This exquisite work on copper, showing the artist at the age of about 32-36, is much the earliest of Stubbs's extant self portraits (which number only three, as well as a preliminary pencil study), and is the only one to remain in private hands.
The portrait appears to have been generally unknown before its appearance at Christie's in 1976, among works sold by the executors of the collector and benefactor Alan Evans. Since then suggestions for the date of the picture have varied quite significantly: 'circa 1770' (Christie's and Spink in 1976); 'about 1765' (Michael Jaffé in 1985); and 'c.1755' (John Ingamells in 2004). There now appears to be general agreement with Judy Egerton's suggestion that the picture is likely to date from c.1756-60. Stubbs's two other self portraits are also oval, but in enamel on Wedgwood biscuit earthenware: Self-portrait, holding a brush in his right hand, signed and dated 1781, 27 x 20 in., in the London National Portrait Gallery (fig. 1, for which there is a squared pencil study, 12 x 9 in., in the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Paul Mellon Collection); and Self portrait on a grey hunter, signed and dated 1782, 36½ x 27½ in., in the National Museums of Liverpool (Lady Lever Art Gallery) (fig. 2). Of portraits of Stubbs by other artists, arguably the most immediate and engaging is the superb Portrait study, bust-length, of c. 1777, in black and white chalk on brown paper, by Stubbs's long-standing friend Ozias Humphry, R.A. (1742-1810), which itself only came to light in the early 1980s, and which is otherwise the earliest known portrayal of the artist (fig. 3, Private Collection, England). A related watercolour in the London National Portrait Gallery, showing Stubbs three-quarter-length, with his Phaeton and the chariot of the sun, was until recently considered also to be by Humphry but is now thought to be a copy after the lost finished work (see Ingamells, op.cit, p. 449, under no. 1399). Of the images of the artist in later life, the half-length, in pastel, also by Humphry (National Museums Liverpool [The Walker]), and the bust-length pencil drawing by George Dance, R.A. (1741-1825) (London, Royal Academy), both of 1794, stand out.
Born in Liverpool in 1724, Stubbs would have immediately come into contact with animals (or at least carcasses) through his father's trade as a currier and leatherseller. He drew from an early age, teaching himself to work in oil, and by the early 1740s was painting professionally, his principal subject-matter being portraits. He moved to York in 1745 and remained based in Yorkshire, painting, studying and teaching anatomy, and teaching drawing and perspective, until 1753. After a brief visit to Rome in the spring of 1754, he settled back in Liverpool for about two years. The years between 1756 and 1758 were a 'highly interesting but obscure period' (J. Egerton, catalogue for the exhibition George Stubbs 1724-1806, London, 1984, p.28) when Stubbs was working at Horkstow, a hamlet near Hull in North Lincolnshire, on the Anatomy of the Horse. The present work, dating from, or to soon after, these years, gives a unique insight into the artist at this critically formative period of his life. 'So ardent was his thirst for acquiring experience by practical dissection,' wrote Ozias Humphry in his manuscript memoir of Stubbs's life, 'that he frequently braved those dangers from the putridity, &c. which would have appalled the most experienced practitioner.' Assisted only by his common law wife, Mary Spencer, Stubbs worked with extraordinary dedication, producing work of such precision and beauty that, on his arrival in London in 1759, he quickly caught the eye of the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, and members of his circle, so establishing himself on a trajectory to becoming the most sought-after painter of horses of the day, and arguably the greatest animal painter in the history of art.
No other painting by Stubbs in oil on copper is so far known, yet he worked on copperplates from his earliest exercises in printmaking, and from about 1769 he painted in enamels on copper - indeed all Stubbs's work in enamel was on copper until late 1777, when Messrs Wedgwood and Bently succeeded in producing the first ceramic plate for him to paint on. Given his continual urge to experiment, it would be surprising if he had not essayed at least one work in oil on copper. He may have embarked on a self portrait as a trial piece.
We are very grateful to Mrs Judy Egerton for her assistance in the preparation of this catalogue entry.