Cedric Jagger, “Royal Clocks”, 1983, p. 144, pl. 196, illustrating an earlier model with four horses by Thomire in the British Royal Collection. J. Ramon Colon De Carvajal, “Catalogo De Relojes Del Patrimonio Nacional”, 1987, p. 187, pl. 167, illustrating an almost identical clock in the Spanish Royal Collection. Tardy, “Les Plus Belles Pendules Françaises”, 1994, p. 274, illustrating Thomire’s later model with four horses and a Mithras frieze. Pierre Kjellberg, “Encyclopédie de la Pendule Française du Moyen Age au XXe Siècle”, 1997, p. 418, pl. A, illustrating an almost identical clock. Elke Niehüser, “Die Französische Bronzeuhr”, 1997, p. 243, pl. 917, illustrating an almost identical clock.
An extremely fine Empire gilt and part-patinated bronze and rouge marble chariot clock of eight day duration, housed in a wonderful case representing Phaeton’s flight in the sun’s chariot across the heavens attributed to Pierre-Philippe Thomire. The dial formed as the chariot wheel with outer gilt dial ring with black Arabic hour numerals and six inner gilded wheel spokes interspersed with palmettes and a pair of serpentine-shaped gilt brass 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 griffin heads, a bow and harp at the rear, with Phaeton standing, wearing a billowing sash and driving a pair of 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 central Apollo mask flanked by full and half-moon mounts and alternate stars, on toupie feet
Paris, date circa 1805-10
Height 58 cm, width 56 cm, depth 15 cm.
Pierre-Philippe Thomire (1751-1843) appears to have made two main versions of this celebrated clock model, both based on a design by Jean Démosthène Dugourc (1749-1825). Thomire’s earlier version dating from the late 1790’s had a much deeper arch and featured an Apollo mask mount on a simpler base, while the later version dating from circa 1805-10 had as here a shallower arch but a more elaborate base with Mithras frieze and lion paw feet. While the present case design combines elements from both it corresponds more closely to his later model particularly the proportions of the arch and shape of the clouds, in contrast the simpler base and lack of lion paw feet compare with his earlier version. There are however distinct differences between this model and the two aforementioned; firstly this model only features two rather than four horses and in particular the front pair of horses which appear on both other versions and secondly Phaeton is now standing higher and more upright with his weight balanced on his right foot.
One of Thomire’s earliest versions, now in the Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg was supplied in October 1798 by the Parisian marchand-mercier Xavier-François Labensky to Czar Paul I, for his palace of Saint Michel, Saint Petersburg, to adorn a drawing room in the Empress Maria Fiodorovna’s inner apartments. The Imperial Russian family acquired another early version for Monplaisir at Peterhof, where it still stands on the mantelpiece in the green reception room in the Catherine Block. In 1810 King George IV of England acquired one of Thomire’s early models (still in the British Royal Collection) from Mr. Boileau, which unfortunately was altered in 1834 by Benjamin Lewis Vulliamy who substituted the original movement for his own. The bronzier Lucien-François Feuchère also owned an earlier model (Feuchère sale, 29th January 1829, lot 69).
Among Thomire’s later versions was a superb example recently sold by this gallery (illustrated in “Richard Redding Antiques”, 2004, pp. 145-47). Another from the collection of the American connoisseur John. W. Teets was included in the exhibition of “French Clocks from the age of Napoleon”, at the Phoenix Art Museum, 1998-99. The Spanish Royal family also acquired one of Thomire’s later versions in addition to another clock, which is almost identical to the present model. The clock in the Spanish Royal Collection differs only in minor details, for instance it lacks the bow in the back of the chariot and instead of full moon mounts on the base there are stars. Likewise the other almost identical model, illustrated in Kjellberg ibid. p. 418, has no bow, the signs of the zodiac and frieze mounts differ as does the patination and shape of the lower section of the clouds.
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 the sun god Helios 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 tried to dissuade him by warning him of the dangers, especially the fearful monsters of the zodiac. Undeterred Phaeton eventually persuaded his father. 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 because Phaeton had no experience he 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 thunderbolt to wreck the chariot and Phaeton went tumbling down in flames into the River Eridanus (now the River Po).
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 (illustrated in “Masterpieces of the Past”, 2000, p. 259).
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 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.
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.