„In der Kunst Kutschen zu machen übertreffen die Engländer alle anderen Nationen“. [“The English surpass all other nations in the art of coach-making”]. Journal de Luxus und der Moden. August, 1799.
William Felton was a coach builder at Leather Lane, London at the end of the 18th century. In 1794 he wrote: “A treatise on carriages. Comprehending coaches, chariots, phaetons, curricles, whiskeys, &c. Together with their proper harness. In which the fair prices of every article are accurately stated. “ This was 10 years before the elliptic spring was invented in 1804 by the British inventor Obadiah Elliott which would transform transport within 50 years.
In his treatise, Felton mentions one of his contemporary coachbuilders, John Hackett of Longacre, who built coaches for King George III and the then Prince of Wales and many of the gentry. Hackett, with hundreds of employees, was the most famous coachbuilder of his day, and he became Master of the Coachmakers in 1785. Other great coachbuilders of the age included John Wright (who also became Master, in 1767) who formed a partnership with Lionel Lukin, and Philip Godsal, also of Longacre. The Worshipful Company of Coachmakers and Coach Harness Makers received its Charter from King Charles II on 31st May 1677, creating the 72nd Livery Company of the City of London. Once headquartered at Noble Street in the heart of the City of London, its building and many of its records were destroyed in an air raid in December 1940.
Road surfaces in England were improving so carriages were displacing the clumsy vehicles of earlier days. The Prince Regent and his friends started the fashion for driving, so horse and carriage became prized possessions where formerly they were just a means of conveyance. Town Coaches and Chariots were used for official or social occasions; Landaus and Sociables for less formal occasions and driving; owner-driven carriages and Phaetons were for driving to race meetings and town and country pursuits. British workmanship was valued abroad; many carriages were exported to Europe – including to Royalty in the principalities of what became Germany – and across the Atlantic to the West Indies and America.
All these vehicles were built very high with two types of under-carriage: “perch” being a straight or slightly curved supporting wooden beam joining the axles and “crane-neck”, comprising two iron beams, curved, under which the front wheels could turn making the vehicle more flexible. Alan Osbahr selected 12 of Mr. Felton’s carriages to reconstruct in richly coloured lithographic imagery shown with our prints, many of which contain quantities of gold and silver. Alan Osbahr’s drawings are accurate renditions from the original. This can be seen by comparing this drawing of a Town Coach from Felton’s original treatise in the British Library with the town coach, first print in our collection.
Jane Austen often uses carriages to convey information about the status and aspirations of her characters. Different kinds of carriage would have had particular connotations for readers of the time, which we cannot understand so easily today. In Emma, for example, Mrs Elton repeatedly refers to her sister and brother’s barouche-landau, which ‘holds four perfectly’ (Emma, II. xiv). A barouche-landau was an expensive four-wheeled carriage drawn by two horses, with two collapsible hoods – one for the front-facing passengers and one for the rear-facing passengers. It was a smaller version of a landau. Mrs Elton talks repeatedly about the barouche-landau in order to impress upon her neighbours how wealthy her family is.