waterloo and Soldiers of the Peninsular War, both books written and illustrated by one René North. A little more research will soon bring up references to North’s hard-to-find ‘Paint-Your-Own’ series of uniform cards. Although he published only four books including these two titles (he translated at least one more however), without a doubt René North was in the forefront of the early study of the uniforms of the British Army, indeed he was perhaps the foremost of the second generation authorities (if we take C C P Lawson, P W Reynolds, Percy Sumner and their ilk as the first generation and the originators of the study).
During World War Two René North had served in the Royal Artillery and then in the Intelligence Corps. After the war he was a ‘consultant to theatrical and advertising agencies on matters of military dress’. Around 1950 he was retained by Norman Newton Ltd (the owners of the ‘Tradition’ shop in Piccadilly) to take over as the artist on their ‘Tradition, Uniforms of the British Army’ series of plates.
The first two plates of the series had been drawn by Charles Stadden, the well known and highly respected figure sculptor and artist (‘Stadden Miniatures’ are still available today, almost a half-century after their original sculpting). The first plates, drawn by Stadden, showed the uniforms of a single Regiment from its raising until c1815 but René North changed the direction of the series and each of these almost A2 sized plates would in future show a single regiment over a much shorter time period, almost always the era c1800 to 1815. The plates, like the Huber series (see below), were printed in outline and then hand coloured before sale, mostly by the same woman. Some copies may have been sold uncoloured as I have a single example that is so, but this could simply be ‘one that got away’.
Towards the end of the publication of the Tradition plate series in 1956, René North was contracted by Francis S Huber, also a London based publisher, to draw a similar series of plates. Unlike the Tradition series, the Huber Series of Plates were published as a limited edition – only between 25 and 50 copies of each plate were printed, each hand numbered, and for this reason alone they are exceedingly hard to find today. The first eight of the series, which eventually ran to almost 50 plates, covered two regiments to each plate but from plate nine this changed to a single Regiment per plate. Each plate was a little larger than A4 and folded into a booklet form and, unlike the Tradition series, accompanied by one or two pages of text of additional information, sources, etc.
The Huber series of plates came to an end around 1962 (the illustrations for the last plate are dated 1962), but a couple of years earlier North had begun to publish his on-going researches in the form of the ‘North’s Paint-Your-Own cards’ for which he is best known. The figures in ‘North’s Paint-Your-Own cards’ set 1 (Austrian Artillery 1809-15) and set 2 (Swiss Regiments in French Service 1805-15) both carry the date of 1959 but may have actually been published in early 1960, thereafter the sets were published at the rate of approximately four sets every four months. The cards came in sets of six and were printed on high-quality heavyweight card, intended, as the name implies, for the purchaser to colour them themselves from the colour details supplied. Initially the colouring information was on the actual card, but on later sets it was moved to the accompanying text sheet leaving the card purely for the illustration itself.
This idea of ‘paint-your-own’ kept the cost of the sets down in the days of expensive colour printing. In 1975 when John Edgcumbe was publishing the cards sets 1 to 65 were 80p per set and 66 to 113 were 45p per set (and there had been some price rises since North had died!) Each set was supplied in a small brown envelope usually bearing no identifier beyond the set number although later some sets had the set title handwritten on the outside.
The cards were essentially in two series, although numbered in one sequential run (rather like British Cavalry Regiments I suppose…): one series (90 sets) covered the Napoleonic Wars from c1800, the other (23 of the 113 sets) the two decades immediately before 1914, the period of the last full dress uniforms of the old European Armies.
Both the Huber Plates and, after the first few sets, the ‘Paint-Your-Own cards’ came with a sheet of notes that not only gave additional information but also the sources for the illustration itself together with details of any variations given in other sources. It is to be regretted that many modern artists do not give similar details for their illustrations and admit where they have made assumptions.
North also produced and published two other uniformology items. The first was a series of ‘Uniform Charts’, essentially the sort of tables of facings and uniform colours, which are now commonplace in uniform books but were unknown in the 1960s and 1970s (Austrian Infantry, French Dragoons, British Line Infantry, etc.). The second of North’s other publications was a small number of sets of cardboard soldiers in 30mm (25mm had yet to arrive on the scene although there was a range of “one inch” figures), again to be coloured by the purchaser. These were essentially forerunners of Peter Dennis’ excellent ‘Paper Soldiers’ series published by Helion but, as said, were black and white.
René North died in 1971 although even by that time both the Tradition and the Huber plates were long gone. The paint-your-own cards, uniform charts and paper soldiers were all taken over by John Edgcumbe, who also published the two sets of cards that North had drawn before his death but had not published (set 112 French Regiment d’Isenbourg c 1809, and set 113 Royal Canadian Mounted Police 1890-1900, oddly in my example the cards of these two sets are neither signed nor dated). These two sets brought the total to 113 sets showing over 700 figures (set 100 had two figures per card as did a number of single cards in other sets). In the 1980s Edgcumbe passed the publishing and sale of the cards to John Heayes, but a year or so later they disappeared from sale and their current whereabouts is now unknown.
It’s worth mentioning that at no time during their publishing history were the cards available from anyone except the publishers (North, Edgcumbe and Heayes as appropriate), with the single exception that they were in Jack Scruby’s catalogue for sale in the USA. This lack of a distributor or reseller probably accounts for the cards’ relative obscurity despite the high quality of the information that they contain.
René North’s name is rarely mentioned today, except perhaps in relation to the Military Uniforms book that he wrote for Hamlyn (published in their “all colour” series in 1970, and which ironically René North didn’t illustrate) but his work is the foundation of many of the studies of British Napoleonic Uniforms and he deserves to be better remembered.
An email from “Emir Bukhari” is on the web at https://costumeanduniforms.wordpress.com/2011/04/13/rene-north/ and is a fitting tribute to René North, I trust that there will be no objection to my reproducing it…
“Just Walk Away René…
René North is a much-neglected populariser of what is now called uniformology. My earliest memory is of a small, rather dapper pencil-moustached individual who lurked at the top right hand corner of British Model Soldier Society meetings in the old Caxton Hall venue in Victoria in the mid to late sixties.
Draped in a grey gabardine belted overcoat, he furtively dispensed upon whispered
enquiry those little brown envelopes of six monochrome cards and a single sheet of colouring instructions from a battered brown briefcase.
He was modest and softly spoken with a gentle twinkle in his intelligent eyes, which made him a very accessible figure to us overawed young beginners in the hobby.
I loved the little cards, which were excellent value for money. They clearly reflected his love of the subject and were painstakingly rendered in pen and ink. If his drawing
ability was limited in comparison to the many talented artists we’d seen on the Bucquoy cards, his passion for detail and delight in bringing us all the variations available to him of the costumes of a single corps made him head and shoulders above his few British contemporaries.
I treasure to this day many sets of his cards and recall with great affection the order, scale and comprehensiveness which he brought to his card series and his many illustrations in those early Almark publications.
The empty sidewalks on my block are not the same…
Veillons au Salut de l’Empire”
I had the privilege of meeting René North only once when I was taken as a young guest to a BMSS meeting. Emir Bukhari’s email sums up my memory very well.
 I have been unable to find anything about this publisher or, indeed, anything else that he published!
 If you can find a copy the American edition of this book is to be preferred; it corrects a couple of typos from the Hamlyn version AND it is a hardback!