Thanks to the generous support of BARS and the Stephen Copley Research Award, I am freshly returned from a glorious week’s worth of rummaging through the John Johnson Collection at the Bodleian Libraries, Oxford. My PhD examines the narrative function of the horse-drawn carriage in Jane Austen’s fictions, and investigates its cultural significance in wider Georgian society. I support my literary enquiries with a few key contemporary trade sources on the design and construction of carriages, but as I’ve discovered over the course of my research, eighteenth-century coach-makers were a fiercely secretive bunch and frustratingly little archival evidence survives today. In comes the John Johnson Collection’s boxes and boxes of carriage related trade ephemera!
Print and visual depictions of private carriages, stage and mail coaches, driving disasters, stately processions and everything in between abound in libraries and archives, the carriage seems to have been a favourite target for eighteenth-century cartoonists and novelists alike to publicly lampoon. Whilst I relish the fact my doctoral work means I get to study these vibrant sources, the carriage was an incredible feat of engineering in its marriage of elegant design with technologies of motion, and to fully comprehend this I need to go back to the fundamentals. I want to get to grips with the carriage’s design and production processes and understand how these aesthetically adroit commodity objects, marketed to the polite elite, were intended to be consumed by their inventors. My intentions, therefore, for my trip to the Bodleian were to consult as many trade cards and designs as I could get my hands on. The fact that only a small portion of the holdings of carriage ephemera has been digitised made this an even more enticing prospect, and I had no idea the extent of what I was going to find.
Well, let me tell you, I was not disappointed. My favourite finds included delicate line drawings for all sorts of carriage typologies, from zippy two-wheelers like the cabriolet and curricle, to large ‘pleasure carriages’ – so-called for their use on short, leisurely trips during spring and summer – like the barouche. A common characteristic of small carriages (and many of their four-wheel cousins) was a removable or retractable hood that could be drawn back at the behest of the occupants. Until this trip, I had mostly seen trade designs for two-wheel carriages with the hood omitted, instead, they’re pictured more commonly in fashion plates, and I have always been curious as to how coach makers represented hoods in their designs. It was a really nice surprise, then, to stumble across two separate designs for a gig carriage that featured its hood on a tab that could be flipped up to reveal both aspects of the vehicle. What made these blueprints all the more special were the colourful accents in yellow and ultramarine, an unusual embellishment to what appeared to just be preliminary designs rather than promotional imagery. The collection as a whole truly shows that the artistry of the carriage wasn’t isolated to the finished article, but was inherent in the print artefacts that represented and advertised them.
All in all, my first ever visit to the Bodleian was just what I needed to give me the green light on some of the claims I have been making more tentatively in the absence of strong contemporary evidence, and I am grateful both to BARS and the staff at the Bodleian for this opportunity to expand my knowledge and strengthen my research.
– Gabriella Barnard-Edmunds