Not many paintings, British or otherwise, have posed a danger to the public when exhibited. Yet, only a few years ago, it was quite risky to drive round, or past, Trafalgar Square when there was, for several months, a vast projection on to one of the exterior walls of the National Gallery of a magnificent racehorse, a paradigm of the flawless beauty of an Arabian thoroughbred. The painting and the horse were entitled Whistlejacket and the artist was George Stubbs, working for the owner of the stallion, his first major patron, the second Marquess of Rockingham.
Whistlejacket's last race was in 1759 and he won his owner 2,000 guineas – about £100,000 in today's money – at which point Rockingham put him to stud at Wentworth Woodhouse. Judy Egerton's description of both horse and painting is rhapsodic; so much so that she apologises to the reader for what she acknowledges is a purple passage, but excuses herself by saying that her description was drawn from "the standard definition of the ideal characteristics of the Arabian horse".
George Stubbs was born in Liverpool in 1724 and died at the then great age of nearly 82 in London in 1806. He began his artistic life as a copyist, but didn't like the work so gave it up and stayed at home more or less to teach himself to paint. He studied anatomy at York Hospital and his first professional job was to do the illustrations for Dr John Burton's Essay towards a Complete New System of Midwifery in 1751. Having attended, and assisted at, the necessary dissections for those drawings, he also taught himself to etch. His move from humans to horses took him to a farmhouse in Lincolnshire. There he acquired various dead horses which he hoisted, with block and tackle, into every conceivable posture to enable him to dissect, draw and subsequently engrave the plates for that graphic masterpiece The Anatomy of the Horse in 1766. The smells emanating from his studio must have made those of a tannery seem like roses.
His book was soon successful, being taken up by the aristocratic members of the relatively recently formed Jockey Club. It became in effect a superb, if fortuitous, advertisement to the horsy classes who wanted their thoroughbreds immortalised in paint. His malodorous anatomical efforts had given him a unique expertise in the accurate depiction of equine musculature and skeletal structure so that he soon surpassed the competition and, eventually, eclipsed in advance all the British horse painters who followed him. Other great artists have done superb horse paintings, ranging from Géricault and Delacroix to Jack Yeats, but Stubbs at his best, or even in his rare merely competent works, obliterates the British painters so admired in the shires, and makes the dreadful Sir Alfred Munnings look like a kind of rural Jack Vettriano.
Stubbs was elected as a Royal Academician in 1781, when that was still a real distinction, but his election was voided after he refused to perform what was expected of all new RA's, namely to submit a diploma painting.
As Egerton's catalogue raisonné makes clear, Stubbs was, if a genius with horses, no slouch as a portrait painter, both of others and of himself. He often produced immaculate landscapes and great houses as background to the thoroughbreds and frequently included grooms and stable lads, having, like Hogarth, a particular empathy for servants. Furthermore he was also a brilliant depicter of other animals, from monkeys to dogs, Shetland ponies and most of the great cats; leopards, panthers, tigers and lions.
One of his most telling images is the Self-Portrait on a White Hunter (1783), an oval done in enamel on Wedgwood earthenware tablet in 1782. As Egerton points out in her always informative and stylishly written notes on individual paintings, there must be an element of fantasy in this view of himself since he cannot have often ridden a white hunter "of as fine breeding as this one; he is more likely to have kept a dependable hack or two...."
Stubbs was by no means passive in his view of the animal kingdom. There's an amazing painting in the Mellon collection of two bulls fighting, head-butting each other in a way that makes your own forehead ache in sympathy, and when his horses fight each other the skill of the representation of their tensed musculature is breathtaking. He is also a master of movement and until the photographer Eadweard Muybridge came along with his multi-frame motion studies, the closest we ever come to trots, canters and gallops was Stubbs at his best. One of the most interesting is of a horse turning to pasture in which the horse, about to break into a canter, is possessed of a gleaming, faintly wicked eye as if he's a real troublemaker. The author suggests that his owner might have been Lord Pomfret who was certainly a troublemaker himself; tried at the Old Bailey for murdering a fellow Guards officer (verdict manslaughter), and committed by order of the House of Lords to 10 days in the Tower of London for sending an insulting challenge to the Duke of Grafton. Never let it be said that catalogues raisonnés are dull. Egerton's Stubbs is one of those rare works of scholarship for the student of art which can be enjoyed by the general reader.
If it seems absurd to say that a book costing £95 is superb value, then reflect on this. It has more than 650 large pages, is beautifully bound and slip-cased, and has several hundred fine reproductions mostly in colour. When any halfway decent biography or history book sells for between £25 and £30, then this book is relatively cheap, thanks to subsidy from the Paul Mellon Centre for British Art.
Its publication is well timed, as visitors to the Royal Academy can see a rich selection of pictures from the late Paul Mellon's collection, with several of his Stubbs canvases including the great Zebra (1762-3). This volume is a landmark in the history of British art book publishing.
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