George Stubbs’s lyrical masterpiece: Mares and Foals in an extensive landscape

A majestic painting of horses by Britain’s pre-eminent equine artist, commissioned by an 18th-century prime minister, is to be offered at Christie’s on 2 July 2024

George Stubbs, Mares and Foals in an extensive landscape, 1769, in Old Masters Part I on 2 July 2024 at Christie's London

George Stubbs, A.R.A. (1724-1806), Mares and Foals in an extensive landscape, 1769. Oil on canvas. 72⅝ x 107⅞ in (184.5 x 274 cm). Estimate: £7,000,000-10,000,000. Offered in Old Masters Part I on 2 July 2024 at Christie’s in London

The story goes that the thoroughbred racehorse Whistlejacket had an almighty surprise while being painted by George Stubbs. It was during the last of several outdoor sessions for the picture Whistlejacket (circa 1762), now one of the star attractions at London’s National Gallery.

The surprise took place at Wentworth House, the home of the horse’s owner, Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham (also the commissioner of the painting). The creature was being led back and forth by a stableboy, in front of the artist at his easel, when suddenly it caught a glimpse of its own image. Believing a rival stallion to be present, Whistlejacket began to ‘look wildly at the picture, endeavouring to get at it, to fight and to kick it’ — only for the artist to intervene and calm the horse down.

This story — told in a memoir about Stubbs by his friend and fellow artist Ozias Humphry — is probably apocryphal. However, it stems from a core truth: that Stubbs painted equine creatures with stunning verisimilitude.

George Stubbs, Whistlejacket, circa 1762, National Gallery, London

George Stubbs, A.R.A. (1724-1806), Whistlejacket, circa 1762. Oil on canvas. 296.1 x 248 cm. National Gallery, London. Photo: Bridgeman Images

Rockingham was part of a nexus of aristocratic Whig statesmen who commissioned the artist through the 1760s, a decade described by the Stubbs scholar Basil Taylor as ‘the most fecund period of his life’. Among them was Augustus Fitzroy, 3rd Duke of Grafton, who served as Northern Secretary during Rockingham’s first term as prime minister of the United Kingdom, in 1765-66 — and who would become prime minister himself in October 1768, a post he held until January 1770.

It was very probably during his premiership that Grafton commissioned Stubbs to paint Mares and Foals in an extensive landscape, a monumental canvas being offered in the Old Masters Part I sale at Christie’s in London on 2 July 2024.

It depicts a group of five horses (three mares and two foals) seeking shelter beneath the overhanging branches of an oak tree. The composition is carefully balanced: the rumps of the outer mares form a cone, with the branches above as its apex. Behind the horses, a rocky outcrop enveloped in dark rain clouds gives way to a stretch of open landscape bathed in broken sunlight.

George Stubbs, A.R.A. (1724-1806), Mares and Foals in an extensive landscape, 1769. Oil on canvas. 72⅝ x 107⅞ in (184.5 x 274 cm). Estimate: £7,000,000-10,000,000. Offered in Old Masters Part I on 2 July 2024 at Christie’s in London

Stubbs was born in Liverpool in 1724. As the son of a currier (leather-tanner), he would have been accustomed from an early age to the sight of animals — or, at least, animal carcasses. Largely self-taught as an artist, he specialised initially in portraiture.

His career breakthrough, however, came in the mid-1750s, when he rented a barn in Horkstow, a hamlet in North Lincolnshire. For 18 months, he locked himself away, suspending horse cadavers from an iron bar on the ceiling. He made drawing after drawing of them, from various angles and in various states of dissection.

‘So ardent was his thirst for [knowledge],’ wrote Humphry, that Stubbs braved ‘dangers from the putridity… which would have appalled the most experienced practitioner’.

Eventually, and not altogether surprisingly, the artist was driven out of Horkstow by locals — not so much due to the stench as to a fear that Stubbs was a necromancer. By this point, he had gained an unrivalled grasp of equine anatomy, however, and in 1766 he published a landmark book, The Anatomy of the Horse, featuring engravings of 18 of his drawings. (The book was so accurate that it continued to be used in British veterinary schools into the 20th century.)

George Stubbs, A.R.A. (1724-1806), The Anatomy of the Horse, 1766. Plate from the first edition of this landmark work in the study of equine anatomy. Sold for $50,000 on 20 June 2013 at Christie’s in New York

Armed with his drawings, Stubbs moved to London and soon impressed a circle of noblemen with a shared passion for horse-racing. In the preceding decades, this had grown into a highly favoured sport in Britain, on the back of the country’s growing wealth and the rise of commercialised leisure.

Most of the noblemen in question bred horses and belonged to the recently founded Jockey Club, an organisation aimed at running the sport nationwide. They included Rockingham, Grafton and Frederick St John, 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke. It was Bolingbroke who in 1761 commissioned the first of what would become a celebrated series of paintings by Stubbs featuring mares and foals: it depicts six horses in what is presumably Lydiard Park, Bolingbroke’s estate in Wiltshire.

This canvas was seen and admired by others in Bolingbroke’s circle, and there followed, over the next dozen or so years, around 10 pictures with the same theme. Rockingham commissioned one of these, the 3rd Viscount Midleton another — the latter, Mares and Foals in a River Landscape, now part of the Tate’s collection.

George Stubbs, Mares and Foals in a River Landscape, circa 1763-68, Tate, London

George Stubbs, A.R.A (1724-1806), Mares and Foals in a River Landscape, circa 1763-68. Oil on canvas. 101.6 x 161.9 cm. Tate, London. Photo: © Tate

Grafton seems to have commissioned two paintings with this subject: one in the mid-1760s (today in a private collection) and the other in 1769 (the work coming to auction). With an absence of grooms, owners or other animals, Mares and Foals in an extensive landscape is imbued with a calm and lyrical quality: very much a hallmark of Stubbs’s series.

Each horse stands in profile or three-quarter view, and there’s something almost rhythmic about their undulating arrangement as one’s eye passes from one creature to the next. There’s also considerable expressiveness in the body language between them. Stubbs’s excellence derives from the fact that he didn’t just paint his creatures with accuracy, he did so with compassion too.

At this unique stage of their lives, the mares and their offspring are seen in a state of nature, enjoying a tranquil existence remote from the racecourse that, in the case of the foals, may well define their future.

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What sets this picture apart from the rest of the series is its size: measuring the better part of three metres across and two metres high, it is comfortably the largest of the ‘mares and foals’ paintings. Stubbs duly brought a heightened nobility to his quintet of subjects, especially the grey Arabian mare on the right, theatrically lit against the brooding sky.

Some patrons wished the artist to depict their own horses on their own land. Others — such as Grafton with this picture, which is a variation on an equine group from a 1768 painting for Colonel George Lane Parker — welcomed an image of mares and foals from another man’s stud, in an idealised landscape. Clearly, the identity of the horses mattered less than the pride in owning a painting by the pre-eminent equine painter of the age — arguably, of any age.

Classic Week — Art from antiquity to the 20th century — takes place from 2 to 10 July 2024 at Christie’s in London. Highlights include Titian’s Rest on the Flight to Egypt, the rediscovered The Madonna of the Cherries by Quentin Metsys and Frans Hals’s Portrait of a gentleman of the de Wolff family.The pre-sale view opens on 28 June

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