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A stallion, light gleaming on his body, standing on back legs


National Gallery, London

George Stubbs

The Kingdom of Animals

George Stubbs gave animals “the beauty, strength, and dignity ordinarily reserved for the human figure” (Frick catalogue). He won his mastery in a lonely Lancashire farmhouse where he spent 18 months dissecting the large bodies of horses and drafting anatomical drawings.

Born in 1724, George was the son of a currier, who tanned and coloured leather. He began to draw when he was five, and became fascinated with anatomy, the bones hidden inside the flesh that give our bodies shape. But when Stubbs grew up, his father wanted him working with him. It was not until he was fifteen or sixteen that his father finally said he could paint, and he went as an apprentice to an artist.

He did not last long. Stubbs had no interest in copying other art. He wanted to "look into Nature for himself and consult and study her only". Instead he began teaching himself how to paint, and went to York, where he acquired a dark reputation among the townspeople because of his dissections and drawings of people. Eventually with the help of a family whose portraits he had painted, he worked deep in the countryside in a cottage, and dissected horses. He had one goal, to learn how to paint. Helping him was a woman whose relationship with Stubbs has always been mysterious.

Out of the blood and sinews of his dissections and drawings a rare quality became visible. This was not their beauty (though they were beautiful). It was their extraordinarily truthful physical description of animals moving and at rest.

Stubbs could not get his drawings engraved and published, so sometime around 1759 he learned how to etch plates himself. Working ‘early in the Morning & in the Evening and sometimes very late at Night’ (Humphry), he achieved austerely elegant plates that combine ‘scientific exactitude with a harmonious beauty of placing and balance’ (Godfrey, Printmaking in Britain, 57) (DNB).

Meanwhile word about his ability to draw horses was spreading. The horse owner who was famously willing to pay fifty guineas for a painting of his horse, but thought ten guineas too much for a painting of his wife, wanted Stubbs.

His career took off.

His ability to combine landscape, horses, and figures in complex and inventive designs is demonstrated in such works as "The Grosvenor Hunt", dated 1762 (priv. coll.), with its virtuoso painting of hounds splashing through water. . ."Setting out from Southill" (c.1765–8; priv. coll.) depicts hunt servants, fresh-faced in the morning air, riding out from a Bedfordshire village. Stubbs's servants, grooms, and jockeys are invariably drawn from life; he regards them with a sensitive and uncondescending eye" (DNB).

Stubbs saw the magnificence of animals, as they had rarely been seen before. It is almost as if he lived on an Earth governed by four-legged animals.

Mares and colts under trees

Mares and Foals in a River Landscape c. 1763–68
Tate Britain

Stubbs was naturally daring. When he painted Whistlejacket in 1762, he broke totally with traditional design by placing the horse against a plain background so nature’s beauty blazes plainly.

He creates something I sensed when I went riding above the Brandywine and found myself on a horse who loved to gallop across grass and soar across a fence. Stubbs conveys the mystery and freedom of a horse. In the eternal time of the painting's gently glowing ground, the unbridled, unsaddled horse is free.

Stubbs is "among the greatest and most original printmakers in British art. His prints have an intense, deeply felt quality, particularly telling on the small scale of the Foxhound prints, or the Sleeping Leopard, published in 1791" (DNB).

White dog and bay horse touching noses

Stubbs painted giraffes, monkeys, and rhinoceroses (he observed them in private menageries in England) and dogs. He depicted every animal - moose, zebra, tigers (at play) and the nylghau - with stunning precision. (Scientist William Hunter remarked that whoever looked at Stubbs' picture 'can never be at a loss to know the nyl-ghau, wherever he may happen to meet with it’, admittedly an unlikely event for most of us.)

He created a terrifying series of a lion stalking and devouring a horse. He continued to paint portraits, with less enthusiasm, and was active into his 80s, working on anatomical drawings of men, tigers, and birds.

Stubbs' reputation as an artist went into eclipse after he died. For one hundred and fifty years his work remained uncelebrated and unknown. It was only in the 1950s that several exhibitions revealed him as an outstanding British painter and saw him as he truly was, "a dedicated and solitary master" (Encylopaedia Britannica).


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