Cedric Jagger, "Royal Clocks", 1983, p. 144, pl. 196, illustrating Thomire's slightly earlier version in the British Royal Collection. J. Ramon Colon De Carvajal, "Catalogo De Relojes Del Patrimonio Nacional", 1987, p. 200, pl. 182, illustrating the same model in the Spanish Royal Collection. Tardy, "Les Plus Belles Pendules Françaises", 1994, p. 274, illustrating the same model. Phoenix Art Museum, Arizona, exhibition catalogue, "French Clocks from the age of Napoleon", 1998-99, illustrating the same model from the John W. Teets collection.
A very important Empire gilt and part-patinated bronze and rouge marble chariot clock of eight day duration, housed in a magnificent case representing Phaeton's flight in the sun's chariot across the heavens by the pre-eminent bronzier Pierre-Philippe Thomire. The dial formed as the chariot wheel with outer blue painted dial ring with gilded Arabic hour numerals and six inner gilded wheel spokes interspersed with palmettes and a fine pair of pierced silver plated hands for the hours and minutes. The movement with anchor escapement, silk thread suspension, striking on the hour and half hour on a single bell, with outside count wheel. The elaborately decorated chariot with ribbon-tied swags on the front, with a pair of griffins, a quiver and harp at the rear, with Phaeton standing, wearing a billowing cloak and driving four frenzied horses across the arch of Heaven. The arch, mounted with figures of Pisces, Aries, Taurus and Aquarius, hung with billowing clouds and resting on a stepped rectangular rouge marble base mounted by a gilt frieze representing the eastern sun god Mithras slaying the primeval bull, flanked by a pair of half-moons and stars, on lion paw feet
Paris, date circa 1805-10
Height 67 cm, width 72 cm, depth 25 cm.
Pendules 'au char' or chariot clocks were one of a number of ingenious clock cases that allowed the fullest opportunity for the sculptor and bronzier fondeur-ciseleur to express the brilliance of their craft. All followed the same basic design featuring an ancient chariot carrying figures of deities with the clock dial set into the wheel. Of the many variations Thomire's model portraying Phaeton's reckless flight across the skies (sometimes described as 'The Apollo Clock') is probably the finest and most important of all. The first chariot clocks dated back to sixteenth century Germany. In France during Louis XV's reign a small number of models with rocaille style chariots were made but it was not until the end of the eighteenth century and particular the early years of the nineteenth, during the Empire period, that this type of clock found true popularity. Its revival was largely inspired by Napoleon's triumphant entry into Paris following his victories in battle.
Thomire appears to have made two versions, both based on a design by the artist Jean Démosthène Dugourc (1749-1825). The earliest version dated from the late 1790's while the present version dates from circa 1805-10. Though both feature four horses frantically pulling Phaeton in the sun god's chariot, the earlier version has a deeper arch and much simpler, flat-fronted base without paw feet and instead of the Mithras frieze it is decorated with an Apollo mask.
The present version is undoubtedly the most imposing. It can be compared with an almost identical model in the Spanish Royal Collection. The latter has only minor variations for instance there is no harp, the outer dial ring is patinated and the moons on the base and order of the zodiac signs differ slightly (nearly all other versions show the order of the zodiac signs as here). Another almost identical model, from the collection of the American connoisseur J. W. Teets, was exhibited at the Phoenix Art Museum, 1998-99. Again the latter shows slight variations, namely that Phaeton stands more erect, the horses are of patinated bronze, the chariot is less ornamented and there are fewer clouds. Another very similar model sold in Paris, 1966 (illus. Tardy, ibid.) features similar cloud formations as here but has a green griotte marble base and different dial hands.
As already noted, Thomire produced a slightly earlier and simpler version with an Apollo mask of which one example is now in the Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg. It was supplied (along with other works by Thomire) in October 1798 by the Parisian marchand-mercier Xavier-François Labensky to Czar Paul I, for his palace of Saint Michel, Saint Petersburg, where it adorned a drawing room in the inner apartments of the Empress Maria Fiodorovna. Another early version was acquired for the Imperial Russian family for Czar Peter the Great's summer home, Monplaisir at Peterhof, where it still stands on the mantelpiece in the green reception room of the Catherine Block. In 1810 King George IV of England acquired one of the early models (still in the British Royal Collection) from Mr. Boileau. Unfortunately it suffered the same fate as many others in the same collection when in 1834 Benjamin Lewis Vulliamy replaced the original movement for his own. The bronzier Lucien-François Feuchère also owned an earlier model, which was included in the Feuchère sale, 29th January 1829, lot 69, described as a model by Thomire, known to sell for 1,500 Frs.
The story of Phaeton's reckless journey across the skies lent itself perfectly as a subject for a chariot clock. According to Ovid's Metamorphoses, Phaeton was the son of Helios, the sun god and the nymph Clymene. Phaeton's mother withheld his true identity until he was an adult, whereupon he sought out his father and asked for a sign of recognition. In response Helios was willing to grant his son anything he desired but when Phaeton asked to drive the chariot of the sun for one day his father warned of the dangers, especially the fearful monsters of the zodiac. Undeterred Phaeton persuaded his father and thus as the stars and moon receded, the Hours or Horae harnessed the four horses to the chariot. Then Dawn or Aurora opened her doors and Phaeton drove upward. But having no experience Phaeton was helpless when he met the fearful Scorpion of the zodiac; he dropped the reins, his horses bolted and the earth began to catch on fire. However Jupiter arrested the situation, sending a thunder bolt to wreck the chariot and Phaeton went tumbling down in flames into the River Eridanus (now the River Po).
In this later version the classical allusion is expanded by associating the sun's chariot with the ancient eastern sun god Mithras. The cult of Mithras, which was widespread during the Roman Empire was first encountered during the reign of Nero in Persia (modern Iran) though its origins can be dated back to India 1400 BC. The plaque itself is based on ancient portrayals of Mithras slaying the primeval bull with his sword in order to release its life force for the benefit of humanity. From the bull's body grew useful plants and herbs, from its blood came the vine and from its semen all usef0ul animals. A dog is also present since dogs, symbols of sincerity and trustworthiness, were sacred to the cult. On the other hand the serpent as an emblem of Ahriman was the spirit of Evil.
Accordingly the order of the zodiac the bull or Taurus is placed in opposition to the serpent represented by Scorpio. The scene also includes the twin torchbearers Cautes and Cautopates who represented the rising and setting of the sun as well as hope and sorrow. They like Mithras wear the ancient Persian Phrygian cap.
Thomire's clock portrayed the moment when Phaeton was still revelling in his ecstatic journey, unaware that soon his horses would bolt and he would be plunged to his death. His hopeless fate was the subject of another Empire clock case by Claude Galle (1759-1815), examples of which can be found in the Elysée Palace and Bibliothèque National in Paris, L'Ecole d' Horlogerie de Dreux and another previously owned by the Richard Redding Gallery (illus. "Masterpieces of the Past", 2000, p. 259).
Simpler models, based on Thomire's original are also known. Among them are two comparable cases featuring Phaeton appearing to stand on top, rather than in his chariot and only drawn by two horses (illus. Pierre Kjellberg, "Encyclopédie de la Pendule Française du Moyen Age au XXe Siècle", 1997, p. 418, pls. A and B). The popularity for chariot clocks gave rise to many other variations. Some were drawn by swans ridden by Venus (e.g. Château de Malmaison); others were driven by Télemarque under the protection of Athena (e.g. Château de Malmaison). The British Royal Collection also owns a clock attributed to Thomire portraying Victory seated in her chariot drawn by winged horses. Other models by Thomire included Cupid's chariot drawn by a swan; he also produced a chariot clock featuring the Four Seasons pulled by a pair of lions and led by Cupid, supplied in 1798 by Labensky to Paul I for St Michel. However of the many variations it is generally felt that Thomire's model of Phaeton's flight was the most dynamic and best suited to this specific clock type. Furthermore, of Thomire's two versions the present is the most elaborate and the more unusual - its rarity, beautiful modelling and perfect quality knows few rivals.