Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014
The Prince of Wales's Phaeton
The Royal Collection holds an important group of paintings by George Stubbs; all of them were acquired by George IV when Prince of Wales and all of them (with the exception of OM 1115, 400512) were sent in 1822 from Carlton House to the King’s Lodge (later Royal Lodge) in Windsor Great Park, presumably as an appropriate setting for sporting paintings.
In 1793 Thomas Allwood presented a bill to the Prince for £110 16s, for ‘Carving & Gilding eight Picture frames of half length size [40 x 50 inches] for sundry Pictures painted by Mr Stubbs’. This is one of thirteen paintings in the collection of these dimensions (40 x 50 inches), all in identical frames and all dated between 1790 and 1793 (OM 1109-12, 1115-8, 1122-6, 400142, 400106, 400995, 400997, 400512, 400560, 400994, 400587, 400510, 400562, 400943, 405001, 400549). It is not possible to say which were the eight mentioned in Allwood’s bill, and how they might have been grouped or paired off; but they all seem to have been conceived loosely as a set.
The phaeton was the sports car of the day: a light, open, owner-driven, two-horse carriage. The name comes from Phaeton, the son of Apollo, who borrowed and crashed his father’s sun-chariot. For a smooth ride, even at speed, the Phaeton had large wheels and huge steel leaf-springs, from which the seat was suspended by means of leather straps, which gave it the nick-name ‘High-Flyer’ and occasioned numerous satires. In some examples the two axels were the only rigid elements of the design, connected by another steel leaf-spring to allow the vehicle to flex over bumps, like modern independent suspension. Contemporary illustrations suggest that that this fine example of British industrial design was regarded as the pinnacle of fashion and symbol of fast living, women drivers being especially singled out for admiration or opprobrium. When the Prince of Wales over-turned his Phaeton, while driving alone with Mrs Fitzherbert, he presented satirists with an easy target.
The Prince’s carriage here is to be drawn by two magnificently sleek black horses, whose coats and accoutrements match the colours of the carriage and the livery of the groom. The artist explains the harnesses and provides a three-quarter view of the carriage without drawing attention to the technical difficulty of either. This is a scene designed to appeal to the discerning eye of a man of fashion, who in this era would have possessed some expertise in horse-flesh and a more general concern that their mews should be efficiently run and their servants well turned-out. Such things matter because they reflect on the owner and master. Contemporaries would have recognised in this painting a reflection upon (even a portrait of) the owner of this equipage — the Prince of Wales. We see here a Prince unstuffy enough to drive his own carriage, reducing the trappings of rank to a set of modest silver arms decorating the horses’ blinkers. The pomp of a Prince is replaced by the elegance of a man of fashion.
The quiet dignity of this scene, supported by the Prince’s portly coachman and methodical assistant, is only disrupted by his Spitz dog, Fino, leaping up at the horse, which starts back in alarm.
Signed and dated: Geo: Stubbs pinxit / 1793
Text adapted from The Conversation Piece: Scenes of fashionable life, London, 2009