George Stubbs: The man behind the horse

In his own lifetime, Stubbs was known as ‘Mr Stubbs the horse painter’, a somewhat derogatory label he challenged with dogged determination. This month we take a look at the life and work of the great British equine painter, along with a wonderful piece by Stubbs that we are delighted to have at our gallery.

Early Life

Born in Liverpool in 1724, George Stubbs was the son of leather-dresser John Stubbs and wife Mary. In his early years George worked at his fathers trade, smoothing and treating leather in order for it to later be crafted. However, at the age of 17 Stubbs told his father that he wished to become a painter. Although reluctant, his father eventually accepted his son’s new career path, on the condition he find an appropriate mentor.

Stubbs subsequently approached the Lancashire painter and engraver Hamlet Winstanley, and was briefly engaged by him as an apprentice. After demonstrating his abilities, Winstanley allowed Stubbs access to the collection at Knowsley Hall near Liverpool, of which he could carry out copying work. During his time here, Stubbs realised his love for painting anatomy and later went on to become self taught in order to further express himself through his artworks.

In 1744, Stubbs moved to York in the North of England, to pursue his ambition the subject under experts. For almost a decade he worked as a portrait painter, and studied human anatomy under the surgeon Charles Atkinson, at York County Hospital. Then in 1756, he and his wife Mary moved to a farmhouse in the village of Horkstow in the Lincolnshire countryside and spent 18 months studying the anatomy of horses.

For the love of horses

Stubbs’s reputation as a painter of horses pervades today to the extent that it is scarcely mentioned that Stubbs only began painting horses in his thirties. Why Stubbs decided to move to the Lincolnshire countryside and turned to horses is unknown, however, the importance of the horse to the fabric of the eighteenth century and Stubbs’s interest in looking towards nature for artistic inspiration may be sufficient an answer. Horses in all their incarnations were the eighteenth century versions of the tractor, tank, motorbike and racing car; the powerful creature deserved detailed study, yet, no one before Stubbs attempted the challenge.

The difference between the horses painted before and after Stubbs are exemplary in illustrating his influence on the discipline. Anthony van Dyck, an extremely influential portraitist, who was also known for his portrayal of horses did not have the necessary knowledge to paint the creature as convincingly as Stubbs could. The momentous leap in equine portraiture and sporting pictures was the product of Stubbs’s exhausting work culminating in the publication of The Anatomy of the Horse in 1766.

During their time in Lincolnshire, Stubbs and his wife, undertook the gruesome task of hanging corpses of horses from the ceiling by using iron bars and hooks. According to Oziah Humphrey’s Memoir, or Particulars of the Life of Mr Stubbs, Stubbs injected ‘the muscles, the blood vessels, and the nerves so that they retain’d their form to the last without undergoing any change of position’. Stubbs would then strip away layers of skin, revealing the muscles that were to be carefully drawn and accompanied by explanations. Stubbs would continue in the same manner until he reached the skeleton and the cadaver was no longer of any use.

Notably, Stubbs’s anatomical studies lack the limp, macabre quality associated with dead animals and instead have been presented in such a way that the horse seems ennobled and full of spirit. It is abundantly clear from the outcome that Stubbs was a technically gifted dissector, a professional skill he gained in his early twenties while working with Surgeon Charles Atkinson. Stubbs demonstrated a keen intellect and strong interest in anatomy throughout his life and was known to dissect small animals even as a child. Stubbs did not only produce the drawings for the illustrations but also all of the engravings Portrait of a Gentleman upon a Grey Hunter is a marvellous example of the naturalism and accuracy that Stubbs was able to achieve due to his detailed anatomical studies.

A Portrait of a Gentleman upon a Grey Hunter

Portrait of a Gentleman upon a Grey Hunter is comparable to a number of paintings in Stubbs’s oeuvre in subject-matter and composition and has a particular resemblance to Stubbs’s self-portrait on enamel of 1772.

According to some scholars, the similarity in the pose of the gentleman, the horse and the background suggests that the rider in Portrait of a Gentleman upon a Grey Hunter is a relative of Stubbs’s or at least a close friend; the open demeanour and informal pose suggests that the sitter ‘belongs to a circle in which Stubbs felt at home’. In 1972, Basil Taylor proposed that ‘the man’s features show such a strong resemblance to the artist’s, while being considerably younger, that one is bound to consider the possibility that the picture may represent his natural son, George Townly Stubbs’. Unfortunately, no portrait of Townly Stubbs exists, so the theory is impossible to corroborate and must remain speculative. Nonetheless, the painting is considered as a highly significant embodiment of all the elements that Stubbs is famous for; an accurate depiction of a horse, a strong representation of a figure and a picturesque landscape acting as a harmonious backdrop.

Robert Nesham (his administrators)
Christies, 23 July 1928, Lot 153
Ackermann 1929
Mrs Robert Emmer, Paris
Mrs St Clair Balfour, Hamilton, Ontario
John Alistair Campbell, Alberta, Canada
Mr. Paul Mellon, KBE, 1964
Christie’s New York, 1989
Private collection
Private collection, United Kingdom, 2004
Trinity House Paintings

24 x 28 in / 61 x 71.25 cm. Signed ‘Geo.Stubbs pinxit / 1781’ (lower right)

London Royal Academy, Painting in England 1700-1850 from the collection of Mr & Mrs Paul Mellon 12 December 1964 – 28 February 1965, no. 264.

New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University Art Gallery, Painting in England 1700 – 1850 from the collection of Mr & Mrs Paul Mellon, 15 April – 20 June 1965, no. 176.

Tate Gallery, London, George Stubbs 1724 – 1806, 13 February – 7 April 1985, no. 12.are for a painting by Stubbs of such importance, execution and provenance to become available on the open market.



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