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date: 13 July 2020

Stubbs, Georgefree

(1724–1806)
  • Judy Egerton

George Stubbs (1724–1806)

self-portrait, 1781

Stubbs, George (1724–1806), painter, engraver, and anatomist, was born in Liverpool on 25 August 1724 and baptized there at Our Lady and St Nicholas on 31 August, the eldest of six children (not all surviving infancy) of John Stubbs (d. 1741), currier, of Dale Street, Liverpool, and his wife, Mary (d. c.1756), formerly Mary Laithwait, widow.

Early life

Biographical information about Stubbs is sparse. Almost the only source for his first thirty-five years is the rambling, inexact 'Memoir' ('particulars of the life of Mr. Stubbs'), jotted down by Ozias Humphry RA from conversations with Stubbs between about 1794 and 1797, when Stubbs was over seventy. Quotations here not otherwise identified are from this 'Memoir'. Humphry relates that Stubbs began to draw at the age of five, and that his interest in anatomy began at the age of eight, when Dr Holt, a neighbour, lent him 'bones & prepared subjects'.

Stubbs worked in his father's currier's shop until he was fifteen or sixteen, when his father agreed that he could learn to paint, if he could find a good master. Hamlet Winstanley, the Lancashire painter and engraver then working for the tenth earl of Derby copying paintings at Knowsley Hall (just outside Liverpool), agreed to take Stubbs on as assistant; but Stubbs quickly rebelled, because he was allowed no choice over which pictures to copy, and disliked the whole idea of copying. He left Winstanley, 'vowing he wou'd for the future look into Nature for himself and consult and study her only'. So ended (in 1741?) Stubbs's first and only experience of tuition in painting.

From about 1741 to 1744 (or until the age of about twenty) Stubbs lived in Liverpool with his mother (widowed in 1741), teaching himself to paint, dissecting small animals, and perhaps helping to settle his father's estate, which may have included several small properties which passed to Stubbs (Farington notes that at Stubbs's death he owned 'two or three small Houses at Liverpool' (Farington, Diary, 8.2854). Later he worked in Wigan, Leeds, and York, painting portraits. The earliest work by Stubbs so far known is the double portrait of Sir Henry and Lady Nelthorpe, of Barton upon Humber, north Lincolnshire (priv. coll.), painted about 1744–5 (a date inferred from the fact that Sir Henry Nelthorpe died in June 1746). Painted on a fairly large scale, this has a robust quality which prevails over some weaknesses of observation. Stubbs was to retain some connection with the Nelthorpes for nearly fifty years.

From about 1745 to 1751 Stubbs concentrated on the study of human anatomy at York County Hospital, his principal instructor being the surgeon Charles Atkinson (fl. 1740–1783), who procured the first human cadaver for Stubbs to dissect. Stubbs's combined drawing and dissecting skills prompted Dr John Burton (1710–1771) to ask him to design and etch eighteen plates ('Foetus's Wombs infant Children &c &c') for his Essay towards a Complete New System of Midwifery. With no previous experience of printmaking, Stubbs had to teach himself how to etch, using 'a common sewing-needle stuck in a Skewer … and Gravers … borrowed of a clock-maker'. Some of the plates illustrate Stubbs's own dissections of the body of a woman who had died in childbirth, 'brought to York by Stubbs's pupils where it was conceal'd in a Garrett and all the necessary dissections made'. Probably this episode occasioned the 'vile renown' for which Stubbs was remembered in York over thirty years later (Sir Thomas Frankland to Sir Joseph Banks, 12 March 1786, The Banks Letters, ed. Warren R. Dawson, 1958, 343–4). Dr Burton's book was published in 1751. Aware of the imperfections of his plates, Stubbs did not sign them, and they appear anonymously. In York, about 1746, Stubbs painted the portrait of George Fothergill (Ferens Art Gallery, Kingston upon Hull). After York, Stubbs spent about two years (1751–3?) 'in Hull', according to Humphry, but perhaps based rather with the Nelthorpes at Barton upon Humber (6 miles by ferry from Hull).

Visit to Italy, 1754

Probably in the spring of 1754 Stubbs embarked for Italy, perhaps at his own expense, perhaps subsidized by Lady Nelthorpe. He was in Rome by Easter 1754, lodging in the piazza di Spagna. His residence there, noted in the local census or Stato delle anime (Ingamells, 912, n. 1) is, after Stubbs's baptism, the first officially documented fact in Stubbs's career. He was in Rome at the same time as William Chambers, Thomas Jenkins, Matthew Brettingham, Richard Wilson, Hamilton (perhaps Gavin Hamilton), and Simon Vierpyl, but told Humphry that on visits 'to consider the pictures in Rome [he] always found himself differing from them in opinion'. Stubbs later told Humphry that he 'copied nothing' while in Rome (a statement to be considered later). His stay appears to have been short. Recollecting it to Humphry some forty years later, he claimed that his motive for going to Italy was 'to convince himself that nature was & is always superior to art whether Greek or Roman, & having renew'd this conviction he immediately resolved upon returning home'. He may have been back in Liverpool a year or so before Christmas 1755, the date he inscribed on the back of a portrait of James Stanley (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool).

The anatomy of the horse

Stubbs's driving ambition in the early 1750s was to study the anatomy of the horse. He had discussed this project with Charles Atkinson and others at York, hoping to enlist their help, but they were unable to join him. In or about 1756 Stubbs returned to Barton upon Humber to paint a portrait of Lady Nelthorpe's young son, Sir John Nelthorpe (priv. coll.). Presumably he discussed his project with Lady Nelthorpe, who may have arranged for him to work in a farmhouse in the village of Horkstow, a few miles from Barton upon Humber.

Stubbs's work at Horkstow occupied him for about eighteen months. He dissected many horses, working on them one by one, first bleeding them to death by the jugular vein, then injecting the veins and arteries with wax-like substances to preserve their shape. Having fixed iron hooks in the farmhouse ceiling, he rigged up tackle from which (with drawings in mind) he could suspend a horse in a seemingly natural attitude, its hooves resting upon a plank. He then dissected each horse until it was no longer 'fit for use'; each lasted on average six to seven weeks.

At each stage of dissection Stubbs made drawings, of which forty-two survive. Most are working drawings made directly in front of the cadaver; eighteen are immaculately finished drawings, designed to be engraved for publication. Once in the collection of Sir Edwin Landseer RA, the forty-two drawings were bequeathed by his brother Charles Landseer RA to the Royal Academy, and were used for teaching in the Royal Academy Schools.

In this arduous work at Horkstow Stubbs's only assistant was Mary Spencer (d. 1817), according to Humphry 'the posthumous child of Captain Spencer of the Guinea Trade'. Born like Stubbs in Liverpool (at an unknown date: Fountain suggests 1741), she remained with him throughout his life and was his sole legatee. Almost everything about their relationship is obscure. Humphry first refers to her as Stubbs's 'Female Relation & Friend', then inserts 'his Aunt'; edited transcripts made by William Upcott alter this to 'Niece', then to 'Aunt' and again to 'Niece'. Mary Spencer is now assumed to have been Stubbs's common-law wife. Possibly either Stubbs or Mary Spencer had contracted an early, failed marriage which prevented a marriage of their own. Probably Mary Spencer was the mother of three of Stubbs's children, George (almost certainly the son later known as George Townly Stubbs), whose baptism on 26 February 1748 ns is recorded in the registers of St Helen's Church, York (information traced by David Alexander), Charles Edward, also born in York, and Mary, whose burial in Liverpool on 18 September 1759 is recorded in the registers of St Peter's, Liverpool; for both these children the father's name is entered as 'George Stubbs, Limner', but the mother's name is not recorded. Mary Spencer is named as the mother (and George Stubbs as the father) of Richard Stubbs, born in London on 16 August 1791, named as 'Richard Spencer Stubbs', and as a legatee in the first draft of Stubbs's will (1794), but not baptized until 18 November 1811, five years after his father's death (St Marylebone register of baptisms). A Robert Stubbs, apprenticed to the engraver William Austin in 1761, was described as 'Relat. of the celebrated Horse Painter' when he won a premium from the Society of Arts in 1766; but the nature of his relationship to George Stubbs remains unknown.

Probably in 1759 (exasperatingly, Humphry writes 'in 1758 1759 176–', Stubbs moved south to London, hoping to commission a professional engraver to etch his drawings of the anatomy of the horse for publication. Finding nobody willing to undertake such subject matter, he decided to etch the plates himself, although from 1759 he was inundated with commissions for paintings. 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). After six years they were ready for publication, with forty-seven pages of detailed letterpress, as a bound book. Its title-page reads: The anatomy of the horse. Including a particular description of the bones, cartilages, muscles. fascias, ligaments, nerves, arteries, veins, and glands. In eighteen tables, all done from nature. By George Stubbs, painter. London: Printed by J. Purser, for the author, 1766. The 'eighteen tables' or plates begin with views of the skeleton of the horse from the side, front, and back, followed by views from similar angles of different stages of dissection; many are accompanied by key plates.

Stubbs's title-page description of himself as 'George Stubbs, painter' stresses his purpose in undertaking his research. As a painter he wanted fully to understand what lay beneath a horse's skin, and how muscles and veins, schematized by earlier horse painters, actually functioned. When the Dutch anatomist Petrus Camper wrote in 1771 praising the book and hoping that Stubbs would proceed with further investigation into the horse's anatomy, Stubbs replied:

What you have seen is all I meant to do, it being as much as I thought necessary for the study of Painting … I looked very little into the internal parts of a Horse, my search there being only a matter of curiosity.

letter of 17 Oct 1771, Egerton, Stubbs, 1724–1806, 31

Making a reputation in the 1760s

In London Stubbs evidently showed his Anatomy of the Horse drawings to various noblemen who were keenly interested in breeding and racing horses. Most of them were quick to recognize that Stubbs's work had an accuracy (or ‘truthfulness to nature’) lacking in earlier horse painters such as James Seymour and John Wootton. The lead in commissioning Stubbs's work was taken by the third duke of Richmond, who in 1759 invited Stubbs to Goodwood to paint three large scenes: The Third Duke of Richmond and the Charlton Hunt, Henry Fox and the Earl of Albemarle Shooting at Goodwood, and The Duchess of Richmond and Lady Louisa Lennox Watching the Duke's Racehorses at Exercise, perhaps about 1760 (all three paintings remain at Goodwood House, Sussex).

Commissions rapidly followed from Viscount Spencer, Lord Grosvenor, the marquess of Rockingham, Viscount Bolingbroke, the dukes of Ancaster, Grafton, and Portland, and Viscount Torrington (probably in that order). Collectively their patronage helped to make Stubbs's name and to give him the confidence, in June 1763, to buy a leasehold property in London at 24 Somerset Street (adjoining the later Portman Square), his home for the rest of his life.

Stubbs's first works for such patrons were portraits of single horses with grooms or jockeys, such as A Stallion Called Romulus (priv. coll.), the first work Stubbs exhibited, in 1761. Other examples include Lustre (c.1760–62; Yale U. CBA, Paul Mellon collection), Molly Long Legs (1762; Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), and Tristram Shandy (exh. 1762; priv. coll.). Underlying these was the knowledge gained in the near-solitary years of dissecting and drawing the anatomy of the horse; but in painting horses from life Stubbs depicted them in natural settings of almost springlike freshness, in which trees, skies, broad-leaved plants, and flowers all play their part. Between 1762 and 1777 Stubbs devised ten variations on the theme Brood Mares and Foals. These subjects—brood mares which had perhaps already produced winners, and long-legged foals destined (with luck) for future successes—particularly appealed to breeders of thoroughbred horses, whether or not they depicted horses from their own stud farms.

The most eminent (and most discerning) of Stubbs's early patrons was the second marquess of Rockingham. Twice prime minister (in 1765 and 1782), Rockingham found private pleasure in his stud farms and strings of racehorses. Between 1762 and 1766 Stubbs painted about twelve pictures for him, ranging from a picture of his racehorse, Bay Malton Ridden [‘at Speed’] by John Singleton (priv. coll.), to a frieze-like portrait, Five Staghounds, seen against a hilly background (priv. coll.). Accounts survive for most of them (see Constantine). Three of Stubbs's paintings for RockinghamWhistlejacket, the magnificent near life-size portrait of a rearing stallion (National Gallery, London), Mares and Foals, probably the first of those subjects, paid for in August 1762, and Whistlejacket and Two Other Stallions with Simon Cobb the Groom (also of 1762; the latter two both priv. coll.)—break with convention in having only plain backgrounds. This was almost certainly Rockingham's decision. A collector of sculpture, he evidently perceived that the finest of Stubbs's paintings of his horses would be seen to best advantage, like his classical statues, against plain backgrounds.

Stubbs's talents blossomed during the 1760s, a decade described by Taylor as 'in scope and productiveness … the most fecund time of his life' (Taylor, Stubbs, 13). 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, and Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath, with a Trainer, Jockey and Stable-Lad (priv. coll.; version, Jockey Club, Newmarket), in which the squat shape of one of the brick rubbing-down houses at Newmarket confers a permanent sense of place upon the passing event of a win for Lord Bolingbroke's horse; that motif recurs in some of the finest of Stubbs's racehorse and jockey portraits, such as Turf (Yale U. CBA, Paul Mellon collection) and Gimcrack (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), both dating from about 1756. 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.

Exhibiting at the Society of Artists

From 1761 to 1774 Stubbs exhibited annually at the Society of Artists. Of the thirty-five or so works which he showed there, only about one-third (including five versions of Mares and Foals) were portraits of his patrons' well-bred horses. The range of his portraiture of people was demonstrated by the four Shooting paintings (exh. singly, 1767–70; Yale U. CBA, Paul Mellon collection) and by A Conversation (exh. 1770), almost certainly the group portrait now known as The Milbanke and Melbourne Families (National Gallery, London). He also showed a few classical subjects: two versions of Phaeton and the Horses of the Sun (exh. 1762; National Trust collection, Saltram House, Devon, and exh. 1764, untraced), and two episodes from the labours of Hercules, Hercules and Achelous (exh. 1770) and The Centaur, Nessus, and Dejanira (exh. 1772), both seemingly lost. But about half Stubbs's exhibits at the Society of Artists depicted encounters between wild animals.

The 'lion and horse' theme

From the early 1760s Stubbs was preoccupied with the idea of a wild horse, existing precariously in a state of nature, where it was the prey of a lion (See Taylor, George Stubbs: “The lion and horse theme”). Stubbs returned repeatedly to this theme, developing it into episodes: the horse first frightened at seeing the lion; recoiling in terror at the lion's approach; attacked by the lion springing onto his back; finally forced to the ground to be devoured by the lion.

Stubbs exhibited his first two paintings on this theme in 1763: A Horse and Lion (described by Horace Walpole as 'The horse rising up, greatly frightened' (Graves, Soc. Artists, 249) and Its Companion. If correctly identified as the pair now in the Tate collection (T1192 and T02058), then the second picture, which shows the horse forced to the ground before being devoured by the lion, virtually proves that Stubbs's initial inspiration for the whole theme was the pre-Hellenic sculpture of a lion devouring a horse which he could have seen in the Palazzo dei Conservatori on his visit to Rome in 1754. Conceivably, Stubbs's later insistence to Humphry that he copied nothing while he was in Rome relates only to painted works. Later 'lion and horse' paintings include Horse Attacked by a Lion (c.1765; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne), White Horse Frightened by a Lion (1770; Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), and White Horse Attacked by a Lion (1770; Yale U. CBA). He also depicted the subject in enamel and in his own prints.

Stubbs painted (and exhibited) other imaginary encounters between wild animals; these encounters were usually savage, such as that in the Lion and Stag (several versions, the finest exh. 1766; priv. coll.), but sometimes peaceable, such as that in the Lion and Lioness (one of several versions is in the collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts). Such subjects appealed to few of Stubbs's Newmarket-oriented patrons; but the marquess of Rockingham commissioned two vast paintings, Horse Attacked by a Lion (paid for in 1762) and Lion Attacking a Stag (c.1764?), which hung in his London house (both now Yale U. CBA, Paul Mellon collection). James Barry, writing about 1764, described Stubbs's wild animal subjects as 'pictures that must rouse and agitate the most inattentive: he is now painting a lion panting and out of breath lying with his paws over a stag he has run down: it is inimitable' (Works of James Barry, 1.23). Most people would have known these and other subjects in the form of engravings after Stubbs, which were produced in steadily increasing numbers, from fourteen in 1770 to some sixty by 1780 to ninety or so by 1791 (see Lennox-Boyd, Dixon, and Clayton, especially 22–3).

Stubbs portrayed many specific wild animals. Barry's description of his 'tyger lying in his den large as life, appearing as it were disturbed and listening' (Works of James Barry, 1.23) is of A Tigress (priv. coll.), a creature presented by Lord Clive, governor of Bengal, to the duke of Marlborough, and painted by Stubbs in the menagerie in Blenheim Park. Cheetah with Two Indian Attendants and a Stag (exh. 1765; City of Manchester Art Galleries) is a superbly painted image of the abortive encounter staged in Windsor Great Park between a cheetah presented to George III and a stag (from which the cheetah fled).

Because of his accuracy Stubbs was frequently asked to portray newly imported animals. His Zebra depicted the first zebra seen in England; presented to Queen Charlotte in 1762, it was installed in the royal menagerie at Buckingham Gate, where Stubbs took its likeness with an exact eye for conformation and markings (Yale U. CBA, Paul Mellon collection). For Sir Joseph Banks he painted (from a stuffed skin) The Kongouro from New Holland, 1770 (priv. coll.), and also the Dingo. He undertook various commissions for William and John Hunter (brothers, surgeons, anatomists, and picture collectors). For William Hunter he painted the Nylghau from India (c.1769), the Moose presented to the duke of Richmond by the governor-general of Canada (dated 1770), and the Blackbuck (c.1770–78; all Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow). When lecturing on the nylghau to the Royal Society, William Hunter had Stubbs's painting beside him, remarking that 'Whoever looks at the picture … can never be at a loss to know the nyl-ghau, wherever he may happen to meet with it' (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 61, 1771, 21). For John Hunter Stubbs painted the Male Drill and Albino Male Papio Hamadryas (c.1770–75), the Yak (1791), and Rhinoceros (c.1790–92; all Royal College of Surgeons, Hunterian Museum, Glasgow; version of Yak, priv. coll.). To such acute observations should be added the lithe but almost palpably nervous Monkey (exh. 1775; priv. coll.). Stubbs's interest in animals however small is evident in three meticulous pencil drawings of Marmaduke Tunstall's Mouse Lemur (1773; BM).

Relationship with the Royal Academy

In the Society of Artists, to which he was elected in 1765, Stubbs had served as a director (1765–74), treasurer (1768–72), and president (October 1772 – October 1773); but in 1775 he (like others before him) left the declining society to exhibit with the more prestigious Royal Academy, founded in 1768. He exhibited at the Royal Academy (irregularly) until 1803; but his relationship with the academy soured early. Having been elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1780, on 13 February 1781 he was provisionally elected a Royal Academician, with the usual condition (stipulated in the academy's instrument of foundation) that an RA-elect must deposit a diploma work before receiving the diploma entitling him to the status of Royal Academician. Stubbs refused to deposit a work, alleging that the request for it was a ‘new rule’ aimed specifically against him. He seems not to have consulted Royal Academicians who had complied with the rule, such as his friend Richard Cosway (RA 1770) or Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg, voted RA-elect on the same day as himself. Instead, Stubbs formed 'an unconquerable resolution' not to deposit a picture. Given over a year to comply with the rule, he still refused to do so; consequently, his provisional election as a Royal Academician was annulled, and never repeated.

In the late 1760s Stubbs began to experiment with enamel painting, an art practised by his day only by miniaturists and decorators of small objects. His chief purpose appears to have been to re-create key images in his work in the unchanging, virtually indestructible form of enamel. Preparing enamel paints involves grinding particles of colourless glass with selected metallic oxides; in the heat of a furnace the glass fuses with and gains colour from the oxides. Humphry relates that Stubbs spent 'near two years with great expense' experimenting with chemical compounds 'of the Colour they were required to be when the pictures were fired'. The resulting paints could be brushed onto solid, non-inflammable supports which carried the work through a furnace to be fired. From about 1769 to 1775 Stubbs used copper supports.

The first enamel Stubbs exhibited was Lion Attacking a Horse, on copper, dated 1769 (exh. 1770; Tate collection); technically faultless, it concentrated all the drama of the subject into the small octagonal space of 24.3 × 28.2 cm. Others followed, including Horse and Lion, dated 1770 (priv. coll.), exhibited in 1771 with Lion and Lioness (Yale U. CBA). This stage culminated with Stubbs's largest enamel painting in copper, the oval Phaeton and the Horses of the Sun (38.5 × 46 cm), dated 1775 (priv. coll.), with which Stubbs posed for Ozias Humphry's portrait of about 1777 (watercolour, NPG).

Wanting larger supports for his enamels, Stubbs approached the manufacturers of ceramics. Mrs Coade's Artificial Stone Manufactory could not help, but Josiah Wedgwood, after much experiment, developed a special earthenware body which could sustain a thin, flat shape in firing. By May 1779 Wedgwood was supplying Stubbs with large oval ceramic tablets, about 72.5 × 94.5 cm, later increasing the size to about 77 × 105 cm (see Emmerson). Seventeen paintings by Stubbs on Wedgwood tablets are known, mostly fired in Wedgwood's enamel kiln at Greek Street, Soho, London. They include portraits of Josiah Wedgwood and his wife, Sarah Wedgwood (Wedgwood Museum, Barlaston, Staffordshire), each dated 1780, painted in part payment for Wedgwood's tablets.

For the first five years after Stubbs's transfer to the Royal Academy, his exhibits had all been oils. In 1781 he exhibited Two Horses in Enamel (now known as 'Horses Fighting'; Yale U. CBA, Paul Mellon collection) on a large oval Wedgwood tablet. In the following year five of his seven exhibits at the Royal Academy were in enamel on similar tablets, including Portrait of an Artist (a self-portrait with brush and palette, NPG), Portrait of a young lady [Isabella Saltonstall] in the character of Una, from Spenser's ‘Faerie queen’ (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), and The Farmer's Wife and the Raven (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight).

To most Royal Academicians Stubbs's enamels were an unwelcome intrusion into the display of oil paintings, from which they differed in tone, texture, and shape; nor did they resemble the small jewel-like work allowable in the exhibited work of professional enamellists. In the hang of 1782 Stubbs's enamels were skied. Indignant, Stubbs showed nothing whatever at the Royal Academy for the next three years. He continued occasionally to work in enamel, as in Self Portrait on a White Hunter (1782) and Equestrian Portrait of Warren Hastings (1791) (each priv. coll.), and the harvesting scenes of 1794–5 which are among his greatest achievements in enamel (see below). He exhibited again at the Royal Academy from 1786 to 1791 and, after a gap of eight years, from 1799 to 1803; but he sent no more works in enamel to the academy.

Though absorbing a great deal of his time, Stubbs's enamel paintings constitute only a small part of his output. Most of his work continued to be in oil, but whereas he had formerly applied oil paint to canvas quite thickly and crisply, after 1769 the experience of painting in enamel on smooth, hard supports inclined him often to paint on wooden panels; and when doing so, he continually experimented by mixing his oils with pine resin, beeswax, non-drying oils, and fats, producing a very thin paint film. While many of his panels have survived in good condition, others have suffered from past restorers' incomprehension of Stubbs's experimental and sometimes faulty techniques (see Shepherd, in Egerton, Stubbs, 1724–1806, 20–21).

Work of the 1770s and 1780s

Few of Stubbs's first noble patrons continued to commission his work, apart from Earl Spencer and Lord Grosvenor, for each of whom he worked in the 1770s. But new patrons appeared, including gentlemen in the shires who wanted portraits of their hunters and hacks. For John Musters of Colwick Hall, Nottinghamshire, Stubbs painted a notable group of subjects in 1776–7, including John and Sophia Musters Riding at Colwick Hall and Thomas Smith, Huntsman of the Brocklesby Hounds, depicted with his elderly father, the former huntsman (both priv. coll.). For Thomas Foley, Charles James Fox's racing associate, he painted Pumpkin with a Stable-Lad (1774; Yale U. CBA, Paul Mellon collection), with the same freshness of observation as anything he had painted in the 1760s. Revisiting Lincolnshire in 1776, Stubbs painted Sir John Nelthorpe Shooting with his Pointers in Barton Field (priv. coll.), and for some unknown patron he painted the exquisite Phaeton with a Pair of Cream Ponies in Charge of a Stable-Lad (c.1780–85; Yale U. CBA, Paul Mellon collection).

Single portraits of dogs (and a few hounds) enter Stubbs's repertory in the early 1770s, proving popular enough to inspire many commissions. Two of the four paintings with which Stubbs made his début at the Royal Academy in 1775 were portraits of dogs: A Spanish Dog, Belonging to Mr Cosway (referring to Richard Cosway RA; priv. coll.), and Earl Spencer's Mouton, a ‘Pomeranian’ Dog (priv. coll.). Most of his later dog portraits were exhibited merely as Portrait of a Dog, making it difficult to know whether some of Stubbs's most endearing dog portraits, such as White Poodle in a Punt (National Gallery of Art, Washington, Paul Mellon Bequest) or King Charles Spaniel (priv. coll.) were exhibited. Stubbs's dog portraits are closely observed, sometimes more light-heartedly than his horse portraits; but what chiefly distinguishes them is Stubbs's sense of design. In almost every case the compact build of the dog (compared with that of long-legged horses) allows the body of the subject to occupy most of the pictorial space. Two portraits of foxhounds painted on a return visit to Lincolnshire in 1792 show Stubbs's powers of design at their finest: these are Ringwood, a Brocklesby Foxhound (priv. coll.) and A Couple of Foxhounds (Tate collection).

Haymakers and Reapers, 1785

In 1786 Stubbs marked his return to the Royal Academy (after the fracas over his enamel exhibits) by showing Haymakers and Reapers (both Tate collection). In oil on panel, each dated 1785, they are among his most lyrical works. The subject matter is hardly original; their distinction lies rather in the rhythmic designs—perfected from versions of 1783 (Bearsted collection, Upton House, Bearsted, Warwickshire)—by which Stubbs graces his subjects without falsifying their naturalism. Stubbs sent Haymakers and Reapers to the 1787 exhibition of the Society for Promoting Painting and Design in Liverpool. His personal vote of confidence in his subjects was to translate them into enamel. In 1794–5 he re-created Haymakers and Reapers in enamel, on the largest of all his Wedgwood tablets. The enamel of Reapers, dated 1795, is in the collection of the Yale Center for British Art. Haymakers, dated 1795, and a related subject, Haymaking, dated 1794, are both in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight.

Stubbs as a printmaker

In printed Proposals issued on 24 September 1788, Stubbs invited subscriptions for engravings of Haymakers and Reapers (duly published in 1791). In small print at the foot of his Proposals he briefly listed fifteen prints which 'may also be had' at his house (evidently they were not for sale in printsellers' shops). The earliest of these are two quite large line engravings, A Horse Frightened by a Lion and Leopards at Play, dated 1777 and 1780 respectively. These (and later prints such as Labourers and The Farmer's Wife and the Raven) echo the imagery of subjects already painted; yet they are not reproductive engravings, but re-creations of those subjects, in different moods. A group of prints with the publication line 1 May 1788 may well have been made over the previous decade, before Stubbs was ready to launch his engraved work. Three small engravings of single foxhounds, each of which appears as a detail in the large Charlton Hunt painting of 1759, are probably derived from pencil studies preserved in Stubbs's studio. Stubbs continually experimented with engraving techniques; Godfrey observes that 'He gives the impression of an artist stooped over a copper plate with a small battery of tools beside him, the function of each being diverted to original and unexpected use as it came to hand' (Godfrey, George Stubbs, 115). Altogether Stubbs made eighteen prints (The Death of the Doe, published in 1804, may be largely G. T. Stubbs's work). 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.

Commissions in the 1790s

George III had shown no interest in Stubbs's work, but the prince of Wales commissioned fifteen works between 1790 and 1793 (one now lost; the others remain in the Royal Collection). Stubbs's portrait of the prince riding in Hyde Park is dated 1791. Outstanding in this group are The Prince of Wales's Phaeton, Soldiers of the 10th Light Dragoons, and William Anderson with Two Saddle-Horses, each dated 1793 and each painted with the same brilliance of invention he had shown in the 1760s. Piecemeal payments were still being made for the group in 1805.

In 1790 Stubbs became involved with a project to publish a Review of the Turf from the Year 1750 to the Completion of the Work. It was planned that Stubbs would paint at least 145 portraits of racehorses: George Townly Stubbs would engrave them, and the engravings would be published, with letterpress, in forty-five numbers. By January 1794 Stubbs had completed sixteen paintings (some of them replicas of earlier works); these were displayed in the so-called Turf Gallery in Conduit Street, London, where subscriptions for the Review were invited. George Townly Stubbs completed fourteen engravings. Only two numbers of the Review were published before the project failed at the end of 1794. For Stubbs this meant the loss of years of promised income; reputedly, £9000 had been deposited in a bank for him to draw on as he progressed with the work. The initiator of the project requested anonymity, and remains unidentified.

At the age of seventy-six Stubbs produced two of his greatest and most meditative works. Each is dated 1800, and each was painted for a new patron. Sir Henry Vane-Tempest, second baronet, wanted a portrait of his racehorse Hambletonian to commemorate his recent win at Newmarket. On one of the largest canvases he had ever painted, Stubbs set down a monumental image of the exhausted racehorse. With a rubbing-down house at Newmarket just sufficiently visible to establish a sense of place, Hambletonian is rubbed down by a stable-lad, while an impassive trainer at his head holds his reins. Stubbs had to sue Vane-Tempest (successfully) for payment of 300 guineas for the picture. Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1800 as Hambletonian, Rubbing Down, it is now in the collection of Mount Stewart, co. Down, Northern Ireland.

Thomas Villiers, second earl of Clarendon, of The Grove, Watford, was the last patron to commission Stubbs's work in quantity (perhaps ten varied subjects, including racehorses, spaniels, and an Indian bull). One painting in this group is mysteriously elevated from the rest by its mood of grave, almost elegiac poetry: set in a darkening wood, it depicts Freeman, the earl of Clarendon's gamekeeper, with a dying doe and a hound. Stubbs exhibited it at the Royal Academy in 1801, with the title A Park Scene at The Grove (Yale U. CBA, Paul Mellon collection).

A Comparative Anatomical Exposition

Stubbs's last project, begun at the age of seventy-one in 1795, was A comparative anatomical exposition of the structure of the human body with that of a tiger and a common fowl. Humphry observed in July 1796 that 'at 72 Stubbs is forming Plans with as much resolution as might be expected at 40' (Farington, Diary, 2.597). A ‘common fowl’ was easily obtained, and Pidcock's menagerie supplied the body of a tiger; but procuring a human cadaver was more difficult. Here Stubbs may have had help from Henry Cline, one of his occasional visitors and an anatomy lecturer at St Thomas's Hospital, which could legitimately receive the bodies of executed criminals for dissection.

Stubbs made 125 drawings for his Comparative Anatomical Exposition (Yale U. CBA). Some are highly finished, others mere tracings for working purposes. As with The Anatomy of the Horse, Stubbs did not probe deeper than the musculo-skeletal system. Chiefly he was engaged in comparing the structure of his three subjects. He demonstrated this compellingly in finished profile drawings of the man, tiger, and fowl, standing and running, partly dissected and in skeletal form. The value of his work lies chiefly in his ability to draw what he saw, with accuracy and detachment, demonstrating 'a superbly coordinated empirical hand and eye flourishing at the end of a rational era' (Ober, 992). Between 1804 and 1806 Stubbs engraved and published three numbers of the Comparative Anatomical Exposition, each with five plates (and a separately issued letterpress). He had hoped to publish six numbers.

Stubbs had seemed ageless and tireless; but in January 1804 George Dance, who had drawn a profile pencil portrait of him in 1794 (RA), was shocked to observe the change in Stubbs's appearance: 'so aged—so in-jawed and shrunk in his person' (Farington, Diary, 6.2225). Stubbs died on 10 July 1806 at his home, 24 Somerset Street, London. He was buried in St Marylebone on 18 July. Farington heard 'that when Stubbs died there was no money in the house', that 'His House was mortgaged to a Lady a friend of his', and that 'He owed Her money besides' (ibid., 6 June 1807, 3060). The 'Lady', an entirely well-meaning benefactor, was Isabella Saltonstall (b. 1765/6), whom Stubbs had portrayed as a child with her parents in a Conversation Piece dated 1769 (priv. coll.), and later as Una, from Spenser's ‘Faerie Queene’ (mentioned above). Stubbs had made a will in 1794, leaving his property to Mary Spencer, George Townly Stubbs, and Richard Spencer Stubbs. On the day of his death he made a new will, leaving everything to Mary Spencer and appointing Mary Spencer and Isabella Saltonstall joint executors. By then suffering 'violent spasms', he was unable to sign it, but after attestations by witnesses, it was accepted for probate.

The sale of the contents of Stubbs's studio was conducted by Peter Coxe on 26–7 May 1807. No fully annotated copy of the sale catalogue has been traced; but evidently many lots were bought in by Isabella Saltonstall. As Farington reported, she

had advanced to Stubbs a considerable Sum of money and Had a Bond of Security which gave Her a claim to His pictures &c. These were sold the last week & the prices were kept up by Her agents & many articles were bought in. It is understood that after Her debt is paid there will be little left.

Farington, Diary, 8.3056, 3 June 1807

The eventual fate of most of the works acquired for Isabella Saltonstall remains a mystery. In particular, many sketchbooks and preliminary drawings which might have offered insights into Stubbs's working methods have disappeared. There are other serious gaps in documentation of Stubbs's work. A methodical man, he is likely to have kept accounts and ‘sitters' books’ for his varied subjects; and Humphry mentions that he kept memoranda of his experiments with enamels. All these have vanished. But what will survive is the work itself which, in the words of E. K. Waterhouse, embraces not only paintings of horses, but 'man, the whole animal kingdom, and nature' (Waterhouse, 207).

Sources

  • O. Humphry, ‘Memoir, or, Particulars of the life of Mr Stubbs’, Liverpool Central Library, Picton Collection [with two edited MS transcripts made by William Upcott]; Upcott's 2nd transcript, with notes added by Mary Spencer, published inN. Hall, ed., Fearful symmetry: George Stubbs, painter of the English Enlightenment (2000) [exhibition catalogue, Hall and Knight, New York]Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

  • B. Taylor, Stubbs (1971)
  • B. Taylor, ‘George Stubbs: “The lion and horse theme”’, Burlington Magazine, 107 (1965), 81–6
  • B. Taylor, The prints of George Stubbs (1969)
  • B. Tattershall, Stubbs and Wedgwood (1974) [exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London; incl. intro. by B. Taylor]
  • B. Taylor, Stubbs in the 1760s (1970) [exhibition catalogue, Agnews, London]
  • J. Egerton, George Stubbs, 1724–1806 (1984) [exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London, and New Haven, Connecticut]
  • J. Egerton, George Stubbs: anatomist and animal painter (1976) [exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London]
  • R. Emmerson, ‘Stubbs and Wedgwood; new evidence from the oven books’, Apollo, 150 (Aug 1999), 50–55
  • C. Lennox-Boyd, R. Dixon, and T. Clayton, George Stubbs: the complete engraved works (1989)
  • H. F. Constantine, ‘Lord Rockingham and Stubbs: some new documents’, Burlington Magazine, 95 (1953), 236–8
  • W. Gilbey, Life of George Stubbs R.A. (1898)
  • R. B. Fountain, Some speculations on the private life of George Stubbs, 1724–1806 (1984)
  • J. Ingamells, ed., A dictionary of British and Irish travellers in Italy, 1701–1800 (1997)
  • will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/1447, fol. 37rv
  • R. T. Godfrey, Printmaking in Britain: a general history from its beginnings to the present day (1978)
  • The works of James Barry, 2 vols. (1809)
  • T. Godfrey, ‘George Stubbs as a printmaker’, Print Collector's Newsletter, 13/4 (Sept–Oct 1982), 113–16
  • W. B. Ober, ‘George Stubbs: mirror up to nature’, New York State Journal of Medicine, 70/8 (April 1970), 985–92

Likenesses

  • O. Humphry, portrait study, chalk, 1777, Trustees of the Right Hon. Olive, Countess Fitzwilliam's Settlement
  • G. Stubbs, self-portrait, enamel on china tablet, 1781, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight
  • G. Stubbs, self-portrait, enamel on Wedgwood plaque, 1781, NPG [see illus.]
  • G. Dance, pencil and chalk drawing, 1794, RA
  • Bretherton, etching (after T. Orde), BM, NPG
  • O. Humphry, pastels, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool
  • O. Humphry, watercolour, NPG
  • G. Stubbs, self-portrait, plumbago, Yale U. CBA

Wealth at Death

believed to be small

National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
A. Graves, (1907); facs. edn (1969)
British Museum, London
Yale University, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut
Royal Academy of Arts, London
National Portrait Gallery, London