Thomas Villiers, 2nd Earl of Clarendon (1753-1824) was an important patron of Stubbs during the last years of the artist's life, giving him at least ten commissions between 1800 and 1803. In a notice of Ben Marshall in September 1826, the Sporting Magazine (p.319) compared Lord Sondes's hospitality to Marshall to 'that given to Gilpin by the late Mr. Whitbread, and by the late Lord Clarendon to Stubbs'. Clarendon's pictures were later dispersed by sale at Christie's on 13 February 1920. Clarendon, who was a Member of Parliament (1774-86) before he succeeded to the earldom, lived at the Grove, near Watford, in Hertfordshire. His only recorded speech in the House of Commons was on 18 November 1777, and Walpole commented that he spoke 'very poorly'. A keen sportsman, he kept both staghounds and fox-hounds and was a founder member of the Hertfordshire Hunt. Clarendon also kept a herd of deer which usually numbered three hundred and fifty to four hundred, as well as a stud farm where he bred fine bulls. Among Clarendon's commissions from Stubbs were paintings of imported animals such as Indian Bulls, a moose, and a bison of the kind which he hoped to be able naturalise in England.
This picture shows Clarendon's gamekeeper Thomas Freeman, who had been appointed at The Grove in 1772, about to administer the coup de grace to a wounded doe with his knife. Freeman's gun, with which he has shot the animal, balances carefully on his hat lying on the grass beyond him, an obedient stag hound stands at his side. The prime version of this composition, which is dated 1800 and was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1801, is considered among Stubbs' finest late works (Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection; J. Egerton, op.cit., no. 335). The present canvas is signed and dated '1803'. Stubbs was seventy-six when he painted the Mellon picture and was to live only three more years after the present version was complete. Ozias Humphry (1742-1810) recorded a visit to Stubbs on 31 August 1803, just after Stubbs' seventy-ninth birthday and mentioned that Stubbs 'still enjoys so much strength & Health that he says within the last Month having miss'd the stage, he has walked two or three times from his own House to the Earl of Clarendon's, at the Grove near Wateford Heath, a distance of Sixteen miles carrying with him a little Trunk in his hand!'
In her catalogue entry for the Mellon picture Judy Egerton (op.cit.) commented:
'not surprisingly an elegiac note has been detected in its grave poetry. The living and the dying animals are robustly juxtaposed. In marking down the dying animal, the stag hound had done one of the tasks it was trained to do, and no more; it makes no attempt to savage the doe. Freeman will give the coup de grace as painlessly as he can. Light is dying in the wood, and the doe will die before it goes'.
The present picture is signed by Stubbs, in his usual manner, however Egerton (op.cit.) believes that while it was begun by Stubbs, that it was completed by his son and assistant George Townly Stubbs (1745-1815) so that he could engrave the subject. She detects the involvement of George Townly Stubbs in passages such as the keeper's face, in which she thinks the expression is misunderstood, and the handling of the foliage of 'the dark, enclosing trees'.
George Townly Stubbs's engraving of the subject was published on 16 October 1804 and was republished by Edward Orme in 1817 as The Death of the Doe (J. Egerton, George Stubbs, 1724-1806, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London, 1984, no. 190). As Egerton herself makes clear, however, the authorship of the engraving itself is not entirely free of controversy as it is signed 'G. Stubbs, No. 24 Somerset Str. Portman Square ...', which was George Stubbs' address. Egerton believes that the address should be understood as the point of publication of the print rather than as evidence that the print itself is by George Stubbs. In defence of this position, she also notes that the technique of the engraving is 'harder than that of George Stubbs'; that the 'portrait of Freeman lacks the understanding of his portrait in oil of 1800'; that the print was not included in any of the three itemised sets of seventeen of Stubbs's own prints in his studio sale; that George Stubbs engraved all of his prints in reverse, unlike the engraving of this composition; and that Stubbs engraved all his own prints 'Geo: Stubbs' rather than 'G. Stubbs'.
The picture is first recorded in the collection of Henry Reay of Newcastle-on-Tyne. It was later in the collection of Henry Plumer McIlkenny of Philadelphia, who had acquired Glenveagh Castle, near Churchill, Co. Donegal, in 1937, which he was to give to the Irish nation in 1981.
Henry McIlhenny's distinguished career at the Philadelphia Museum of Art spanned over five decades where he served first as Curator of Decorative Arts (1935-1964), then as Trustee, and ultimately, as Chairman of the Board. His scholarly acumen and astute eye enabled him to assemble a magnificent collection of fine and decorative arts at his home in Rittenhouse Square and his castle at Glenveagh, Country Donegal. Rittenhouse Square displayed what John Richardson called 'the best private collection of its kind in the country' of French paintings from the Romantics to Post-Impressionism. The home was decorated by Denning and Fourcade in the early 1970s. Much of his collection of fine and decorative arts were bequeathed to the Philadelphia Museum upon his death.