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  • George Stubbs, 'Horse Attacked by a Lion' 1769
    George Stubbs
    Horse Attacked by a Lion 1769
    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
  • George Stubbs, 'A Couple of Foxhounds' 1792
    George Stubbs
    A Couple of Foxhounds 1792
    Oil on canvas
    support: 1016 x 1270 mm
    frame: 1180 x 1440 x 115 mm
    Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1973
  • George Stubbs, 'Horse Devoured by a Lion' ?exhibited 1763
    George Stubbs
    Horse Devoured by a Lion ?exhibited 1763
  • George Stubbs, 'Newmarket Heath, with a Rubbing-Down House' circa 1765
    George Stubbs
    Newmarket Heath, with a Rubbing-Down House circa 1765
    Oil on canvas
    support: 302 x 419 mm
    frame: 425 x 535 x 60 mm
    Purchased 1979
  • George Stubbs, 'Haymakers' 1785
    George Stubbs
    Haymakers 1785
    Oil on wood
    support: 895 x 1353 mm
    Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery, the Art Fund, the Pilgrim Trust and subscribers 1977
  • George Stubbs, 'Reapers' 1785
    George Stubbs
    Reapers 1785
    Oil on wood
    support: 899 x 1368 mm
    Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery, the Art Fund, the Pilgrim Trust and subscribers 1977
  • George Stubbs, 'A Grey Hunter with a Groom and a Greyhound at Creswell Crags' circa 1762-4
    George Stubbs
    A Grey Hunter with a Groom and a Greyhound at Creswell Crags circa 1762-4
    Oil on canvas
    support: 445 x 679 mm
    frame: 620 x 855 x 110 mm
    Purchased 1895

Despite his humble background and lack of formal training, Stubbs established himself as the leading painter of horses and sporting scenes of his time. Stubbs’s paintings are admired today for their precision and clarity, and for their powerful evocation of English rural life.

In his own time, Stubbs struggled to be recognised as an artist of real status and ambition. The horse painting that made his name was viewed as a rather over-specialised occupation, and his focus on anatomical correctness was sometimes seen as awkward. In response to this, as the pictures on display here show, he widened his range of subjects to include exotic animals, portraits and dramatic narrative scenes. In the last years of his life he undertook a series of anatomical drawings which aimed to fuse art and science, but these remained unpublished and misunderstood. The nature of his achievement as an artist remains disputed by historians and critics.

George Stubbs, A Nylghau 1769–71

Oil on canvas
630 x 730 mm
Lent by the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow

Like the painting of a moose shown nearby, this picture was commissioned by the surgeon and anatomist William Hunter as a means of illustrating his lectures. Hunter wrote: ‘Good paintings of animals give much clearer ideas of descriptions’.

The ‘Nylghau’ or Nilgai is a kind of antelope, found in northern India. As Britain’s commercial and military empire expanded in the late eighteenth century, many ‘exotic’ creatures were imported into Britain both for scientific purposes and as a form of public spectacle.

George Stubbs, The Duke of Richmond’s First Bull Moose 1770

Oil on canvas
Lent by the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow

This painting records the arrival of a bull-moose, a creature brought to England for the first time in 1770, sent as a present to the Duke of Richmond from the Governer-General of Canada. Richmond was interested in breeding the animals domestically.

The painting was commissioned by the surgeon and anatomist William Hunter. He probably intended to use the picture as an illustration to a lecture. The large antlers at the bottom left are those of the ‘Irish elk’, an extinct European species which Hunter wanted to compare with the Canadian beast.

George Stubbs, A Cheetah and a Stag with two Indian Attendants 1765

Oil on canvas
Lent by Manchester Art Gallery

This picture commemorates the cheetah presented to King George III by Sir George Pigot, who commissioned the painting..

The painting has been connected to an incident in Windsor Great Park, when the cheetah was let loose to see if it would hunt a stag. The event was a tremendous disappointment, and Stubbs’s painting is an imagined scene rather than a representation of a real event. Even the stag is not a real creature as it combines elements of different species. The two Indian attendants lend the scene an ‘exotic’ air.

George Stubbs, Horse Frightened by a Lion 1770

Oil on canvas
1016 x 1276 mm
© The National Gallery, London
Lent by the National Museums, Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery

As you can see from other paintings in this room, Stubbs returned to the theme of a lion attacking a horse many times. In some of these the lion is actively attacking and devouring the horse, while here the horse is alarmed at the sudden appearance of the predator.

Although there is a legend that Stubbs saw an incident of this sort himself, in North Africa, there is no real evidence for it. Instead, he took his inspiration from past art and perhaps from one of the caged animals that could be seen in menageries in London.

George Stubbs, Lincolnshire Ox 1790

Oil on panel
© National Museums Liverpool (Walker Art Gallery)

This enormous ox was won by John Gibbons following a cock fight. Gibbons is shown here together with a cock referring to the incident. The ox grew to such a size that it was put on show in London as a public spectacle.

After the beast was slaughtered in 1791 parts of the carcass were put on display as well. One of the creature’s hooves and a horn survive in the Walker Art Gallery. Their size suggests that Stubbs has considerably exaggerated the scale of the reature.

George Stubbs, A Monkey 1799

Oil on panel
700 x 560 mm
Lent by the National Museums, Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery

This painting remains a bit of a mystery. It is the second version of a picture exhibited in 1775. It is not clear why either version was created, nor are we sure what species this animal is.

Stubbs created a number of pictures of exotic animals, imported into England for the purposes of science and as public spectacles. He probably painted this creature from a stuffed example rather than a living animal. It may reflect the painter’s revived interest in anatomical study in the last few years of his life.

George Stubbs, Horse Attacked by a Lion 1769

Enamel on copper
support: 241 x 283 mm frame: 514 x 560 x 74 mm
© Tate

This compact composition is painted with enamels on a copper surface. Stubbs experimented with this technique in an attempt to create a more permanent and vivid way of painting than oil painting on canvas.

The subject of a horse attacking a lion appears in a number of oil paintings, prints, enamels and ceramics by Stubbs.

George Stubbs, A Couple of Foxhounds 1792

Oil on canvas
1016 x 1270 mm
© Tate

This painting is typical of Stubbs’s later animal portraits. These tend to be more monumental than his earlier works; here, just two animals dominate the composition.

The picture was probably commissioned by the Reverend Thomas Vyner of Lincolnshire, an avid sportsman and an expert at breeding hounds. The foxhounds were probably bred from the 1st Earl of Yarborough’s famous Brocklesby pack; one of these appears in the portrait of the Brocklesby huntsmen, Thomas Smith and his son, also on display in this oom.

George Stubbs, Horse Devoured by a Lion ?exhibited 1763

Oil on canvas
support: 692 x 1035 mm frame: 897 x 1243 x 80 mm
© Tate

Stubbs made a series of works showing a horse attacked by a lion. This dramatic theme was meant to mark a departure for the painter, appealing to the public appetite for the Sublime – shocking, violent or awesome themes.

The setting for this bloody encounter is the harsh, rocky landscape of Creswell Crags in Nottinghamshire. This inaccessible, wild region exemplified the qualities of the Sublime.

George Stubbs, Newmarket Heath, with a Rubbing-Down House c.1765

Oil on canvas
302 x 419 mm
© Tate

This shows one of the rubbing-down houses on Newmarket Heath racecourse, where the sweating horses were dried or ‘rubbed-down’ with straw or rags after exercise.

There are only two surviving landscapes by Stubbs that don’t include animals or people. The other picture shows this same scene from a different angle. This building appears often in the backgrounds to his paintings of racehorses.

George Stubbs, Haymakers 1785

Oil on wood
895 x 1353 mm
© Tate

Like its partner Reapers (shown nearby) this picture presents a wholesome vision of agricultural work.

Stubbs’s painstaking style and his close observation of nature create an illusion of straightforward ‘realism’. Yet the figures are orchestrated into a rhythmic ballet which presents their labours as graceful rather than full of real effort and the whole picture is carefully organised in the form of a pyramid. Many contemporaries thought the effect was too contrived: the dominant taste was for more informal-looking pictures of rural life

George Stubbs, Reapers 1785

Oil on wood
899 x 1368 mm
© Tate

As a depiction of labour, this picture is greatly idealised. As in its partner Haymakers., the workers are spotlessly clean despite their drudgery. The church in the distance and the farm manager on the horse to the right serve as reminders of spiritual and social authority.

Stubbs’s picture can be seen as a celebration of the order and nobility of rural life, in tune with the concern with efficiency shown by agricultural writers of the time. Alternatively, one may think that his picture robs these workers of their individuality and denies the harsh realities of work for sentimental effect.

George Stubbs, Thomas Smith, Sen., former huntsman to the Brocklesby, and Thomas Smith, Jun., his successor, mounted in a wooded landscape, with the hound ‘Wonder’ 1776

Private collection

The hounds of Brocklesby were famous for their excellent breeding. Here, Thomas Smith the retired huntsman and his son, who took over the post, ride out in the early morning accompanied by one of the hounds. The father’s hand in his pocket suggests that there is a chill in the air.

For many, pictures like this represent a timeless vision of the rituals of the rural scene. It was Stubbs’s ability to create a highly dignified image of country life that made his work so popular with the wealthy landowners and racehorse owners who bought hisworks.

George Stubbs, Haycarting, 1794

Enamel on Wedgwood earthenware plaque
770 x 1050 mm
© Lady Lever Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool

This composition is an adaption of part of an earlier painting by Stubbs, shown nearby in this room.. Instead of showing the haymakers in a wider landscape setting, here they dominate the scene. The upright female figure which appears in the larger painting does not appear here; she features in the matching oval picture of Haymakers.

Like its partner this painting is executed on a ceramic plaque. For technical reasons, this had to be oval in shape rather than the rectangular format used for canvas or panel supports.

George Stubbs, Haymakers 1794

Enamel on Wedgwood earthenware plaque
745 x 1035 mm
© Lady Lever Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool

This is one of a pair of images showing rural work. Its partner is shown nearby.

Rural themes were popular in the art of the late eighteenth century. As society became more urban, and rural work more industrialised, poets and painters developed a romantic vision of the countryside.

This was the third time that Stubbs painted these harvest themes and he also engraved prints of the same subjects. He must have hoped that these images would prove popular with the public.

George Stubbs, The Fall of Phaeton 1780

Wedgwood plaque, blue and white jasper relief
Lent by the National Museums, Liverpool, Lady Lever Art Gallery

This plaque is a mass-produced object, based on an original model created by Stubbs. It was created in the factory of Josiah Wedgwood, who was a pioneer of factory production and modern marketing. He also employed a number of eminent artists to lend a sense of refinement and exclusivity to his wares.

The subject is from classical literature; the hot-headed youth, Phaeton, has stolen the chariot of his father, the sun god Apollo, and rides recklessly across the sky.

George Stubbs, A Grey Hunter with a Groom and a Greyhoud at Creswell Crags c.1762–4

Oil on canvas
445 x 679 mm
© Tate

The landscape setting is Creswell Crags in Nottinghamshire, which Stubbs also used as the background for many of his more dramatic horse and lion subjects.

Although admired in horse-loving circles, his paintings were only slowly accepted into the mainstream of British art. This was the first Stubbs painting bought for the national collection of British art, as late as 1895.