First past the post

Andrew Graham-Dixon's new BBC2 series A History of British Art has been hailed as 'eye-opening' and 'provocative'. In our second exclusive extract from his book of the series, he reassesses the work of George Stubbs - dabbler in horseflesh or acute observer of 18th-century life?

George Stubbs has been filed away as a sporting painter, but he was much greater than that confining, genteel description suggests. He remains a deceptive artist, because for the most part he was such an unassuming one. He was one of the quiet revolutionaries, a man who changed the world without the world even noticing.

Stubbs painted the subjects that English patrons required English artists to paint. He painted wives, selves and horses. Above all he painted horses. But his true subjects were not always exactly what they seemed to be. His greatest pictures, like the extraordinary, life-size painting of the racehorse Whistlejacket, or the masterpiece of his later years, Hambletonian, Rubbing Down, have a haunting, haunted, visionary quality entirely unique in 18th-century art. They do not describe animals, or at least they do not only do that. Stubbs's subject matter may seem small, but it is actually the largest subject of all: life, in its biological and moral essence.

One of Stubbs's greatest gifts was his ability to make reality seem charged with the intensity of myth, to make the present seem as mysterious and as beautiful as the classical past. In his hands, Newmarket Racecourse became a sacred place. He made the rubbing-down house on Newmarket gallops look like a temple. Seen through his eyes, jockeys, grooms and stable- lads seem engaged not in anything as mundane as work but in a form of votive ritual, at the centre of which always stands the horse, the object of reverence.

Not a great deal is known about Stubbs but not much needs to be known since he said so much in his art. He was born in Liverpool and he studied anatomy as a young man, living in an isolated farmhouse in Lincolnshire, cutting up and drawing dead horses. Anatomy was his first and his last preoccupation (he spent much time during the last years of his life preparing a treatise on the subject), and this marked Stubbs out from his contemporaries. Most other British painters of the time had learnt to paint by looking at other paintings. Stubbs learnt to paint by looking with intense closeness at reality. The closeness of the scrutiny to which he subjected all things and creatures is evident in the drawings that survive by his hand. These are among the masterpieces of graphic art.

In 1765 he painted a picture of a famous horse called Gimcrack winning a valuable race at Newmarket. Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath, with a Trainer, Jockey and a Stable-lad was painted for the horse's owner, the second Viscount Bolingbroke. It squeezes two events impossibly together: the horse and jockey each appear twice, once winning the race and once being greeted by lad and trainer. But despite this naive device, it was in its time an original painting. Stubbs has left out the crowd that saw Gimcrack win the race, so the action takes place in an oddly empty landscape. The omission is a revealing one and it takes us to the centre of Stubbs's vision. There are never any crowds in his art. He was a painter of solitude, a painter whose tendency was always to isolate. There is a kind of melancholy at work here too. Only Stubbs could have painted the strange, rather sad, sleepwalking figure of Gimcrack's jockey.

Stubbs was an extremely acute observer of 18th-century England. He painted someone on almost every rung of the social ladder, from the aristocrat to those who harvested his grain, and there is no more accurate register of the many subtle gradations of the English class system in the century than his oeuvre. But he was never quite a sociable painter. There is a perpetual aloofness about him, which communicates itself to those whom he painted.

The intensity with which Stubbs saw people and animals forced him to see them in a state of disconnection, cut off from one another. This may be why the act of touching, in his art, is tremendously and almost electrically charged. In that act the gap that separates all living entities from each other has been breached. The painter invests it with great and tender momentousness. Whistlejacket and Two Other Stallions with Simon Cobb, the Groom is one of the most affecting pictures of this. It is painted on a blank background - like the life-size Whistlejacket and the Brood Mares and Foals, and for the same patron - that enhances the isolation of the forms. Only man and horse touch. The groom rests his hand on the flank of Whistlejacket, to reassure or to comfort. Stubbs has concentrated much feeling in that hand placed on horseflesh. This is English painting's truest equivalent to the creating hand of God the Father, reaching out to spark life into Adam on the ceiling of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel.

The largest of all Stubbs's paintings, Hambletonian, Rubbing Down is another great masterpiece of sympathetic art. It is also one of the most dreamlike and - despite its large scale - one of the most compressed of his paintings. Sir Henry Vane-Tempest commissioned it from Stubbs in 1799 after Hambletonian had won him a small fortune racing against another celebrated thoroughbred of the time called Diamond. Hambletonian had been whipped and spurred brutally by his jockey and he had finished the race almost dead, lathered with sweat and blood. Stubbs left out the blood but painted the exhaustion. The picture's true subject is the bond of affection that exists between the horse and its attendants. The horse is being consoled by a small, hard-faced man and a coarse-featured but tender boy. They have led their own hard lives and their sympathy for the horse is one of their ways of loving themselves.

Many of the animals that Stubbs painted were the trophies of a newly powerful and growing British Empire. They were symbols of the spread of British influence overseas, of the new worlds opening up before the gaze of explorers and colonisers such as Captain Cook or Sir Joseph Banks. Stubbs saw such creatures - monkeys, lions, tigers, rhinoceroses, arriving to form the first zoos - in all their animal otherness. He made exotic animals look peculiarly unexotic. He saw them as being simply (and rather sadly) out of place and he saw them with compassion, although he never resorted to the low, cute, Victorian trick of anthropomorphising them. This is what makes Stubbs's pictures of animals so much grander and so much more profound than any other British pictures of animals. There is no more affecting image of loneliness, of confusion, of a sense of being out of place, than his extraordinary portrait of a zebra, painted with such incongruity amid the greens and russets of an English wood. If Gainsborough reincarnated the fantastical tradition introduced to Britain by Van Dyck, Stubbs was another Holbein. His realism was, like Holbein's, a form of moral vision.

Stubbs's sympathy extended naturally not just across the barriers of class, but across the barriers of species as well. He accorded the same even attention to each living creature that he painted, so that in his art a dog can easily be as dignified as an aristocrat. He was a great leveller and one of the greatest artists of the Northern levelling imagination. Sometimes it is possible to sense the painter actively questioning certain notions of social and natural hierarchy. Freeman, the Earl of Clarendon's Gamekeeper, with a Dying Doe and a Hound is a painting entirely about hierarchy and about hierarchy under threat. It is a picture of the deer that dies to feed the man who cares for the dog, composed to form a triangle with man at its apex. Night is closing in on all of them and the certainty of man's innate superiority to the beasts, compositionally insisted upon, but implicitly subverted, suddenly seems less than totally certain.

Stubbs was a great artist, by which is meant more than a great English artist. He was a great world artist, in the sense that a painting by him can hang next to a great Titian or Rembrandt or Rubens and not be embarrassed by the comparison. This is where Sir Alfred Munnings made his great mistake about the nature of the British art tradition. The subjects of Stubbs's art might have been my wife, my horse and myself, but that alone was not the point. Stubbs's pictures of horses have nothing in common with Munnings's cold, dry, academic paintings. What makes them great is not their subject matter, but the tremendous weight of feeling that has been invested in them.

Stubbs was not too complicated an artist. In the end he knew just a few truths. But he knew them, and he was moved by them, as profoundly as any painter who has ever lived. He knew that we are, all of us, just bodies moving through space. He knew that, finally, we are all alone.

The next, and final, extract from Andrew Graham-Dixon's book, 'A History of British Art', will be printed in the 'Independent' on 14 May. 'A History of British Art' is published by BBC Books at pounds 25 (copies can be ordered, post free, from 01624 675137). His series continues on BBC2 at 7.30pm on Sunday

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project