It is almost 20 years since the last major exhibition of Stubbs’s work and this is the first to focus on the subject of his passion, the horse. Thirty-four of his paintings and sketches have been gathered from collections, both public and private, worldwide, including Brood Mares and Foals, which has not been seen in public since the 18th century.
The exhibition is staged in a series of rooms at the National Gallery which concentrate on various themes and periods of Stubbs’s work. His unrivalled understanding of horses and their physiognomy is demonstrated in the first room which displays a number of anatomical drawings and prints that he painstakingly made in 1756-8, while preparing for the publication of his book The Anatomy of the Horse.
To say that he knew his subjects inside out is an understatement. Stubbs spent 18 months in a farmhouse in Northumberland, picking apart the layers of skin, tendon and muscle to gain a greater understanding of the inner workings of the horse. They were the first anatomical studies of horses to be published since the 16th century.
Following from that Stubbs went on to attract many wealthy and influential paintings who happily enough were also becoming increasingly interested in equestrian pursuits. The 18th century was the golden age of British racing as new, faster thoroughbred horses were introduced, pushing the stakes higher for owners and gamblers alike.
“These equine portraits,” explains the exhibition curator Susan Foistier, “were an expression of pride in ownership. Gimcrack, for instance was only in the hands of this one owner for a matter of months but it was time enough for him to commission Stubbs to paint a portrait.”
The most striking series of paintings in the exhibition are those he painted for Lord Rockingham: those which are painted like silhouettes on pale green backgrounds. According to the curator, it was Lord Rockingham’s interest in antique classical sculpture which inspired Stubbs to paint without a background.
In the 18th century, British attitudes to art dictated that the highest rank was reserved for history subjects, with portraiture and landscapes considerably lower, and animals lower still. The Rockingham series ensured that Stubbs would never suffer from the ignominy of being known simple as an animal painter. Soon people whose interests did not pivot on hunting, racing and breeding began to commission pieces. His popularity as a society painter was firmly established.
Later in his career Stubbs enjoyed Royal patronage through the Prince of Wales, who commissioned 14 paintings illustrating his sporting interests. Two of these paintings are featured in the exhibition including the portrait of Lady Lade, the notorious wife of his racing manager.
Enter the Stubbs steeplechase www.nationalgallery.org.uk/campaigns/stubbs/flash/steeplechase.html to win tickets to the exhibition
Stubbs and the Horse is at the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery until 25 September. For more information visit: www.nationalgallery.org.uk