Stubbs and the Wild Back

‘Stubbs and the Wild’ is the second of three exhibitions organised by the Holburne Museum, Bath, as part of their centenary celebrations, and it has been inspired by George Stubbs’s painting of The Rev. Robert Carter Thelwall and his family (1776) in the permanent collection. Commissioned to celebrate his marriage to Charlotte Nelthorpe, the painting presents the Thelwalls as a prosperous family in a park, with a church beyond glimpsed through trees. Charlotte and her daughter are seated in a Phaeton, while her husband, dressed in ecclesiastical clothing, stands beside them, his saddled horse alongside. Charlotte Nelthorpe’s parents were among Stubbs’s earliest patrons, whose portraits he had painted c.1746, and it is likely that it was they who had paid for him to go to Italy in 1754. This experience, perversely, appears to have confirmed his view of the “superiority of nature over art”.  Furthermore, it was most probably Elizabeth Lady Nelthorpe who provided the farm building at Horkstow, in Lincolnshire, where he was able to pursue his dissection and exploration of the anatomy of the horse. Two drawings in pencil, lent by the Royal Academy of Art, record the anatomy of a horse seen from different angles and from which he himself was subsequently to make engravings. Stubbs’s understanding of the anatomy of the horse is demonstrated in his otherwise unsuccessful painting of Phaeton attempting to drive the Horses of the Sun (1762, Saltram House, Devon), where four terrified horses pull Phaeton’s unstoppable chariot amidst the smoke and lightning generated by Jupiter’s thunderbolt. It is an example of Stubbs’s early ambition to break into history painting, and it was exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1762 where it was, somewhat surprisingly, bought by Reynolds. The following year Stubbs established himself in London, and by now best known for his painting of horses, he was soon acknowledged as the leading animal painter of the day. It is his painting of wild animals which is explored in this exhibition.

At a time when the study of natural history, spurred on by newly discovered animal species being brought back from overseas, was making great strides, the talents demonstrated by Stubbs, based on precise observation, were much in demand. He exhibited his earliest ‘portrait’ of a wild animal, An African Ass (a zebra), at the Society of Artists in 1763. This animal had been presented to Queen Charlotte in 1762 and was kept in a paddock behind Buckingham House. His paintings of animals were often intended to serve as models for engravings, such as James Basire’s print of The Nyl-ghau (1771). This was after Stubbs’s painting executed in 1769 of the Nilgai (a large Asian antelope) which had been passed on by Queen Charlotte to William Hunter, her physician, for study. William Hunter, when presenting his lecture entitled An Account of the Nyl-ghau, An Indian animal not hitherto described, to the Royal Society in 1771, displayed there Stubbs’s painting to illustrate it. Basire’s print was subsequently the basis of Thomas Bewick’s woodcut of The Nyl-Ghau in his A General History of Quadrupeds first published in 1790, but illustrated in the exhibition by the image in the 5th edition of 1807.

George Stubbs, The Moose (1770), Oil on Canvas, 61 x 70.5 cm © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, 2016

George Stubbs, The Moose (1770), Oil on Canvas, 61 x 70.5 cm © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, 2016.

The Duke of Richmond had been sent a live moose by the Governor of Quebec, and some British naturalists believed it to be an American survival of the prehistoric Irish elk. William Hunter, who possessed a pair of antlers from one such prehistoric elk, sent Stubbs to Goodwood to paint the moose. Its lumpy forms carefully recorded, Stubbs has set this ugly animal with its large head against an imagined hillside with a lake beyond and a menacing sky. The moose was only a yearling and consequently Stubbs has included in the foreground a pair of antlers from a mature moose for comparison. Thus his painting, The Moose (1770, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow) was conceived as a semi-scientific image. However, in 1773, a two-year-old moose arrived at Goodwood and William Hunter and his fellow scientists, taking Stubbs and his painting of the yearling with them, went to visit it. They noted the differences which are clearly recorded in Stubbs’s drawing of The Duke of Richmond’s Second Bull Moose (1773, University of Glasgow Library). This shows the second moose with fully developed antlers, in the same position but with no background, as a purely scientific image.

Menageries and collections of natural curiosities were one of the attractions of late eighteenth-century London life, and Stubbs made delightful drawings of one of the smallest of primates, a mouse lemur, in Marmaduke Tunstall’s zoological museum in Welbeck Street. Two Studies of Marmaduke Tunstall’s Mouse Lemour (1773, British Museum), which he drew for the eminent scientist, Sir Joseph Banks, document this little furry animal with its long tail in all positions and from different angles. Stubbs was closely associated with Banks, President of the Royal Society, to whom the print, by his son George Townley Stubbs, after his painting The Lincolnshire Ox (1791), was dedicated.

Much of the exhibition is devoted to “Tygers”. For Stubbs lions, leopards and cheetahs were all “Tygers” and it is to be regretted that Stubbs’s masterpiece in this genre, Cheetah and Stag with two Indians (c.1765, in the Manchester Art Gallery), is claimed to be too large to be loaned. A tigress had been brought back from India by Robert Clive in 1760 and Stubbs recorded her while housed in the Duke of Marlborough’s Menagerie at Blenheim. In the exhibition it is represented by John Dixon’s splendid mezzotint after Stubbs’s painting. The magnificent animal rests in front of a rocky background, its front legs stretched out and head alert. On the other hand, Tygers at Play (before 1776, Private Collection, Hong Kong) represents two endearing young leopards gambolling together like domestic cats, set in an imaginary landscape with palm trees to indicate Africa. He repeated the subject in Two Leopards (1779, Private Collection), where the two animals depicted are much more mature (no doubt well fed). They emerge from a dark background, and stare out with large glassy eyes, more cuddly than frightening. The Den of Lions, (1772, Scawby Hall), shows a lioness being courted by a lion (information conveyed by the extremely good sound guide). The lioness turns her head, bares her teeth and stares at the somewhat nervous looking lion hoping to mate with her, while a second lion perched upon a rock behind against a dark background quietly awaits his moment. Unusually for this period this picture is painted on a mahogany panel and the exhibition makes a particular point of drawing attention to Stubbs working in a variety of media and supports.

Macaques were common pets and menagerie specimens in eighteenth-century Britain, and Stubbs’s painting of A Monkey (1799, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) is identified as the portrait of a crab-eating macaque from South-East Asia. It is a later copy of the painting exhibited by Stubbs at the Royal Academy in 1775 (Private Collection) and instead of crabs the subject depicted is stripping a tree of fruit. In Renaissance iconography the usual animal symbol associated with the sense of taste is the monkey, often shown biting into a piece of fruit (cf. Maarten de Vos, Taste, in the series of The Five Senses, in which the monkey is raiding a basket of fruit).

Already an accomplished copper-plate print maker from his early days in York, Stubbs experimented with painting in enamels on them, as witnessed by the portrait of him, executed in watercolour and pencil after Ozias Humphry, which introduces the exhibition. Stubbs is represented gesturing to his painting, partly visible, of Phaeton and the Chariot of the Sun, executed in enamels on a large oval copper plate. The larger copper plates proved in practice unsatisfactory for enamel paint since they expanded and buckled when fired. However, Josiah Wedgwood experimented with firing flat ceramic bases for Stubbs which remained stable at the temperature required for firing enamels. A number of small examples, such as A Lion seated on a Rock (1775, The Schorr Collection), and a Reclining Leopard (1778, Private Collection), illustrate the permanent quality of these images and their smooth surfaces which, despite being in tune with the Neo-Classicism favoured in the late eighteenth century, were not a commercial success and remained in his house after his death. Meanwhile, they served as models for prints in which Stubbs experimented with a great variety of techniques, including mezzotint, to exploit a broad range of tones. This is demonstrated by A Tyger (1788, British Museum), in fact depicting a leopard whose sleeping form with its soft spotted coat is admirably realistic. Clearly the model is not seen in the wild, as is pointed out in the excellent catalogue, since he has depicted this fierce animal wearing its collar.

George Stubbs, A Lion devouring a Horse (1788), Soft-ground etching with roulette work, 27.5 x 35.4 cm. Image courtesy of Nicholas Stogdon.

George Stubbs, A Lion devouring a Horse (1788), Soft-ground etching with roulette work, 27.5 x 35.4 cm. Image courtesy of Nicholas Stogdon.

For some thirty years, Stubbs explored the theme of horses attacked by lions. With a long tradition stretching back to antiquity, the model of the lion sinking its teeth into the back of a horse to bring it down was sculptural and Stubbs would have seen the well-known antique sculpture when in Rome. Variants in bronze stemming from the studio of Giambologna in Florence featured in British collections. Stubbs expanded the subject matter to depict different episodes in the relationship between domesticated horses encountering wild lions. The horse, the noblest animal in the service of Man, is exposed, unprotected, to the most ruthless carnivore in the natural world. This series of images commenced around 1762 with the painting he executed for the 2nd Marquis of Rockingham, and included in the exhibition is Horse Frightened by a Lion (1770, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool). As the lion, in the shadow of rocks, stalks a terrified white horse, the latter tenses his muscles and starts back with an expression of fear, his mane blown forward by a sudden gust of wind, echoed by his tail between his back legs. This theme is developed by Stubbs in his first published print, A Horse Affrighted by a Lion (1777, British Museum), which uses linear patterns more usually exploited by engravers, thereby providing a particularly rich dark background rendering the scene even more dramatic. This image was the basis for Josiah Wedgewood’s blue jasper plaque dating from 1780 which was modelled by Stubbs himself (Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection). The final episode, depicting the lion bringing down the horse, occupied Stubbs throughout much of his career and he was famous for it. Represented in the exhibition by A Lion devouring a Horse (1788, British Museum), soft-ground etching with roulette work, this print evolves from the picture painted for the 2nd Marquis of Rockingham, of which there are a number of versions and which he had also executed in enamel on copper in 1769. It is believed that Stubbs, with this terrifying image of the lion on the back of the horse, tearing its flesh, intended to raise the status of animals in the hierarchy of pictorial subjects to parity with history painting. However, Stubbs himself failed to be considered by his contemporaries as either a history painter or a portrait painter of any significance.

This small enjoyable exhibition, beautifully displayed, arouses one’s curiosity, and succeeds in showing a variety of less familiar aspects of Stubbs’s achievements. However, to set these in context a timeline would have been helpful. With his rigorous attempts to understand, record, and make animals the primary subject of his art, Stubbs followed his own path with dogged determination and revealed himself to be a man of his time.

Stubbs and the Wild is at the Holburne Museum, Bath until 2nd October 2016. It is accompanied by a catalogue edited by Amina Wright.