A gentleman and a lady sit in an open carriage. Their identities are unknown, and it is unclear if they are married. This type of high-built, four-wheel carriage was typically driven by its gentleman-driver owner, rather than by a coachman. It was known as a ‘phaeton’ after the son of the Greek god Helios, who attempted to ride the chariot of the sun and almost set the earth on fire. With a minimal, lightly sprung body mounted on large wheels, the phaeton was particularly used for recreational driving and racing.
Stubbs gives as much attention to the phaeton and its construction as he does to its two occupants or the pair of horses pulling it. Placing the carriage against dark foliage allows him to show the undercarriage mechanism in meticulous detail.
A gentleman and lady sit in an open carriage. Their identities are unknown – the brow-bands and rosettes on the horses provide no clue – and it is not clear if they are married. Both are fashionably but not ostentatiously dressed for a drive in the country on what appears to be a summer’s day. Although the lady’s wide-brimmed hat may not be the most practical choice for an open carriage, her legs are covered by a blanket and both their jackets are buttoned up tight. The driver leans forward slightly, perhaps bringing the carriage to a halt to greet us. Both look directly at us, their open faces framed by their hats, as if inviting us to share their experience or to admire their new carriage and its fine pair of horses.
The carriage they are seated in was known as a ‘phaeton’ – a reference to Phaethon, the son of Helios. In Greek mythology, Helios drove the chariot of the sun across the sky each day. As the personification of the sun, he became increasingly identified with Apollo, the god of light. A phaeton was usually pulled by a pair of horses and was driven by its owner, rather than by a coachman, who would also decide on the choice of decorations and paintwork. With lightly sprung lightweight bodies mounted high on large wheels, phaetons were built for speed and were particularly used for recreational driving and racing. Gentlemen-drivers seeking to display both their skill and sartorial style belonged to clubs such as the Benson and the Four Horse Club, which had regular meetings in Hyde Park or Richmond. The painting’s rural setting may be a reference to one of these parks. Given the potential danger involved in racing these carriages, the association with Phaethon was especially apt: he had tried to drive his father’s chariot, but lost control and almost set the earth on fire.
A valuable status symbol like a modern luxury car, the phaeton is very much the centrepiece of this painting. Stubbs pays great attention to the buff-coloured undercarriage, as the crane-neck construction of this model, clearly visible above the front wheels, enhanced its manoeuvrability. He positions the phaeton at a slight angle against the dark foliage of the trees to reveal the intricate mechanism, which he paints with the precision of a technical drawing.
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