Monday, August 20, 2012

Paint Your Wagon

M M Bennetts sent me a query from her historical blog, about the colours of horsedrawn carriages, and as usual I’ve been deeply distracted from my paid work by the question.

Colours of carriages certainly varied a lot. The heavy timbers of farm wagons tended to be brightly painted in primary colours, reds, blues and yellows with contrasting scrolls and other decoration, like those on gipsy caravans and vardoes.

Romeo Coates, a wealthy and presumably very showy actor, drove a pair of grey horses to a curricle whose body was shaped like a nautilus shell and made of polished copper. It carried the motto “While I Live I’ll Crow.” Not exactly subtle, then.

On the other hand, like the hero of a Georgette Heyer novel who is distinguished by the unobtrusively perfect cut of his clothes, a gentleman’s Mail Phaeton had bodywork that was masculine and plain. It might be dark green, chocolate brown, maroon, navy blue or black. The “carriage,” which we would now call the undercarriage or chassis and included the springs, axles, and perch, was generally black.

Often the only bright colour would be the shafts (for a single horse) or the pole (for pair or team), and the wheels. These would be of one colour contrasting or toning with the body, such as yellow against rifle green or dark olive green, white against deep blue or red against black. A smaller touch of colour would be the coat of arms or crest at the top of the door panel, if the owner was entitled to bear arms. Gentlemen’s carriages were normally not lined with stripes of colour on their wheels and shafts in the same way as light private carriages. Such decoration was felt to be rather feminine.

Private coaches, however, could sport surprising colour combinations of body and wheels. In 1838 when the Richmond Driving Club was founded by Lord Chesterfield, the equipages of members were described by Lord William Lennox. Presumably the first colour mentioned is the largest area, on the body, and the second the wheels: “Earl of Chesterfield, blue and red coach; Marquis of Waterford, brown and red coach… Earl of Waldegrave, blue and red open barouche… Earl of Sefton, dark coloured barouche… Earl of Rosslyn, dark coloured coach… Count Batthyany, dark blue and white coach … Lord Alford, dark brown and red coach… Lord Alfred Paget, yellow and blue coach… Lord Macdonald, dark brown and red coach… Hon. Horace Pitt, blue and red coach… Sir E Smythe, Bart, dark green coach… Mr A W Hervey Aston, dark blue and white coach… Mr T Bernard, dark brown coach… Colonel Copeland, yellow barouche…”

Moving to commercial vehicles, the post chaises available from posting inns were also frequently painted yellow, hence their nickname of “Yellow Bounders”. Omnibuses were painted with the colours of their company so that passengers knew at a glance which line owned an approaching ’bus, although towards the end of the 19th century they typically had yellow wheels, which must have made it a lot easier for the company to buy spares!

A stage coach route needed four coaches, which tended to be painted in a recognisable uniform, a mixture of sober and bright colours according to the company’s preference. It might be extremely standardised, like Edward Sherman’s yellow and black, or the colours might reflect the route rather than the ownership. The Emerald, which left London at 3 in the afternoon, was painted green and black, and on its modern counterpart the green is extremely bright. The Duke of Beaufort’s book “Driving” describes the Regulator coach as “a dark coach with red wheels” and “the York House chocolate with yellow wheels.” The coach usually carried its bright colour on the lower panels, door and wheels. The Red Rover coach, despite its name, was mostly black with a scarlet undercarriage and panels, and scarlet wheels. The lettering showing destinations was often done in gold paint.

Many paintings of 19th century coaches, for example by Herring, show Mail coaches. These were painted black, with a maroon door and lower panel, and “Post Office red” running gear and wheels. Destinations, and the stars of the four Orders of Knighthood on the quarter panels, and the sovereign’s monogram on the front boot, were painted in gold.

All this means that my own two wheeler, black with red wheels and shafts, is in good company. It needs to be drawn by a quality bay horse with no white markings. Well, Ruby’s the right colour.


Francine Howarth: UK said...

There's a lovely coach in the royal mews sporting wine red panels and black quarter frames: gold CofA. Elegance personified.

Not sure if it's absolutely true, but I've heard it said a lot of private coach colours bore reference to military colours (family tradition)i.e. dark blue favoured by families with strong naval connections. Red for those of the royal guard (talking Dukes etc)from Henry VIII through Charles I and II (so on and so forth) and yet The Blues came into being Charles I and still they adopted red guard coaches. Beaufort, though, favoured green.

An interesting subject!


Charles Bazalgette said...

Must have been quite a sight with a whole lot of these finely painted carriages together. I have done a lot of searching in The Times for what people were wearing to special occasions like the King's birthday. Usually in the court circular there are also descriptions of what colour carriages the nobility arrived in. That's a study in itself!

Sue Millard said...

I am always wary of colour theories, etc, because it's so tempting to retro-fit them, and they may not be true. Another one is that the metals on harness (brass=gold, silver= silver), as well as the colours used on carriages, reflected the metals in a family's coat of arms. I haven't had occasion to pursue that one. Sigh. I suppose that's next.

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