This charming painting is an extremely fine and beautifully-preserved example of the type of commission that Stubbs received from wealthy, landed patrons during the 1770s. Stubbs had spent the early part of his career in intense and focused study of anatomy, beginning with his drawn and engraved illustrations for Dr. John Burton’s An Essay towards a Complete New System of Midwifery in York in 1751. His most famous and important anatomical project, however, was produced between 1756 and 1758 at Horkstow, a hamlet near Hull in North Lincolnshire. The artist, assisted by his common-law wife Mary Spencer, set about a systematic observation of the musculature and skeleton of the horse, producing over forty beautifully observed studies of his subject, which he would later publish as engravings. His resulting Anatomy of the Horse broke new ground, both scientifically and artistically.
As the pre-eminent sporting artist working in Britain, Stubbs’s works were immensely popular. With the prestigious, aristocratic commissions he had received during the 1760s, the following decades saw a rapid increase in commissions from the landed gentry, for whom his portraits of horses, dogs and the patrons themselves, provided: 'a calm evocation of the life of a well-heeled country gentleman’. Signed and dated 1777, the present painting is a perfect example of the work that made Stubbs so sought after. The picture is likely to have been painted during the artist’s trip to Nottinghamshire where he worked on a number of commissions for the High Sheriff of the county, John Musters and his wife Sophia (Egerton, op. cit., nos. 187-192). Stubbs depicted the couple on horseback riding before the new south front of their home, Colwick Hall, as well as producing individual portraits of two of Mrs Muster’s spaniels and a painting of one of Muster’s hunters standing in a landscape, also dated 1777 and of an almost identical size to the present painting. Charles Vere Dashwood, the patron of this painting, lived nearby at Stanford Hall, which he had inherited from his father, Robert Dashwood, in 1757. Dashwood rebuilt the house between 1771 and 1774, landscaping the grounds in a fashionable parkland style and later succeeded his neighbour, Musters, as High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire.
The English fondness for horses was so extensive that it became a matter of remark for foreign visitors during the last quarter of the eighteenth century, with writers like François, duc de la Rochefoucauld (1747-1827) commenting in 1784 that: ‘the extraordinary affection for the horse [was]…a passion which is common to the whole country’ (cited in ibid. p. 59). With this passion for horses came a desire for reliable mounts: a ‘quiet and gentle’ horse was favoured over one of exceptional pedigree and high-breeding. It was these horses that patrons often requested be painted by Stubbs in the later decades of the century.
In the present work, a bay hunter stands just off centre while two spaniels play in the foreground. The animals are placed before a landscape that dips to reveal a valley beyond, with a winding river and distant farmlands. It is conceivable that the landscape may show the Dashwood estate at Stanford. Stubbs demonstrates not only his talent in depicting anatomical detail, but also his skill in capturing the character of his animal subjects. The bounding spaniels are particularly charming, their fur masterfully articulated with rapid strokes of white and grey paint, and their playful attitudes later forming the basis for the artist’s portrait of the Duke of Rutland’s dogs, Turk and Crab (The 9th Duke of Rutland’s Will Trust, Trustees).
Stubbs increasingly favoured panel as a support for his paintings during the 1770s, when his techniques and working methods began to become more experimental in medium and execution. Inspired by the smooth surfaces that he had employed while painting on enamel and earthenware (in collaboration with Josiah Wedgewood), Stubbs’s choice of panel appears to have been aimed at replicating this smooth, hard surface on a larger scale. After firmly establishing his reputation in the preceding decade, the 1770s saw the painter making use of progressively more unusual materials and mediums, using very thin glazes of paint diluted with beeswax, pine resins and non-drying oils. Stubbs used varying amounts of these additives across his panels, producing mixed results, but his unusual practices have generally led to fragile and delicate paint surfaces that have historically been subject to significant deterioration. Dating from the period of Stubbs’s most intensely experimental phase, this painting survives in remarkably good condition, thus making it a significant and important example of the artist’s panel paintings that allows for a comprehensive appreciation of his remarkable talent.