Tarleton had volunteered to fight in the conflict at the age of 21 in 1775. The legion was a provincial unit organised in New York in 1778 (he was promoted to Lieutenant- Colonel). After returning to Britain in 1781, amid some controversy over his brutal tactics but given hero status by others, Tarleton was elected as an MP for Liverpool and served as a Whig politician for 20 years.
He made the style of helmet famous and popular - even being painted wearing one in 1782 by Sir Joshua Reynolds, a commission by Tarleton’s brother now in The National Gallery. He was also depicted by Thomas Gainsborough and in a miniature by Richard Cosway.
Much admired by foreign forces at the time, an example of the Tarleton helmet that came to auction at Hansons London (26% buyer’s premium) on October 28 was also highly coveted.
It was identified as a late 18th century/early 19th century Irish Volunteer helmet made for the ‘Kinnelea & Kerricurrihy Cavalry’. It went under the hammer in Teddington with a guide of £300- £500 but reached £6500 after a battle between phone and internet bidders.
Chris Kirkham, associate director of Hansons London, discovered the helmet among items at a property in south-west London, owned by a notable Twickenham family descending from Cork, Ireland. It was spotted on a shelf.
Based on a Continental European dragoon helmet in use for a while, it is made in leather with leopard skin band, gilt metal trim, black bearskin crest and side plume, and has a brass strap to the front engraved Kinnelea & Kerricurrihy Cavalry, with red cloth and bullion tassels to the back.
“We understand items relating to the Kinnelea & Kerricurrihy Cavalry are particularly scarce,” he said. “The flamboyant Tarleton helmet with its side plume, gilt trim, leopard skin band and shaggy black bearskin crest is a rare survivor, possibly the only one of its kind left in the world.
“It’s a museum piece really. There can be very few, if any, identical examples still in existence. The owner was unaware of its historical significance. It was an ancestral heirloom.”
Kirkham added: “The hat was worn by all ranks in the British Legion. Royal Horse Artillery troops wore the helmet until the end of the Napoleonic Wars. It was also the headgear of choice for light dragoon regiments from about 1796 to 1812.”
From the same property, a collection of scarce, late 18th century/early 19th century Irish Volunteer uniform accoutrements including buttons, epaulettes and belt plates sold for £9000, way over the £200-400 estimate.
A rectangular leather cartridge box came with applied brass lettering KKC, together with an oval brass belt plate with central crowned maid and harp bordered by moto Pro Aris Et Focis (For Hearth and Home) with KKC below, and 36 brass uniform buttons cast in relief KKC with crown above (all probably Kinnelea & Kerricurrihy Cavalry).
Other units represented include Parsonstown Loyal Independent Volunteers, Limerick Independents, Fermoy Cavalry and RCV (probably Royal Cork Volunteers).
Originals at four figures
Replica Tarleton helmets occasionally appear at auction, making several hundred pounds, but an original Georgian officer’s black leather-skulled Tarleton helmet of the Royal Edinburgh Yeomanry that appeared at Wallis & Wallis of Lewes in October 2020 in ‘exceptionally good condition with minimal signs of wear’ made £6400 against an estimate of £4000-5000.
The Royal Edinburgh Volunteer Light Dragoons (known as the Princes Street Lancers) were formed in 1797 and amalgamated with five other troops of yeomanry to become The Royal Midlothian Yeomanry (disbanded in 1837).
An early 19th century officer’s Tarleton of the Royal Artillery took a near-identical hammer price, £6500 (estimate £4000-6000), at Antony Cribb’s auction in November 2018.