This masterpiece from Stubbs' early maturity demonstrates his supreme skill at rendering the equine form, combined with his gifts as a portraitist and his dexterity as a landscape painter. Exhibited in 1765, during the decade described by Basil Taylor as 'in scope and productiveness the most fecund period of the artist's life' (Stubbs, London, 1971, p. 13), this picture dates to the same year as Stubbs' celebrated painting of Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath, sold at Christie's, London in July 2011. One of the artist's earliest commissions from an Irish patron, the picture is beautifully preserved having passed by inheritance in the sitter's family to the present owner.
Stubbs' patronage from the great Whig aristocrats -most notably the Duke of Richmond, the Marquess of Rockingham, Earl Grosvenor and Viscount Bolingbroke - during this decisive early period of the artist's career is well-known. However, Clanbrassil would appear to have been one of the very first Irish patrons to recognise the painter's talents and to commission a horse portrait from him. Stubbs may have been recommended to Clanbrassil by William Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland, who was a cousin through his mother, Henrietta, daughter of William Bentinck, 1st Earl of Portland. His mother's younger sister, Barbara Bentinck, was married to Sir Francis Godolphin, 2nd Bt., who later married as his second wife, Anne FitzWilliam, a relation by marriage of Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham. Rockingham was arguably Stubbs' greatest patron, commissioning no fewer than twelve pictures from the artist during the 1760s, most significantly his majestic Whistlejacket (London, National Gallery; Egerton no. 34). Clanbrassil's brother-in-law, Robert, 2nd Viscount Jocelyn and later 1st Earl of Roden, was the first Irish patron to commission a portrait of a racehorse, Havannah, from Stubbs in 1765 (location unknown; Egerton no. 59); while Clanbrassil's cousin, William Henry Fortescue, 1st Earl Clermont, M.P. for Dundalk, commissioned portraits of a favourite pointer Phillis in 1772 and his bay thoroughbred Johnny in 1775. Other Irish patrons included Charles, later 12th Viscount Dillon, the Earl of Granard, and Robert Maxwell, 1st Earl of Farnham, Co. Cavan, who commissioned a portrait of a chestnut racehorse Conductor at Newmarket with jockey up (a horse owned jointly with Lord Clermont), in circa 1773 (UK, Private collection; Egerton no. 157).
Clanbrassil is positioned centre-stage, holding the viewer in direct eye-contact, with his favourite bay hunter, Mowbray alert at his side, slightly on the turn, with his back left leg a little raised, in a subtly observed landscape. Stubbs' rendering of horse and rider, and the relationship between the two, is immeasurably more dynamic, perceptive and engaging than the comparatively static works of his predecessors such as John Wootton, which tend to show the horse in conventional flat profile. Stubbs' understanding of and ability to render the horse's anatomy, from its precise skeletal structure through layers of muscle and sinew to the silky coat, was also without parallel in sporting art. This extraordinary achievement was the outcome of an intense period of anatomical study through practical dissection between 1756 and 1758, resulting in his ground-breaking publication Anatomy of the Horse, which both revolutionised the genre and heralded Stubbs as a true exponent of the wide-ranging intellectual movement of the Enlightenment.
Stubbs has masterfully captured the physiognomy of James, 2nd Earl of Clanbrassil. Described as 'notoriously stubborn' and 'sometimes given to melancholy', Clanbrassil's character was more generously summed up by the literary hostess Mary Delany, who remarked that he: 'looks old for his age (having lost all his fore teeth), but he is tall, genteel and very well bred, free from every vice in the world' (Life, 2nd series, II, 1862, p. 580). The only other recorded portraits of the sitter are pastels by Jean-Etienne Liotard, executed during the artist's second visit to London between 1773 and 1774 (see for example Fig. 1). When this painting was exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1765, Horace Walpole entered the words 'bad. Lord Clanbrassil' against the title in his copy of the exhibition catalogue. This brusque comment is more likely to be an indication of his bias against the sitter, rather than any reflection of his view of the picture's artistic merits, since Clanbrassil's father, the 1st Earl of Clanbrassil, had sat in judgement on Walpole's own father after he ceased to be Prime Minister, as chairman of the Committee set up to investigate allegations of corruption in 1742.
The sitter was elected as the second representative member of the Irish House of Parliament for the seat of Midleton in County Cork in 1755, was appointed Sheriff of County Louth in 1757 and inherited his title on his father's death the following year, at the age of twenty-seven. Between 1757 and 1798, he held the office of Chief Remembrancer of the Court of Exchequer (Ireland) and was promoted a Privy Councillor in Ireland in 1766. His Irish title did not preclude him from sitting in the English House of Commons and he was elected a Member of Parliament for Helston in Cornwall, representing the constituency from 1769 to 1774. In 1783, he was appointed one of the founder Knights of St. Patrick, a chivalric order instituted by George III to mirror the Garter in England and the Thistle in Scotland.
Clanbrassil was a member of the Society of Dilettanti and a founder member of the Royal Irish Academy in 1785. While his father had played a significant role in the redevelopment of Dundalk in the early 18th century, the 2nd Earl turned his attentions to the improvement of the family estate at Tollymore. An advocate of the new fashion for 'Gothick', Clanbrassil completed the house in 1777 with numerous bridges and gatehouses, and built a barn with an ecclesiastical-like tower, which remains one of the most idiosyncratic practical farming buildings in Ireland. His activities in forestry gained him recognition from the Dublin Society, which presented him with gold medals for his tree-planting both in County Louth and at Tollymore. Clanbrassil married Grace Foley, daughter of Sir Thomas Foley, 1st Bt. of Kidderminster, in 1774. When Clanbrassil died without issue in 1798, the title became extinct and the estates were inherited by his sister, Anne, wife of Robert Jocelyn, 1st Earl of Roden. An auction sale of the contents of his London mansion held in 1813 lasted four days.
At once a penetrating portrait, sporting subject and landscape study, this picture ultimately transcends all three genres to constitute a new and distinct form of aristocratic en plein air portraiture. As Basil Taylor explained in his seminal work on the artist: 'In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the portrait had uniquely served the interests of family, rank and ambition. [Now] a different form of art with a wider range of subject could confer a similar honour upon the whole scope of material property' (op. cit., p. 12). Stubbs achieved a similar synthesis in two later works, in which the key protagonist also takes centre-stage: Captain Samuel Sharpe with his wife, Pleasance, of 1769 (Washington, National Gallery of Art; Egerton, no. 98), and Sir Peniston and Lady Lamb, later Lord and Lady Melbourne, of 1769-70 (London, The National Gallery; Egerton, no. 130).