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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

John Charles Maggs

London to Reading Coach, 1885, John Charles Maggs.                 
The safety of passengers was not a prime consideration.                 
From the time the Egyptians painted the first horse-drawn chariots to the automobile portraits painted by artists today, wheels and the coaches they support have long held a fascination for those wielding a brush (myself included--bottom). Perhaps the most colorful of all such works are those from the 19th century dealing with the stagecoach. I'm sure there are those Americans who think we invented this rugged, horse-drawn carriage built to transport passengers and mail across the vast expanses of the old west. We conjure up images from paintings by American artists of thrilling scenes involving heroic drivers outracing outlaws on fighting off hostile Indians. Actually, the American stagecoach was an import, adapted somewhat, from jolly old England. There such vehicles made their first appearances during the early 18th century and gradually became more common (as roads improved) from that time on. Their demise came in the face of much more civilized (and faster) railroad transportation starting around the 1830s.
Halt at the Inn, John Charles Maggs.
John Charles Maggs painted stagecoaches. In fact, that and the horses pulling them, were about the only subjects he painted. His work can be divided into two, largely overlapping areas of content--stages and coaches. The word "stagecoach" derives from the stations (or stages) along their routes and at either ends of their runs, while the coach is the vehicle itself. Maggs did, in fact, paint some of these "stages" minus the coaches but few such works remain. As Maggs rightly assumed, the arrival of the stagecoach was far more exciting than the moments before it arrived. Of course the English weren't the only ones running stagecoaches. The Swiss, and more commonly, the Spanish had them too. They may have been at least as responsible for bringing them to the American West than the British. Be that as it may, John Charles Maggs was the painter most responsible for stamping "Made in England" upon this venerable horse-drawn conveyance.
Night Coach, John Charles Maggs
The Bristol to Bath Mail Coach Outside the
Fourteen Stars Tavern, John Charles Maggs.
Maggs was born in Bath, England, around 1819 where he spent his entire life. His father was a furniture maker best known for making his pieces look Japanese. There are few details as to his son's early life or education but it's likely John Charles began painting around 1840, depicting the arrival and departure of stagecoaches running from Bath to and from London. (Few of his paintings have dates associated with them.) Maggs painted from then until his death in 1896. Thus, he saw both the decline and fall of the stagecoach with the advent of steam. By the time he died, stagecoaches were little more than quaint nostalgia. He never took to painting trains. Had he lived a bit longer, he might have gone on to never paint British motorbuses as well.
Axel deep and going nowhere--John Charles Maggs
One of Maggs' favorite subjects was painting his stagecoaches amid inclement weather, especially snow. Because of the mild ocean currents, we don't often picture the British countryside as being snowbound, but rest assured, it does snow in England. Maggs painted a snowbound coach (above), up to its axels in the white stuff, its horses being led off to a nearby farm. Though English snow may be somewhat limited, rain and the proverbial "dark and stormy night" most assuredly are not. Maggs painted that too in his A Stage Coach and Four on a Stormy Night (below).

A Stage Coach and Four on a Stormy Night, John Charles Maggs.
Most of Maggs' stagecoach scenes were not contemporary. Devoted patrons, including no less than Victoria, Queen of England, were mostly (or only) interested in nostalgia. Thus we usually see Maggs' figures in 18th-century dress. And once we get past the hustle and bustle that, even then, was an inherent part of long-distance travel, we find his careful attention to the architectural details of his background inns most gratifying. In some cases, his paintings have been the predominant historic reference as present-day owners of these establishments seek to restore them to their days of former glory.

The Manor House, John Charles Maggs

My own coach, 1965-70.
It wasn't pulled by horses but had a good many "Thundering Birds" under the hood.

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