George Stubbs

Horse Attacked by a Lion


Enamel on copper
Support: 241 x 283 mm
frame: 514 x 560 x 74 mm
Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1970


Stubbs was obsessed with the subject of a lion attacking a horse, making at least seventeen works on the theme, most of which were in oil on regularly-shaped canvas. In this enamel on copper piece, Stubbs cut off the corners to form an irregular octagon, thus tightening the composition. The result is a forceful depiction which is perhaps his most successful treatment of the theme. This is Stubbs's earliest known experiment in painting in enamel colours, and was the first time the technique - previously limited to decorative objects and miniature portraits - was used by an artist of Stubbs's stature. He may have approached the medium out of scientific curiosity, although his exact reasons are not known. Before producing this piece, Stubbs spent two years studying the chemical changes to colours under high temperatures, and a further three years improving the support upon which the painting would be made. He used a copper plate support for this work, but was dissatisfied with the size limitations, and for later enamels commissioned the Master Potter Josiah Wedgwood to produce special large ceramic tablets.

In preparation for the work, he made many studies of caged lions at the Tower of London and at Lord Shelbourne's menagerie on Hounslow Heath. Stubbs's interest in the subject is traditionally presumed to originate from a scene he reportedly witnessed in North Africa during his return by sea from Italy. This was largely disproven, however, with the reappearance of an oil painting Stubbs made of the subject, Horse Devoured by a Lion, in which the horse is pressed to the ground (Tate Gallery T02058). It differs from all other known versions of the work, but is strikingly similar to a Roman copy of a Greek sculpture group that Stubbs could have seen at the Palazzo dei Conservatori in Rome in 1754.

The innovative subject proved popular and influential. It allowed Stubbs to demonstrate his virtuosity as an animal and landscape painter, while enabling him, through his reference to a classical source, to elevate animal painting to history painting. The horse's noble submission to his inevitable fate suggests the heroic, moral overtones of stoical Roman virtue.

Also in the collection of the Tate Gallery is Horse Frightened by a Lion, ?exhibited 1763 (Tate Gallery T06869).

Further reading:
Basil Taylor, 'George Stubbs: "The Lion and Horse" Theme', Burlington Magazine, vol.107, no.743, Feb. 1965, pp.81-6
Bruce Tattersall, Stubbs & Wedgwood: Unique Alliance between Artist and Potter, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1974, pp.62-3, reproduced
Judy Egerton, George Stubbs 1724-1806, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery 1984, reprinted 1996, pp.90-99, reproduced p.96 in colour

Terry Riggs
December 1997

Display caption

This is Stubbs’s earliest known attempt at painting in enamel colours. It was the first time the technique – previously limited to decorative objects – had been used by an artist of Stubbs's stature.

His experiment with a new medium may have been an effort to enhance or preserve the vibrancy of his colours. He experimented for several years with the chemical changes of colours under high temperatures, as well as improving the support upon which the painting was made. Although a copper plate was used for this octagonal composition, he later commissioned large ceramic tablets from Josiah Wedgwood.

Gallery label, September 2004

Catalogue entry

George Stubbs 1724–1806
Inscribed ‘Geo: Stubbs pinxit 1769’ b.r. and, on reverse, ‘No. J (7 for ‘I’)’.
Enamel on copper, octagonal, 9 9/16×11⅛ (24.3×28.2).
Purchased through the Maas Gallery with the aid of the Friends of the Tate Gallery and a special government grant (Grant-in-Aid) 1970.
Coll: Penniston Lamb, 1st Viscount Melbourne; his daughter, firstly Lady Cowper, secondly Lady Palmerston; her son, Lord Mount Temple; remained at Brocket Hall, Hertfordshire until bought 1920 by Sir George Buckston Browne and presented with Down House to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, by whom handed over in 1952 to the Royal College of Surgeons; sold 1968 to Speelman; sold to a private British collector, by whose executors sold through the Mass Gallery to the Tate.
Exh: Society of Artists, 1770 (135, ‘A lion devouring a horse, painted in enamel’); Whitechapel Art Gallery, February–April 1957 (51).
Lit: Joseph Mayer, Early Exhibitions of Art in Liverpool, 1876, pp. 113, 119–20; Joseph Meyer, Memoirs of Thomas Dodd, William Upcott, and George Stubbs, R.A., 1879, part 3, pp. 21–2, 28–9; Sir Walter Gilbey, Life of George Stubbs, R.A., 1898, p. 45; Algernon Graves, The Society of Artists of Great Britain 1760–1791; the Free Society of Artists 1761–1783, 1907, p. 250; Walter Shaw Sparrow, George Stubbs and Ben Marshall, 1929, p. 24; Walter Shaw Sparrow, A Book of Sporting Painters, 1931, p. 21; Geoffrey Grigson, The Harp of Aeolus, 1947, pp. 17–19; Basil Taylor, ‘George Stubbs: “The Lion and Horse” Theme’ in Burlington Magazine, CVII, 1965, pp. 81–6; Frederick Cummings in exhibition catalogue, Romantic Art in Britain, Detroit and Philadelphia, 1968, pp. 51–3.

This picture was described by Horace Walpole in his copy of the 1770 Society of Artists catalogue as ‘Very pretty’ and is the earliest known enamel by Stubbs. Ozias Humphry, in his manuscript life of Stubbs, based on the artist's own account and now in the Liverpool Public Library, relates that ‘an octagon within a Circle of 12 Inches of a Lyon devouring a Horse was sold to Lord Melbourne for 100 Guineas being the first picture in Enamel that our author sold’; the price is the same as that noted for a similar work in the catalogue of the 1771 Society of Artists exhibition (155, ‘A horse and lion; in enamel’, annotated ‘105£ with frame’—see Graves loc. cit.).

Basil Taylor, in the article listed above, has analysed the origins and development of Stubbs' treatment of the theme of a lion pursuing and attacking a horse. Reinforcement for his view that Stubbs' source was an antique sculpture rather than the supposed occasion on which he is said (by a writer in The Sporting Magazine for May 1808) to have witnessed such an encounter near Ceuta in North Africa has come from the reappearance in the saleroom of a further oil painting of the subject. This is the picture of ‘A Lion devouring a Horse’ from the collections of Horatio Miller and Sir Walter Gilbey (op. cit., p. 156 n. 17) sold by Mrs H C Leader at Sotheby's on 3 April 1968 (142, repr.; 27×40 in.) and at present on loan to the Tate Gallery. In this work, unlike all the other versions of the subject including T01192, the horse is pressed to the ground rather than on its feet, and in this respect it is particularly close to the sources suggested by Taylor, the Roman copy of a Greek original that Stubbs could have seen at the Palazzo dei Conservatori when he was in Rome in 1754 and its derivatives, especially the 18th-century version acquired by Henry Blundell of Ince-Blundell Hall, who also owned a version of Stubbs' painting (the two sculptures and a related engraving are repr. Taylor, op. cit., p. 84 figs. 39, 41 and 42). The rediscovered picture was presumably Stubbs' first treatment of the subject. It may have been exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1763 (119) as ‘A horse and a lion’, which Horace Walpole described as showing ‘The horse rising up, greatly frightened’ (see Graves, op. cit., p. 249).

The large oil painting now in the collection of Mr and Mrs Paul Mellon (96×131 in.; formerly Earl Fitzwilliam collection, see Gilbey op. cit., p. 168 no. 5; repr. Taylor, op. cit., p. 87 fig. 44) may be the work exhibited at the Society of Artists the following year, 1764 (113, ‘A Lion seizing a horse’; see James Barry's reference to this picture and its companion, ‘A lion and stag’, probably exhibited in 1766, in a letter to Dr Sleigh dateable 1765, reprinted in The Works of James Barry, 1809, I, p. 23). The horse is again brown, not white as in the pictures painted later in the decade, but the horse is shown standing, the lion supported entirely on its back. The animals bulk much larger in the design than in the first version, making the composition much more monumental. It is this version of the subject that Stubbs himself engraved, in reverse, in 1788 (repr. Basil Taylor, The Prints of George Stubbs, 1969, p. 29 no. 4).

Ozias Humphry, writing of this version, provides further evidence of Stubbs' working methods. ‘Mr. Stubbs painted also several pictures in London for the Marquiss [of Rockingham]—the most considerable of which, were two pictures the Size of Life. —one of a Lyon devouring a Stag, the other of a Lyon devouring a Horse. —The Studies for the former of these animals were made from a Lyon of Lord Shelbournes at his Villa on Hounslow Heath, by the permission of his Lordships Gardner. —The Lyon was confined in a Cage, like those at the Tower of London. —after having often viewd and considered the Lyon well, he made a design, and prepared his materials for painting the picture from Nature:- but as the posture of the animal was a given one for the purpose he wanted, it could seldom be seen in the position; therefore as the progress of the picture was often suspended, it afforded our author an opportunity of making many other studies from the Lyon... Whilst he was executing these drawings many opportunities occurred of observing the disposition of this animal; of the manner in particular in wch they watch & spring upon their prey. —one day when he was making two drawings from the Lyon... the Lyon looked with surprize over his Head & suddenly stopp'd short (at the sight of a Man who just appear'd in view in a distant part of the Garden that was coming to see [what] the artist was doing) standing, with one leg up as a Dog points—while he thought the man was without the reach of his Spring, and in this posture he continued so long as to give Mr Stubbs an opportunity of making a complete outline of him wch he had scarcely done, when the Lyon sprang fiercely towards the Man, his Breast of Body flat against the Bars of the Cage, and his Fore Claws spread and to their utmost stretch with an Intention to seize him! —and seem'd greviously enraged at the Impediment—... It was generally our author's practice when his pictures were advanc'd towards finishing to go frequently to the Tower and make his observations from time to time, wch was always highly useful—’

The small enamel of 1769, Tate Gallery No. T01192, shows a still further tightening up of the design, helped considerably by the cutting of the corners to make the picture an irregular octagon. What is presumably a try out for the enamel, perhaps because of the novel and unfamiliar technique, is the oil on panel, similar in size and format, in the Mellon Collection (10⅛×11⅝ in.; ex Benjamin West and Sir Walter Gilbey, op. cit., p. 157 no. 20). In this as in the enamel the horse is on its feet, forming a tight cameo-like group with the lion, but, as compared with the large oil painting, Stubbs has increased the drama by making the horse white and by depicting it with its head and neck strained still further back.

In other near-contemporary treatments of the subject Stubbs developed the more spacious composition of the first version exhibited in 1763: the animals, in the same upright position as in T01192, are set in fairly extensive landscapes. Examples, both in oil on canvas, are in the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (26×38 in.: repr. Taylor, op. cit., 1965, p. 83 fig. 37) and, signed and dated 1770 and with the incident placed off-centre under a dramatic stormy sky, in the Yale University Art Gallery (40⅛×50¼ in.; ex Marquis of Rockingham and Sir Walter Gilbey, op. cit., p. 157 no. 19; repr. Cummings, op. cit., p. 52). What seems to be another lost version is represented by Benjamin Green's engraving, ‘Done from an original picture in the Collection of Luke Scrafton, Esqr’ and published on 1 September 1769; the figures are closest to those in the Melbourne picture though in reverse but the setting is completely different with an elaborate landscape and, in the foreground, a prominent tree and a large dock plant similar to that in T01192. In the later version of this more open composition, acquired by Henry Blundell and dated by Taylor to 1790–5, Stubbs reverted to the brown horse and slightly less dramatic grouping of the animals of the large oil in the Mellon Collection, even to the extent of letting the lion's tail fly free instead of being tucked between his legs (27½×40½ in.; Weld Blundell collection).

Stubbs executed companions to many of the versions of ‘A Lion devouring a Horse’; these can be identified by similarities of scale or format though they were not necessarily exhibited the same year. They usually show a horse frightened by a lion, either nearby or in the distance, though the large oil in the Mellon Collection is paired with ‘A Lion Killing a Stag’ (see Taylor, op. cit., for various examples). T01192 may have had at least two companions in enamel on copper and of the same shape with the corners cut across: ‘A Horse frightened by a Lion’, signed and dated 1770 and presumably the work exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1771 (155, ‘A Horse and Lion, in enamel’), now in a private collection in the USA (repr. Taylor, op. cit., p. 83 fig. 35; engraved in reverse by Stubbs 1788, repr. Taylor, op. cit., 1969, p. 27 no. 3); and ‘A Lion and snarling Lioness’, also signed and dated 1770 and apparently exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1771 (153, ‘A lion and lioness’, medium not mentioned), now on loan to the Tate Gallery from Mr Pierre Jeannerat. A third work exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1771, ‘A lioness and tiger’ (154, medium not mentioned), may also have been an enamel in the same format though no example has been traced (later versions on china are recorded, one dated 1779—Gilbey, op. cit., p. 160 no. 24). The sale of Stubbs' studio, held at Peter Coxe's on 26–27 May 1807, included a ‘Tiger and Tigress, in enamel—octagon’ (1st day, 66) as well as the ‘Lion and Lioness’ mentioned above, similarly described (2nd day, 79) and a number of other enamels of similar subjects.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1968-70, London 1970