Meeting Whistlejacket and Eclipse

“All done from nature” 

George Stubbs (1724-1806) himself wrote this sentence on the title page of his work The Anatomy of the Horse (1759).  Most people know Stubbs as the artist who painted the most famous horses of his day for the British elite of the racecourse, but when you visit the current exhibition at the Milton Keynes Gallery, which will also be held at the Mauritshuis later this year, you learn that Stubbs was a more versatile artist. 

The Anatomy of the Horse

From a young age Stubbs knew he wanted to be a painter and dreamed of being an academician (Royal Academy of Arts). Tradition dictated that he would then have to visit Italy to learn about and from the classical forms of art, Roman and Greek.  He traveled to Rome in the year 1754 and was already back in England by the end of 1755. Stubbs himself recalled that he often differed from his peers in their opinions of old master paintings, probably due to the fact that he thought “nature always superior to art, whether it be Greek or Roman”.  

Back in England he plunged himself back in his passion for anatomy. Stubbs resided in Lincolnshire from 1756 – 1758, where he spent his time dissecting horses to draw them for his The Anatomy of the Horse which was to be published the following year when he moved to London. In the capital he was introduced to his patrons who would commission at least one third of the work he would produce in his lifetime, the prince of Wales himself commissioned nineteen works in the 1790’s. 

A Cheetah and a Stag with Two Indian Servants

But is its questionable whether Stubbs can be seen as part of the aristocratic horse world of his time. It is often said that Stubbs must have loved horses because he painted so many, especially commissions suggest that he was the go to man if one wanted his horse painted. The title of the current exhibition will change when it moves to the Mauritshuis; “The Man, the Horse, The Obsession”, making one feel that Stubbs was obsessed with horses.  He however lived in a time where horses were still part of daily life as a mode of transport as well as an important supportive source of working power. But I have not yet found out if he owned horses himself for either transport or leisure. In his own time Stubbs was famous for depicting animals that were new and exotic to the British public. He was able to paint leopards, eagles, wolves, bears, and much more because many of his patrons owned menageries that functioned as private zoo’s. Of course there was also the public menagerie at the Tower of London where the crowd could see tigers, lions and monkeys. 

In 1763 Stubbs chose to exhibit The Queen’s She’ass (now called Zebra) at the Society of Artists, where he was  a member and eventually took on the role of president in 1772-1773. His painting of a zebra looking quite lost under the trees of a presumably English forest was not a commission.  The subject of the painting was the first ever zebra to voyage to England and became known after having been presented to Queen Charlotte in 1762. It was brought over from Cape of Good Hope, South Africa by Sir Thomas Adams who was the commander of the H.M.S. Terpsichore. He loaded a couple of zebra’s onto his ship but the male did not survive the journey. The female was kept in a paddock at Buckingham gate where the public could see her, drawing such large crowds that extra guards had to be placed to keep it safe, especially at night. Stubbs may have been among the public when he was painting his Zebra, and for unknown reason it is one of the few works that remained in Stubbs own possession until his death in 1806. 

For thirteen years Stubbs exhibited annually at the Society where he showed 35 pictures between 1761-1774, of which nearly half of the works were concerned with ‘wild’ animals instead of horses. In 1775 he switched his allegiance from the Society to the Royal Academy of Arts, getting closer to fulfilling his dream of becoming an academician. In November 1780 he was elected an Associate Member of the Royal Academy.  In the February 1781 election of full Royal Academicians Stubbs was favoured by the majority.  The only thing left to do was to hand in a work of art presented to the academy that would be his Diploma Work in order to receive the diploma signed by the King. In December of the same year a new rule was imposed stating that every RA elect had to hand in the diploma work within one year of election, and sadly this meant that Stubbs was now too late as he had failed to deliver. In the following years Stubbs did not exhibit annually with the Academy due to anger over not being a full Academician as well as disputes over his works he chose to be shown not being exhibited. Over the years Stubbs exhibited more dogs than horses at the Royal Academy, which can be seen as more evidence for critic Geoffrey Grigson (1940) who asserted that “Horse painter .. is not the right description for him at all. He was a painter who painted horses”. 

Whistejacket and myself for scale

It has been suggested that Stubbs did not love horses or the equestrian circles that he is often said to have been part of. His extraordinary talent to observe and depict nature in the most realistic way made him a favourite by those who wanted their exotic and precious animals depicted. Stubbs however did not always comply; his most famous work, Whistlejacket (1762) was commissioned by the earl of Rockingham as a portret of George III. Rockingham intended the horse to be done by Stubbs, the portrait by Reynolds and the landscape by yet another artist.  When he saw the horse on the canvas he decided to leave it without a background, the lacking of the portrait of the king is most possibly due to Rockingham’s resignation as Prime Minister in 1762. 

Another example of Stubbs work not living up to the expectation of his patron is that which critics call his greatest painting ever; Hambletonian, rubbing down (1800). Sir Henry Vane-Tempest’s Hambletonian defeated Diamond at Newmarket and he commissioned two paintings, one of Hambletonian winning the race and one of him after the race. It is unknown if Stubbs ever produced the first one, but the second shows a horse that is nervous, exhausted and features a trainer and groom that angrily look at the viewer as if the public does not feel enough empathy for the horse.  Vane-Tempest took Stubbs to court because he refused to pay for this painting, which can be seen as Stubbs’ criticism on the industry. 

The greatest painter of racehorses did not like horse racing. The antipathy was part of his greatness.” – Nicholas Clee

Horse devoured by a lion (1763)

Stubbs his work offers us a good view of his time, during which the role of the horse in society was changing as equestrian sports were becoming more popular in the mid 1700’s. The English Thoroughbred was a new breed that was only about fifty years old when Stubbs was alive and just as the newly acquired exotic animals, a symbol of empire and English superiority. For over thirty years Stubbs kept returning to his series of lions attacking horses. Although he himself was not impressed by what he saw in Italy, the model of a lion sinking its teeth into a horse went back into antiquity as Stubbs possibly saw an early Hellenistic sculpture of a lion attacking a horse in the Palazzo dei Conservatori when he was in Rome. Robin Blake has argued that Stubbs exhibited a political point supporting the Rockingham Whigs, showing the white horse, a symbol of Hanover, being attacked by the lion of England.  

For the first time in history Stubbs work is being accompanied by the skeleton of Eclipse (1764-1789) whom he painted four times. Eclipse remained undefeated at the races and is often called the father of all Thoroughbreds as he features in the majority of todays racehorse pedigrees. It was an honour to meet this English historical icon together with Whistlejacket and I can recommend everyone with an interest in horses and art to visit the exhibition for the detail and colour of Stubbs work is truly astonishing!

Eclipse (d.1789) with his portrait by Stubbs

Leave a Reply