George Stubbs embodied the values of the wide-ranging intellectual movement of the Enlightenment, or Age of Reason: his was the enquiring mind driven to know and understand through observation based on evidence and proof. Constantly pushing boundaries, throughout his life he was preoccupied with experimental studies, yet this pursuit was always combined with a deep empathy for his subjects. An innate sense of nobility pervades this supremely elegant painting.
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. Most famously, between 1756 and 1758, the artist worked at Horkstow, a hamlet near Hull in North Lincolnshire, on his groundbreaking Anatomy of the Horse project (fig. 1), taking his work in the 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 his friend and fellow artist Ozias Humphry, in his manuscript memoir of Stubbs, ‘that he frequently braved those dangers from the putridity, &c. which would have appalled the most experienced practitioner’.
Forty-two of Stubbs’s drawings, of immense precision and beauty, from the Horkstow project survive (London, Royal Academy of Arts, figs. 2 and 3), 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 attention of important aristocratic patrons such as the 3rd Duke of Richmond and the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, who in Stubbs’s words, ‘delight in horses, and who either breed or keep any considerable number of them’ (cited in the introduction to The Anatomy of the Horse). Commissions quickly followed, and by the close of 1762 Stubbs had painted his magisterial Grosvenor Hunt (Private collection; J. Egerton, op. cit., no. 29), and several of his best pictures for Lord Rockingham, including the sublime Whistlejacket (fig. 4; London, National Gallery; ibid., no. 34). In works such as these, as well as Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath (Christie’s, London, 5 July 2011, lot 12), and his series of Mares and Foals pictures, Stubbs showed how spectacularly he had advanced the genre, for these are essentially the animals to be found in the work of Gericault or Degas (fig. 5).
Having firmly established his practice, Stubbs was free from financial stricture, and in the 1770s became increasingly experimental in his working techniques.
Determined to avoid the fading and craquelure that sometimes afflicted traditional oil paintings, he explored using colours in enamel which would remain unchanged in firing. Copper having proved an unsatisfactory support, Stubbs embarked on what would become a celebrated partnership with Josiah Wedgwood. Stubbs exhibited five paintings in enamel on Wedgwood supports at the Royal Academy in 1782.
The identities of the subjects in the present picture are unknown, but the ambition of the composition, combined with the significant scale (particularly for a work on panel) suggest a patron of considerable means. It is works such as this which led Basil Taylor, who with Judy Egerton did more than any others to re-establish Stubbs’s reputation in the 20th century, to observe: ‘Stubbs’s talent for pictorial design seems today effective and uncommon by being at once intelligent and free from the conventions of Academic practice, for the order which he conferred upon his subjects was so absolutely an expression of his own deepest consciousness both of nature and of art’ (B. Taylor, op. cit., p. 12).
Judy Egerton (op. cit.) opened her remarks on this picture by commenting: ‘This panel is in exceptionally good condition’, and the work is retained in its original frame, bearing the frame-maker’s label of ‘Thomas Allwood, Charlotte Street’. Allwood (c. 1738-c. 1799) was a leading picture frame-maker in late-18th century London, and is known to have framed works by Stubbs for Sir John Nelthorpe in 1785 and for the Prince of Wales in 1793, and the set of eight equestrian pictures in the Royal Collection are still in their original frames (details from Jacob Simon’s restorers and frame-makers database (http://www. npg.org.uk/research/conservation/directory-of-britishframemakers. php).
We are very grateful to Simon Bobak for information on the frame.