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Mares and Foals in an extensive landscape

Mares and Foals in an extensive landscape
signed ‘Geo: Stubbs’ (lower right)
oil on canvas
72 5/8 x 107 7/8 in. (184.5 x 274 cm.)
Probably Augustus FitzRoy, 3rd Duke of Grafton (1735-1811), Euston Hall, Suffolk, presumably by whom given to his daughter,
Lady Georgiana FitzRoy (1757-1799), who married, on 4 June 1778, The Rt. Hon. John Smyth (1748-1811), M.P., of Heath Hall, Wakefield, and presumably by descent to their son,
[Although possibly commissioned by John Smyth, and by descent to his son,]
Lt.-Col. George Smyth (1782-1853), who married, in 1811, Sarah Wilson (d. 1831), daughter of Daniel Wilson (1680-1754), M.P., of Dallam Tower, Milnthorpe, Westmorland, and by descent at Dallam to,
Sir Maurice Bromley-Wilson, Bt. (1875-1957), Dallam Tower, Milnthorpe, Westmorland, and by inheritance to his nephew,
Brigadier C.E. Tryon-Wilson (1909-2001), Dallam Tower, Milnthorpe, Westmorland.
with Ackermann, London.
Mr. and Mrs. Jack R. Dick, Connecticut; their sale, Sotheby’s, London, 28 April 1976, lot 187, when acquired by the following,
Private collection, Illinois, and by descent to the present owners.
B. Taylor, Stubbs in the 1760s, exhibition catalogue, London, 1970, Supplementary Exhibit D.
C-A. Parker, Mr Stubbs The Horse Painter, London, 1971, p. 57, illustrated.
B. Taylor, Stubbs, Chichester and Ipswich, rev. ed., 1975, p. 207, no. 25, pl. 25.
W. Gaunt, Stubbs, Oxford, 1977, pp. 6 and 15, pl. 18.
J. Egerton, George Stubbs 1724-1806, exhibition catalogue, London, 1985, pp. 125 and 128, under no. 90.
M. Warner, Stubbs & the Horse, exhibition catalogue, Fort Worth, 2004-2005, p. 194, under no. 57.
J. Egerton, George Stubbs, Painter: Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 2007, pp. 260-1, no. 90, illustrated.
Preston, Harris Museum and Art Gallery, British Sporting Paintings, 4 October-30 October 1943, no. 112 (lent by Sir Maurice Bromley-Wilson, Bt., Dallam Tower).
Manchester, City of Manchester Art Gallery, Works of Art from Private Collections in the North West of England and North Wales, 21 September-30 October 1960, no. 108 (lent by Brigadier C.E. Tryon Wilson).

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Maja Markovic Director, Head of Evening Sale

Lot Essay

This monumental canvas is George Stubbs's grandest statement on the theme of Mares and Foals, the series of paintings executed during the 1760s, which arguably stand as the artist's crowning achievement and helped cement his reputation as the greatest equine painter in the history of European art.

Dated to circa 1769, the picture is one of the largest Stubbs painted and one of the last on this scale of any subject to remain in private hands. It was probably painted for Augustus FitzRoy, 3rd Duke of Grafton (1735-1811), who served as Prime Minister of Britain from 1768-70 and was part of a closely-connected nexus of Whig statesmen that provided Stubbs with his most important patronage during this career-defining period.

In this picture, the last of Stubbs’s grand-scale Mares and Foals set pieces, the artist shows a group of five horses seeking shelter beneath the over-hanging branches of an oak tree. Stubbs achieves a beautifully balanced composition through the arrangement of his subjects; the three mares and two foals are placed so as to form a cone, with the rumps of the outer mares flanking the central group marking the perimeter, while the branches above form a natural apex. Behind the protagonists, a partly visible rocky outcrop enveloped in dark rain clouds gives way to a stretch of open landscape bathed in broken sunlight. With the absence of attending grooms, owners and even other animals, the picture is imbued with the calm and lyrical quality that defined his Mares and Foals series which, as Judy Egerton observed, are ‘perhaps the best-known and best-loved aspects of his work’ (George Stubbs (1724-1806), exhibition catalogue, London, 1984, p. 125). By working on an altogether more imposing scale than that used for earlier renditions on this theme, Stubbs brings a heightened nobility to his subjects, none more so than the large grey Arabian mare on the far right of the group, theatrically lit against the brooding sky.

Basil Taylor, the scholar who along with Judy Egerton, did more than any other to re-establish Stubbs’s reputation in the twentieth century, observed that, by 1760, the artist was ‘ready with an abundance of pictorial ideas; in scope and productiveness this was the most fecund period of his life.’ That decade bore witness to the range and originality of his work, ‘the undeniable fact established by the pictorial evidence that he was the most versatile and exploratory painter of the time.’ Indeed, it was during these years that Stubbs painted his sublime Whistlejacket for Lord Rockingham (c. 1762; London, National Gallery) and Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath, another outstanding masterpiece from the period, painted for Lord Bolingbroke in circa 1765 (Christie’s, London, 5 July 2011, lot 12).

Soon after his arrival in London in 1758 or the following year, Stubbs (fig. 1) quickly came to the attention of Joshua Reynolds, the painter then emerging as the leading portraitist of his day. It was almost certainly through Reynolds that Stubbs was introduced to a circle of noblemen with a shared passion for horse racing, many of whom belonged to the recently founded Jockey Club and Brooks's, the London club so central to the formation of the Whig political party. In Stubbs, they found an artist who was able to visually capture their passion for breeding racehorses in grand-scale compositions, works that quickly revolutionised sporting painting in England, a genre until then dominated by artists such as James Seymour (1702-1752) and John Wootton (1686-1764). Indeed, the latter had received key commissions from the antecedents of those who would become Stubbs's most important patrons. Augustus Henry FitzRoy, 3rd Duke of Grafton (fig. 2), who had sat to Reynolds in 1759 and for whom this picture was likely painted, was one of the first of these young Whig politicians to order work from Stubbs.

This must have taken place soon after Grafton's first cousin once removed, Charles Lennox, 3rd Duke of Richmond, whose portrait Reynolds had painted the previous year, commissioned Stubbs to paint three large canvases for his country house at Goodwood in Sussex (Egerton, op. cit., nos. 11, 15 and 16). It was while Stubbs was engaged with this project for Richmond – one that did much for furthering the artist’s career – that he received his first commission from Grafton: the small picture of a chestnut horse named Patch, a work executed in 1759 at Goodwood and considered by Egerton to be one of the first the artist painted after his move to London (ibid., no. 9). Stubbs was quickly taken up by other associates of the two dukes, including Frederick St. John, 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke, who commissioned the first of the artist's Mares and Foals in circa 1761-2, which shows six horses in what is presumably the park at Lydiard Tregoze, his house in Wiltshire (ibid., no. 17).

Bolingbroke's canvas must have been seen and admired by others within this Whig circle and thus followed, over the course of the decade, the most celebrated series of equine pictures from the golden age of British painting: Lord Rockingham, whose great house Wentworth Woodhouse was on an altogether different scale to Lydiard, ordered a frieze of seven horses, which was paid for in 1762 (Private collection; ibid., no. 30); Grafton subsequently commissioned a group of five, which was exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1764 (Private collection; ibid., no. 42); Lord Midleton ordered another, based in part on the Rockingham group and thus evidently not intended to represent his own stud (c. 1763-5; London, Tate Britain; ibid., no. 62; fig. 3); Lord Grosvenor, a group of five horses including two foals (1764; Private collection; ibid., no. 63); a group of five in the Duke of Cumberland's stud, which was exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1765 and constituted the first commission Stubbs received from a member of the royal family (Ascott, National Trust; ibid., no. 64); and a further group of five supplied to the 2nd Earl of Macclesfield's second son, Col. George Lane Parker, a work both engraved and exhibited in 1768 (Sotheby's, London, 8 December 2010, lot 45; ibid., no. 89). Judy Egerton noted that Stubbs painted at least ten variations on the theme of Mares and Foals over the course of his career (op. cit., 2007, p. 45). He returned to the subject in the 1770s for three further commissions, all of which were executed on mahogany panel and on a more restrained scale to those from the previous decade: the Mares and Foals in Eaton Park, a group of five horses painted for Lord Grosvenor in 1773 (Egerton, op. cit., no. 151); and the pair painted for Robert Shafto in 1774, both depicting Two Shafto Mares and a Foal (ibid., nos. 148 and 148A).

As Malcolm Warner observed, the picture is Stubbs’s ‘largest essay in this type of subject’. Indeed, over the course of his entire career, Stubbs painted only a handful of pictures on a larger scale than the present canvas, only one of which remains in private hands: the near-life-size portrait of Scrub, a bay horse belonging to the Marquess of Rockingham, commissioned in circa 1762 and now in a private collection (ibid., no. 35). Those executed on a larger scale, the majority of which predate the present picture and were also painted for Rockingham, can be counted among the artist’s most celebrated works: Whistlejacket (1762; London, National Gallery; fig. 4); and the pair depicting a Lion attacking a Horse and a Lion attacking a Stag, (c. 1762 and 1765; both New Haven, Yale Center for British Art). The artist’s last work on a comparable scale was that of Hambletonian, painted for Sir Henry Vane-Tempest in circa 1800 (County Down, Mount Stewart, The National Trust).

As illustrated by the Midleton picture, in which Stubbs recast elements of the Rockingham composition, it was not unprecedented for one of the artist’s patrons to commission a work showing horses from another's stud. This is evidently the case with the present picture, seemingly the second Mares and Foals painted for the Duke of Grafton, which repeats the group of horses from that painted in 1768 for Colonel George Lane Parker. Aside from the arrangement of the horses, this composition differs significantly in several regards. Firstly, and most conspicuously, the Grafton picture is substantially larger than the format, which Stubbs had hitherto employed for his earlier treatments of this subject, including the aforementioned Lane Parker picture which measures 39 x 74 ½ in. (99 x 189.3 cm.). Furthermore, whereas the latter's backdrop is dominated by a craggy eminence – inspired by the landscape of Cresswell Crags on the border of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire – here Stubbs's background is partly obscured by the vast trunk of an oak tree that anchors the left side of the composition. Lastly, the grey Arabian mare on the far right of the group is markedly larger than its counterpart in the Lane Parker picture, a detail that has generated some scholarly debate over the sex of that particular horse and which no doubt prompted Sotheby's to catalogue the picture in the 1976 sale as: The Duke of Grafton's Stallion, Mares and Foals (loc. cit.).

Judy Egerton included the picture in her 2007 catalogue raisonné of the artist's work, but had not seen the canvas since its appearance at the 1976 Dick sale. In her entry for the painting, she expresses some reservations on the picture’s authorship, which are most likely explained by the intervention of later restorers – the 'clumsy and discoloured areas of retouching' (Egerton, op. cit., p. 261), recently removed by Shepherd Conservation. Regarding the attribution itself, no scholars of the artist’s work prior to or following Egerton’s 2007 publication have shared her hesitancy. Basil Taylor included the picture in his 1971 catalogue and, in 2004, Malcolm Warner considered it to be ‘undoubtedly by Stubbs’ (op. cit.). More recently, both Brian Allen and Alex Kidson have inspected the work first-hand and confirmed the attribution to Stubbs in the most emphatic terms (private communications, April 2024). Kidson describes the present canvas as the 'synthesis of his "Mares and Foals" series’ and 'one of the key masterpieces of his career'.

With regard to the provenance, both Taylor and Egerton considered the early history of the picture to be somewhat unresolved. The latter noted the work as being first recorded in the collection of Lt.-Col. George Smyth of Heath Hall, Wakefield, by 1811, but curiously seemed unaware of the key fact that Smyth was the son of Lady Georgiana FitzRoy, eldest daughter of the third Duke of Grafton, and who married John Smyth (1748-1811) in 1778. George Smyth, after his marriage in 1811 to Sarah Wilson, the elder daughter of Daniel Wilson, took his wife’s name. They lived at Dallam Tower in Westmorland, where this picture remained until it was sold by Brigadier C.E. Tryon-Wilson, presumably through Ackermann, to Mr. and Mrs. Jack R. Dick (see Provenance). Jack R. Dick was an entrepreneur, cattle breeder and one of the most noted collectors of English sporting paintings in the twentieth century. On his passion for collecting in this field, Dick famously said, ‘If you’re going to invest in horses, you’re better off doing it on canvas because those animals don’t eat, they don’t get sick and they don’t fade in the stretch’. In addition to the present picture, which Dick called ‘the Big Painting’, he owned six further works by Stubbs, including the aforementioned Shafto Mares and Foals panels.

That the picture was considered by the Tryon-Wilson family to have been a Grafton commission is confirmed by the first line of provenance given in the 1960 Manchester exhibition (to which they were the lenders) as 'FitzRoy family'. It was far from without precedent for great pictures to be given to daughters, despite having brothers who were heirs to their father’s estates. Two of the more striking cases include that of Lady Anne Cavendish (1649-1703), wife of John, 5th Earl of Exeter, who inherited the entire contents of her mother’s apartments at Chatsworth, which subsequently formed the nucleus of the picture collection at Burghley House. Another notable instance was that of the 1st Marquess of Westminster’s youngest daughter, Theodora Guest (1840-1924), who inherited The Braque Triptych (c. 1452) by Rogier van der Weyden, now in the Louvre, Paris.

Grafton had commissioned at least two further pictures from Stubbs earlier in the decade, both of which were exhibited at the Society of Artists in London in 1764. The first of these, Mares and Foals by a stream, bears an inscription identifying the central bay mare as ‘Antinoüs Dam’, the mother of Antinoüs, a chestnut horse, foaled in 1758, who raced with much success and was the subject of Stubbs’s second picture for Grafton from that year, the background for which had been painted by the artist’s occasional collaborator and friend George Barrett (both Private collection; Egerton, op. cit., nos. 42 and 43). It is conceivable that he also commissioned the picture of Joseph Smyth, shown on his dapple grey hunter, who held the office of Lieutenant of Whittlebury Forest under the wardenship of the Dukes of Grafton (c. 1762-4; Cambridge, Syndics of the Fitzwilliam Museum; ibid., no. 44).

The 1760s was an equally eventful period for the young Duke of Grafton, whose political fortunes were closely tied to other Whig patrons of Stubbs. In 1765, he was appointed Northern Secretary in the government of Lord Rockingham, whose first ministry had been established through the influence of the Duke of Cumberland, a key advisor to his nephew, King George III. Grafton succeeded William Pitt as Prime Minister in October 1768 but resigned in January 1770. The Duke’s political life was mired in scandal after he appeared in society with his mistress, the courtesan Anne Parsons, also known as ‘Mrs Houghton’ and later Viscountess Maynard, whom he kept at his townhouse and took to the opera. Horace Walpole famously referred to her as ‘the Duke of Grafton’s Mrs Houghton, the Duke of Dorset’s Mrs Houghton, everybody’s Mrs Houghton’. After Grafton’s wife became pregnant by her lover, the Earl of Upper Ossory, with whom she eloped, the Duke and Duchess were divorced by an act of parliament in 1769. It may not be altogether coincidental that Lord Bolingbroke, the first of this circle to commission a Mares and Foals from Stubbs, was also involved in a spectacular divorce in the same year. Both Grafton and Bolingbroke refrained from suing the lovers of their wives for financial damages as they knew that evidence of infidelity could be brought against themselves. The two divorces caused considerable scandal and led George III to advocate altering the law to make it more difficult for divorced wives to remarry.

Born in Liverpool in 1724, Stubbs would have immediately come into contact with animals (or at least carcasses) through his father's trade as a currier and leatherseller. He drew from an early age, teaching himself to work in oil, and by the early 1740s was painting professionally, his principal subject-matter being portraits. He moved to York in 1745 and was based in Yorkshire, painting, studying and teaching anatomy, drawing and perspective, until 1753. After a brief visit to Rome in the spring of 1754, he settled back in Liverpool for about two years.

The years between 1756 and 1758, when Stubbs was working at Horkstow, a hamlet near Hull in North Lincolnshire, on his Anatomy of the Horse project, are often seen as the crucible from which he emerged a genius. Yet anatomy had long been a subject of intense study for the artist, from his youth in Liverpool, to York where, based at the County Hospital, he had drawn and engraved illustrations for Dr John Burton's An Essay towards a Complete New System of Midwifery. Nonetheless, his time at Horkstow unquestionably established a new focus and dedication, in which he took his work in this field to a different level. Assisted only by his common-law wife, Mary Spencer, 'so ardent was his thirst for acquiring experience by practical dissection,' wrote Ozias Humphry, his friend and fellow artist in his manuscript memoir of Stubbs, 'that he frequently braved those dangers from the putridity, &c. which would have appalled the most experienced practitioner'. Probably dating from these years is the small self-portrait on copper (c. 1759; New Haven, Yale Center for British Art; Egerton, op. cit., no. 1) showing a 'strong and resolute man', much the earliest image of the artist so far known, the next in date being Ozias Humphry's fine chalk drawing dated 1777 (Private collection). Forty-two of Stubbs's drawings, of immense precision and beauty, from the Horkstow project survive (London, Royal Academy of Arts), of which eighteen are highly finished works made to be engraved for publication. Armed with these, Stubbs moved to London in 1758 or early 1759, and quickly caught the eye of noblemen such as Richmond, Grafton and Rockingham who, in Stubbs's words, 'delight in horses, and who either breed or keep any considerable number of them' (cited from the introduction to The Anatomy of the Horse). In the ensuing commissions from these key patrons, Stubbs quickly showed how spectacularly he had advanced the field in which he worked. As Basil Taylor observed, ‘The compositions of mares and foals offer the most spectacular evidence of the change [Stubbs] introduced…for this is essentially the animal to be found in the work of Gericault [fig. 5] or Degas…His power to express the identity of the individual creature…in a manner which was artistically so original was certainly the reason for his immediate success.’ (op. cit., 1971, pp. 25-26).

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