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Stubbs and the horse

by Angus Trumble, 30 October 2018

Lustre, held by a Groom, ca. 1762 by George Stubbs
Lustre, held by a Groom, ca. 1762 by George Stubbs

One of the chief aims of George Stubbs, 1724–1806, the late Judy Egerton’s great 198485 exhibition at the Tate Gallery was to provide an eloquent rebuttal to Josiah Wedgwood’s famous remark of 1780: “Nobody suspects Mr Stubs [sic] of painting anything but horses & lions, or dogs & tigers.” Yet in his lifetime, the horse was of course as much a problem for Stubbs’s reputation as it was the cornerstone of his artistic practice. He did much to make it so. Though Stubbs was the Vesalius of the horse, and painted some of the greatest equine portraits that exist, within the institutional framework of the London art world he was stuck with the label of “horse painter,” and tried in vain to shed it. His work as an anatomist was at times a problem too, though it brought him into contact with the Hunters, William and John. It was probably Stubbs’s work on midwifery in York around 1751 that caused Sir Thomas Frankland to describe Stubbs in a letter to Sir Joseph Banks as a portrait painter in York “formerly of vile renown.”

Yet to some degree Stubbs’s artistic reputation still remains comfortably mounted on horseback. Stubbs and the Horse, which was curated by Malcolm Warner, the then senior curator of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, was smaller, tighter and more sharply focused than Egerton’s panoramic Tate show. It consisted of thirty-five paintings, including twelve portraits of single horses, of which a number are unrivalled masterpieces, such as Lustre, With a Groom, c. 1760–62 (Yale Center for British Art). There were five fine group portraits, including The Duchess of Richmond and Lady Louisa Lennox Watching the Duke of Richmond’s Racehorses at Exercise, 1759–60 (Goodwood), and Sir Peniston and Lady Lamb, with Lady Lamb’s Father, Sir Ralph Milbanke, and her Brother John Milbanke, 1769–70 (National Gallery).

One of the exquisite ‘mare-and-foal’ paintings joined two portraits of Whistlejacket, including the National Gallery’s magnificent equine nude, c. 1762 – a celebrity (though he wasn’t so famous when for many years he hung in Kenwood House) – and Scrub, with John Singleton Up, 1762, all of which were painted for the prime minister, the Marquess of Rockingham.

Meanwhile, the largest and earliest of the ‘horse-and-lion’ paintings, Horse Attacked by a Lion, 1762, and its companion (both Yale Center for British Art), which are exactly the same size as Whistlejacket, though horizontally oriented, were truly regrettable absences from the exhibition. I had myself to take responsibility for that: Unfortunately they simply could not travel.

Stubbs’s fondness for the exquisitely sensitive ‘horse-and-boy’ rubbing down subjects – a Houyhnhnm counterbalance to the Yahoo aspect of Stubbs’s ‘horse-and-lion’ theme – was beautifully represented by Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath, with a Trainer, a Stable-Lad, and a Jockey, 1765 (Woolavington collection). It was also a great shame that Stubbs’s late masterpiece Hambletonian, Rubbing Down, 1800, could not be made available from Mount Stewart to fortify this psychologically fascinating aspect of the exhibition.

There were 30 drawings, most of which are studies for Stubbs’s magnum opus, The Anatomy of the Horse (1766). That work is as remarkable for its 50,000 words of meticulously drafted scientific text as it is for the exquisitely observed and executed plates he taught himself to etch. Stubbs meant his book to be used by artists, no less than men of science. It was based on a gruelling regime of stinking dissections conducted in a damp, isolated Lincolnshire farm house over eighteen months between 1756 and 1758, assisted by poor Mary Spencer, his common law wife, who stood on a stepladder pouring hot tallow into the veins of horse cadavers. (Later she masqueraded in London as Stubbs’s ‘niece’.)

In all its venues, the exhibition began with Stubbs’s drawings for the Anatomy: fourteen studies of the muscles, and (in sequential order as the dissections progressed – some lasted for as long as eleven weeks!) two studies of the blood vessels, and three studies of the skeleton. There are ten brilliant drawings for the anatomical tables (seven of the muscles, and three of the skeleton). The logistical difficulties were partly solved by a system of iron hooks screwed into the ceiling, ropes or chains and presumably block and tackle or the equivalent – though we know Stubbs was tremendously strong, and hauled carcasses in and out of the house. Although planks were used to support the cadaver and to keep its hooves in place, the process of making these studies must have required careful adjustment so that the flayed subject conformed to the stance in outline of a living animal. Any suggestion of limpness needed to be counteracted; the inevitable sag that crept along the lumbar vertebrae corrected, and drooping ribs and hanging withers compensated for. The results must surely be among the most technically brilliant anatomical studies ever made.

Why did Stubbs go to Lincolnshire as soon as he returned from his brief visit to Rome in 1754? It is as if, with some shrewdness, he read the market for pictures in the light of the modern miracle of the thoroughbred racehorse – essentially brought into being in the early eighteenth century (with the vital cooperation of English mares) by those three remarkable foundation sires the Byerley Turk, the Darley Arabian and the Godolphin Arabian. The thoroughbred was, after all, what made Stubbs’s great Whig patrons of the 1760s, Lord Rockingham, the Duke of Richmond, Lord Bolingbroke, Lord Grosvenor and their racing cronies tick. Stubbs’s mid-career success was built on his superb portraits of their favourite stallions, mares and foals. And he used his drawings for the Anatomy to capture the interest of these patrons as soon as he moved to London in 1759.

As well, in England attitudes about horses in general had evolved rapidly through the eighteenth century. John Wesley thought they might go to heaven. Swift’s Houyhnhnms were creatures of supreme rationality. Horses were intelligent. Horses had feelings. The exhibition catalogue provided many points of access to the wider context in which Stubbs’s horse paintings reside: three snappy essays each by Malcolm Warner and Robin Blake, as well as a valuable update on Stubbs’s experiments in enamel and wax from the paintings conservators Lance Mayer and Gay Myers. The smaller Yale Horse and Lion hitherto dated (at least since Basil Taylor) as late as the 1790s, is now tentatively but plausibly brought back to 1762–68.

Stubbs was teetotal for the last forty years of his life, which leaves the first forty intriguingly unaccounted for. His first marriage (to a Miss Townly?); the early portrait practice at York about which we know very little, and the suggestion that Stubbs actually saw a Barbery lion attacking a horse in Morocco, stopping there on his way back to England from Rome, are among the most curious mysteries that surround the artist still. And, incidentally, we have no idea how Stubbs painted his Kangaroo, exh. 1773 (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich), since the only documented specimen he could have had access to was a single skull that belonged to Banks (destroyed in the Blitz), and two wobbly drawings by Parkinson.

The stuffed or inflated kangaroo skin appears to be an attractive myth. All of these things point toward wonderful lacunae in Stubbs scholarship that cry out for more work. No doubt Judy Egerton’s long awaited catalogue raisonné will lead the field (by many lengths) for some time to come, but for such a major artist George Stubbs is at times maddeningly fugitive. The fine Kimbell exhibition brilliantly revisited Stubbs’s equine practice by doing what he would surely have appreciated: putting the art before the horse.

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