We are very grateful to Mrs Judy Egerton for providing us with the following entry:
During the 1760s and 1770s, Stubbs painted at least ten variations on the theme of brood mares with their foals. Probably the first of these was the wide canvas (39 x 75 in.) painted for Stubbs's greatest patron the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham at his stud farm in Wentworth Park, Yorkshire. Paid for in August 1762 as 'Five Brood-mares and two foles', and probably the picture exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1762 (110) as A Brood of Mares, this is now widely known as Mares and Foals without a background (private collection, England). That supremely graceful picture was followed by a long series of mares and foals in lyrical landscape settings, commissioned from Stubbs by such noble patrons as the 3rd Duke of Grafton, the 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke and Lord Grosvenor, and by commoners such as Jenison Shafto and (probably) George Lane Parker who shared those noblemen's keen interest in breeding and racing thoroughbred horses.
Stubbs's variations on the theme of mares and foals combine extraordinary gracefulness with accurate observation of individual horses, carefully bred, and as carefully nurtured, for potential success on the turf and at stud. At this uniquely quiet stage of their lives, Stubbs's mares and foals are seen in a state of nature, in landscapes whose spreading oaks and gentle streams promise a tranquil existence remote from the racecourse. Stubbs's fastidious sense of design enables him seemingly effortlessly to arrange the essential ingredients of such pictures (28 legs, for instance, in the Rockingham picture) into elegant yet natural rhythms. The subtlety and inventiveness of Stubbs's variations on the mares and foals theme can most swiftly be seen in the reproduction of ten subjects on one page in Constance Anne Parker, Mr Stubbs the Horse Painter, 1971 (p.57).
Occasionally, Stubbs incorporated details from earlier paintings of mares and foals into new compositions. A clear example of this is the Mares and Foals in a River Landscape (Tate Britain), painted c. 1765 for Viscount Midleton; this repeats two of the mares with their foals from the Mares and Foals without a background painted for Lord Rockingham, translates a chestnut mare on the right into a grey and adds an idyllic background. Stubbs's abundant commissions during the 1760s may not always have allowed time for fresh thoughts; and it is likely that some patrons who wanted pictures of mares and foals either did not have stud farms of their own or were content that Stubbs should adapt admired groupings from earlier pictures.
Lord Palmerston, who commissioned Stubbs to paint A Mare and foal with a bay horse in 1771, is not known to have been interested in horses; his own collection was of old masters. His commission to Stubbs was altruistic: he wished to present a fine example of Stubbs's work to his friend the Swiss painter Jean Huber, chiefly a silhouettist and caricaturist, who had lately become interested in depicting horses, especially in movement. Stubbs composed a 'new' subject by repeating the stately grey Arabian mare and her chestnut foal from the wide Brood Mares and Foals (39 x 75 in.) which he had exhibited at the Society of Artists three years previously, in 1768 (no. 165), and which was engraved that year (in reverse: see C. Lennox-Boyd et al., George Stubbs: The Complete Engraved Works, 1989, no. 5, repr.p. 74). He then added a new component: a bay horse, seen foreshortened, ambling towards the mare and her foal from the left. This addition is likely to have been specifically requested for Huber's sake: in (?) October-November 1772, he had asked Palmerston to send him drawings by Stubbs 'faits à l'Improviste - et en mouvement'. But if Stubbs made such drawings, they have not survived.
For the smaller picture destined for Huber, Stubbs reduced the towering, craggy background of his monumental Brood Mares and Foals of 1768 (private collection) to a denser background of rocks and trees which unites the three horses. Palmerston employed William Pars, recently his draughtsman and travelling companion in Switzerland, to paint a faithful copy of Stubbs's picture; for this copy, which remains at Broadlands (repr. Russell 1982, op. cit., fig. 6), Palmerston paid Pars £20. He then despatched Stubbs's original canvas to Huber. After being held up at Calais as 'contreband', the picture finally reached Huber in the spring of 1773. Huber's comments on it were mostly admiring, but slightly carping: 'I recognised nature in the white [in fact grey] mare, and beautiful nature - the foreshortening well understood - the forms flowing'; but while he found this mare's mane 'pittoresque', he wished Stubbs had not allowed it to conceal the junction of the head with the neck. Truth to nature does not distinguish Huber's own attempts to paint horses (for an example, see Apgar 1995, fig. 129, p. 154).
In similar fashion, Stubbs was to create a fresh picture by repeating one of the mares in the Brood Mares and Foals commissioned by the 3rd Duke of Grafton, and exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1764 (114). The Grafton picture measures 23 1/2 x 39 1/2 in., and depicts three mares and two foals by a stream. In a slightly smaller picture, signed but not dated, and now known as A Dark Bay and a Grey in a Wooded Landscape (sold Christie's, London, 22 June 1979, lot 97, see fig. 1), the grey horse is taken directly from the Grafton picture. The bay who faces her across the picture appears to be a slightly adapted version of a horse painted over a decade later for John Musters. With this adaptation, Stubbs has moved away from the secure world of mares and foals to the (mostly peaceable) encounters between adult horses which were to engage him from the late 1770s. A repetition of the mare and foal on the right of the Grafton picture is also known, but may be a now untraced painting by Stubbs.