George Stubbs

Horse Devoured by a Lion

?exhibited 1763

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George Stubbs 1724–1806
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 692 × 1035 mm
frame: 897 × 1243 × 80 mm
Purchased 1976


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

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Display caption

This is one of at least 17 works Stubbs made of a lion stalking and attacking a horse. Here he depicts the moment the lion sinks its teeth into the terrified horse, set against the backdrop of Creswell Crags in the Peak District. The painting showcases Stubbs’s anatomical precision, informed by his studies of caged lions at the Tower of London. It also highlights his efforts to raise the status of animal painting by showing its emotional and narrative power. By depicting the dramatic climax of the encounter, Stubbs evokes the awe and terror felt when faced with untamed nature.

Gallery label, December 2020

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Catalogue entry


Oil on canvas, 27 1/4 × 40 3/4 (69.2 × 103.5)
Purchased from the Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (Grant-in-Aid) 1976
Coll: ... Horatio Miller, by 1876; Sir Walter Gilbey, sold Christie's 11 June 1915 (400), bt. Algernon Dunn Gardner; ... Mrs H.C. Leader, sold Sotheby's 3 April 1968 (142, repr.), bt. Ackermann for Paul Mellon; lent by Paul Mellon (anonymously) to the Tate Gallery from February 1973, and given by him to the Yale Center for British Art 1975, continuing on loan (also anonymously) to the Tate Gallery until its purchase by the Tate Gallery 1976.
Exh: ? Society of Artists, 1763 (120); Works of the Old Masters and Deceased Masters of the British School, RA, 1876 (35, lent by Horatio Miller).
Lit: Sir Walter Gilbey, Life of George Stubbs R.A., 1898, p.156 no.17; The Tate Gallery 1968–70, 1970, pp.35 and 68; Basil Taylor, Stubbs, 1971, p.34, fig.17; Ronald Paulson, Emblem and Expression, 1975, p.160, fig.95.

The theme of a lion attacking a horse preoccupied Stubbs for at least thirty years, inspiring seventeen known works. Sixteen of these were discussed by Basil Taylor in a brilliant and detailed study, ‘George Stubbs: The “Lion and Horse” Theme’, Burlington Magazine, CVII, 1965. Largely discounting a posthumous anecdote that Stubbs, returning from Italy, made an otherwise unrecorded visit to the coast of Africa and there witnessed a lion attacking a Barbary horse, Taylor convincingly suggested that Stubbs's initial inspiration for the theme was in fact an antique marble sculpture (repr. Taylor, 1965, op.cit., fig.39, and Taylor, 1971, fig.14) which Stubbs could have seen on his visit to Rome in 1754, and which had already provided Scheemakers, Panini and Wilson with models. But the effect of repairs to the antique sculpture in 1594 had been mistakenly to reconstruct the horse's head as drooping forwards, whereas in Stubbs's treatment of the subject, as Taylor notes, the horse's head is twisted backwards to its attacker ‘so as to close the composition in a manner quite different from the open “baroque” organization of the carving’ (p.86). Stubbs's inspiration from the antique sculpture is thus likely to have been indirect, from a source derived from the sculpture but pre-dating the repair to it in 1594; and that indirect source is likely to have been either the engraving by Adamo Ghisi discussed by Taylor (and repr. by him, fig.42) or one of the casts of the bronze group of a lion attacking a horse by Giambologna (repr. Charles Avery and Anthony Redcliffe, Giambologna 1529–1608, Arts Council exhibition catalogue, 1978, p.187).

Taylor also notes (p.86, note 13) that a marble version of the antique sculpture, apparently modelled in the eighteenth century but showing the horse's head turned backwards, belonged to Henry Blundell of Ince Blundell Hall near Liverpool; it is now in the Walker Art Gallery (repr. Taylor, fig. 41). Henry Blundell (1724–1810), Stubbs's near-contemporary, in due course became one of his patrons, owning (among other works by Stubbs) a version in oils of ‘Horse attacked by a Lion’ of c. 1790–5; but as it appears that he did not begin to collect statuary before 1777 (Pictures from Ince Blundell Hall, Walker Art Gallery exhibition catalogue, 1960, p.5), his version of the antique sculpture is unlikely to have influenced Stubbs.

Taylor divided Stubb's various treatments of the lion and horse theme into three distinct episodes: the first (A), in which the lion prowls at some distance from the terrified horse; the second (B), in which the lion comes closer, while the horse still stands in the same attitude of terror; and the third (C), in which the lion crouches on the (still standing) horse's back and bites its flank. Taylor's 1965 article was however written before No.2058 reappeared in the saleroom. Its subject matter calls for the addition of a fourth episode (D), in which the horse has collapsed under the weight of the lion and is now its defenceless prey. This subject is closest of all to the antique sculpture; T02058 may therefore well have been Stubbs's earliest treatment of the whole theme. It is also the only representation by Stubbs of this episode so far known. Taylor (1965, op. cit., Appendix) lists versions of the other episodes, in different media: of episode A there are five versions, including an oil painting on long loan from a private collection to the Tate Gallery; of episode B there are three versions; and of episode C there are eight versions, including the enamel painting acquired by the Tate Gallery in 1970 and now T01192 in its collection.

Stubbs's earliest certain exhibit of a work on the lion and horse theme was ‘A horse and a lion’, exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1763 (119). This is likely to have represented episode A or B (rather than episode D, as suggested in The Tate Gallery 1968–70, p.65) since it was described by Horace Walpole briefly as ‘The horse rising up, greatly frightened’ (annotation to exhibition catalogue, quoted A. Graves, Society of Artists and Free Society of Artists, A Complete Dictionary of Contributors ... 1907) and more fully in a poem ‘On seeing the celebrated Startled Horse, painted by the inimitable Mr. Stubbs’, dated 4 November 1763 (? published in The Public Advertiser, reprinted in Anecdotes of Painting in England, ed. 1969, vol.IV, pp.110–2) as a picture of the horse ‘rooted’ to the spot by ‘apprehension, horror, hatred, fear’ at the sight of ‘the lyon nigh’. In T02058, the horse is more than ‘greatly frightened’ or ‘startled’, for the lion has forced him to the ground, and the horse is in the last throes of a struggle which it cannot survive.

In the same exhibition of 1763, Stubbs showed a picture titled merely ‘Its companion’ (120, i.e., companion to 119). This was later identified by John Sheepshanks, who was born twenty-four years after the exhibition, as ‘A stag and hound’ (Sheepshanks's catalogue annotations are printed, with many of Horace Walpole's in ‘Notes by Horace Walpole...on the Exhibitions of the Society of Artists and the Free Society of Artists’, ed. Hugh Gatty, Walpole Society, xxvii, 1938–9); Basil Taylor accepted Sheepshanks's identification without comment (1971, annotated list of Exhibited Works, p.53). Martin Butlin, in discussion, suggests that of the pair exhibited in 1763, no.119, ‘A horse and lion’, may in fact be identifiable with the painting now on loan to the Tate Gallery, and no.120, ‘Its companion’, with T.2058, now titled ‘Horse devoured by a lion’; both pictures seem to date from the early 1760s, and are similar in style and colouring, and their exhibition as a pair in 1763 would have made (and now makes, in the Tate Gallery) both visual and narrative sense, for they show the first and last episodes in the unequal contest between the horse and the lion.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1976-8: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1979

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