This work is presumed to be one of a pair with the Tate's Horse Frightened by a Lion (Tate Gallery T06869), which was exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1763. Both are similar in style, mood, size and colouring. The theme of a horse being attacked by a lion obsessed Stubbs for thirty years. He made at least seventeen works on the theme, in various media including oil, enamel, engravings, and a relief model in Wedgwood black basalt. The theme consists of variations on two basic episodes, in which the horse scents the emergence of the lion and rises up in terror, which this painting illustrates, and the actual attack, in which the lion has leapt up onto the horse's back and sinks his teeth into the terrified animal's flesh. Included among the various versions is the Tate's octagonal enamel on copper piece of 1769, Horse Attacked by a Lion (Tate Gallery T01192). Horse Devoured by a Lion is the only known version in which the horse has collapsed to his knees under the weight of the lion.

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.

Further reading:
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

Terry Riggs
December 1997