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. The incident, however, is probably apocryphal, and was largely disproven with the reappearance of Horse Devoured by a Lion, which is strikingly similar to a Roman copy of a Greek sculpture group that Stubbs almost certainly saw at the Palazzo Dei Conservatori in Rome in 1754. He made many studies of caged lions at the Tower of London and at Lord Shelburne's menagerie on Hounslow Heath. The source of the exotic landscape is the limestone cliffs of Creswell Crags on the Nottinghamshire-Deryshire border, a suitably romantic backdrop for the heroic drama. The area was well off the tourist path, and had legendary connotations as a den for prehistoric wild beasts, although Stubbs may not have been aware of this.
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.
Basil Taylor, 'George Stubbs: "The Lion and Horse" Theme', Burlington Magazine, vol.107, no.743, Feb. 1965, pp.81-6
Judy Egerton, George Stubbs 1724-1806, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery 1984, reprinted 1996, pp.90-99, reproduced p.95 in colour