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George Stubbs, A.R.A. (1724-1806)
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George Stubbs, A.R.A. (1724-1806)

Tristram Shandy, a bay racehorse held by a groom, in an extensive landscape

George Stubbs (1724-1806)
Tristram Shandy, a bay racehorse held by a groom, in an extensive landscape
signed 'Geo: Stubbs Pinx.' (lower left)
oil on canvas
40 x 50 in. (101.6 x 127 cm.)
Probably commissioned by Frederick St. John, 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke and 3rd Viscount St. John (1732-1787), Lydiard Tregoze, Wiltshire.
Possibly the picture offered as 'The Property of a Nobleman'; Christie & Ansell, 10 March 1780, lot 70, as 'Mr Stubbs. Portrait of horse and groom', with the auctioneer's MS. notes [seller] 'Ld. Boli.' and [buyer] 'G.St. John' (Bolingbroke's son and heir).
James William Lowther, 1st Viscount Ullswater, Campsea Ashe, Suffolk (d. March 1949), by whose executors sold at Campsea Ashe by Messrs. Garrod, Turner, 24-31 October 1949, lot 488.
C. F. Barlow, South Africa.
Anon sale, Christie's, London, 21 November 1980, lot 51 (sold £308,000).
Anon sale, Sotheby's, New York, 29 October 1987, lot 209 (sold $1,127,500).
with The Leger Galleries, 1988, from whom purchased by the present vendor.
Sir Walter Gilbey, Life of George Stubbs, A.R.A., London, 1898, p. 177.
The British Racehorse, 1950, illustrated on the front cover.
B. Taylor, Stubbs, New York, 1971, p. 53.
J. Egerton, George Stubbs, Exhibition Catalogue, 1984, under no. 37.
London, The Society of Artists, 1762, no. 111, as 'A Portrait of a Horse call'd Tristram Shandy'.
London, Arthur Ackermann & Sons, An Exhibition of Sporting Paintings, 1970, no. 28, illustrated.
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VAT rate of 5% is payable on hammer price plus buyer's premium.

Lot Essay

We are grateful to Mrs Judy Egerton for providing us with the following entry.

The bay racehorse Tristram Shandy is likely to have been foaled in about 1756-8; but his pedigree and early racing career have been partly obscured by what must have been a change of name in 1760. In that year he was given the name Tristram Shandy after the eccentric hero of Lawrence Sterne's hugely popular novel Tristram Shandy, whose first two volumes were published in 1759 (at York); but the racehorse called Tristram Shandy is first recorded as racing at Spalding, Lincolnshire, in August 1760, when he would have to have been at least a two-year-old, possibly even a four-year-old. Racing Calendars record only that he was by Cade out of an Old Starling mare, and no details of when or where he was bred or of his first performances can be traced in Pick's Register or the Stud Book. The probability is that before 1760, he raced either under a different name or, as was not uncommon, as 'Unnamed'.

Racing Calendars record Tristram Shandy's races over three years, 1760-3; but the meagre facts do not make his ownership clear. In August 1760 he raced at Spalding, Lincolnshire, for Mr Green. In the spring of 1761 he entered the big scene at Newmarket, racing in March and April for Lord Bolingbroke. His next races were at Bedford, Maldon and Swaffham, racing for Mr Douglas. Possibly Tristram Shandy was raced under different names to puzzle the punters; but the fact that Tristram Shandy was relegated to minor racecourses in 1762 suggest declining performance, and he may by then have been sold to Mr Douglas. Lord Bolingbroke's financial memoranda indicate that during 1760-61 he had at least a share in Tristram Shandy, possibly owning him outright. In 1760 Tristram Shandy earned him 200 guineas and in 1761 300 guineas. While not big money compared with what Bolingbroke won (or lost) in bets and wagers on the racecourse or at Almack's, a win is always gratifying to an owner, and justifies a portrait of the victorious horse.

Stubbs's portrait of Tristram Shandy with a Groom was almost certainly commissioned by Lord Bolingbroke, probably in 1761. Frederick St. John, 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke, of Lydiard Tregoze, Wiltshire, was one of Stubbs's most important and constant patrons in the 1760s. He may first have admired Stubbs's work at Althorp, where A Stallion called Romulus hung - the first work Stubbs exhibited, at the Society of Artists in 1761; in 1757 Bolingbroke had married Lady Diana Spencer, whom he was to divorce for adultery in 1768. Known to his friends as 'Bully', Bolingbroke was 29 years old in 1761, and already addicted to horse-racing and to gambling of all kinds, at Almack's and White's as well as at Newmarket. Though occasionally winning thousands, he was repeatedly in financial difficulties. A letter from the Earl of March to George Selwyn in the autumn of 1766 paints a gloomy picture of three members of White's, 'Bully, Lord Wilmington and myself ... left here to reflect coolly upon our losses, and the nonsense of keeping running-horses'; but Bolingbroke's addiction proved stronger than an evening's reflection.

Stubbs probably painted at least eight racehorse pictures for Lord Bolingbroke, including Molly Long Legs with a Jockey and Lustre, held by a Groom, as well as Tristram Shandy. While no documentary evidence has so far been traced conclusively proving that Stubbs painted Tristram Shandy, Molly Long-Legs and Lustre for Bolingbroke, it seems reasonable to infer that he did so, since all three horses raced successfully at Newmarket for Bolingbroke - Lustre in 1760 and 1761, Molly Long-Legs in 1761-2. The fact that Stubbs exhibited Molly Long-Legs in 1762 as Tristram Shandy's 'Companion' may suggest (but does not prove) that both pictures were painted for the same patron. Undoubtedly Bolingbroke commissioned five other paintings from Stubbs. The first four of these remained in the family until 1943, when they were sold by the 6th Viscount Bolingbroke at Christie's, 10 December 1943 (lots 48-51). These four are Mares and Foals, c. 1762 (private collection); A Bay Hunter belonging to Lord Bolingbroke, with Lydiard Tregoze in the background, c. 1762 (recently on the art market); the matchless Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath, with a Trainer, Jockey and Stable-Lad, c. 1765 (private collection; version coll. Jockey Club, Newmarket); and Turf, with Jockey up, at Newmarket, c. 1765 (collection of the late Paul Mellon, C.B.E.). A fifth picture, Hollyhock, painted in 1766, was given by Bolingbroke that year to M. Monet and now (with figures added by Boucher and landscape by Vernet) in the Royal Collection.

Apart from a weeding-out sale of Old Masters (no Stubbs) in May 1826, shortly after the death of Bolingbroke's son and heir, George, 3rd Viscount, there appears to have been only one Bolingbroke sale: 'The Property of a Nobleman', offered by Christie & Ansell, 10 March 1780. That sale may have been enforced by Bolingbroke's creditors, or by trustees; by 1780 Bolingbroke was increasingly insane. It included three works by Stubbs, perhaps those which Bolinbroke kept in his London house. Lot 70 was 'Mr Stubbs. Portrait of horse and groom', a picture which could have been Tristram Shandy (but equally, could have been Lustre); lots 81 and 82 were Stubbs's Brood Mares and Foals and A portrait of the famous horse Gimcrack, with a view of Newmarket Course. Each of these was noted by the auctioneer as the property of 'Ld. Boli'; each was bought back by 'G. St. John', Bolingbroke's son and heir, George, Viscount St. John.

If puzzles about provenance remain, there can be no doubt about the superlative quality of Tristram Shandy with a Groom. The horse is painted with that knowledge of bone and musclular structure which Stubbs had acquired through arduous studies for The Anatomy of the Horse; the rich coppery sheen of Tristram Shandy's coat is painted with complete assurance. Stubbs suggests that almost palpable air of nervousness in the animal which characterises many of his horse portraits of the early 1760s; it is echoed in the portraits of Molly Long-Legs and Lustre. The young groom in livery holding Tristram Shandy's reins is perhaps no more than fourteen years old, but has evidently been well-trained to handle horses with steadiness, and without self-consciousness; that profile (the nose slightly reddening in the crisp air) is entirely natural for one who stands four-square, bending his steady gaze on his valuable charge. His frockcoat - buff, with plum-red velvet collar - appears to be the same as that worn by Lustre's grrom, and may have been the livery for Bolingbroke's outdoor servants.

Stubbs paints the background with that spring-like air of promise which characterises the best of his work in the early 1760s. The trees in young leaf, that calmly winding river, that air of thin sunshine over the hills are likely to have been painted in the studio, representing ideal countryside for horses rather than specific countryside.


Mrs Judy Egerton is based at the Paul Mellon Centre in London, and is compiling a catalogue raisonné of the work of George Stubbs.

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