In the late 1760s, with his reputation as a painter of animal and country subjects at its height, Stubbs began experimenting with painting in enamel. This was the first time an artist of Stubbs's stature used the technique, which was previously limited to decorative objects and miniature portraits. His biographer Basil Taylor writes that Stubbs's enamel paintings are
certainly a sign, if not wholly a product, of his serious and experimental curiosity. That they are also the product not only of an intense relationship with the visible world, like the rest of his painting, but of a contest with the mysteries of chemistry and the hardly biddable force of fire gives them their unique fascination and particularity among the works of the 18th century. (Stubbs & Wedgwood, 1974, p.13)Stubbs spent two years studying the chemical changes colours underwent when fired under high temperatures, and a further three years improving the support upon which the painting would be made. His early efforts were produced on copper (Tate Gallery T01192) but, displeased with the size limitations of the copper plate support, he approached the master potter Josiah Wedgwood to produce special ceramic tablets. In 1775 Wedgwood began preparing the first of the large biscuit tablets (up to thirty by forty inches) that were to serve as Stubbs's 'canvases'. Not entirely successful in practical terms, the venture nonetheless resulted in a series of remarkable works, of which this is one of the most attractive survivors. At eighteen by twenty-four and a half inches, it is a moderately-sized example. Unusually for Stubbs's enamels, it is not a version of a previously painted oil. Only about thirty examples of Stubbs's enamel painting survive.
Stubbs here reinterprets with particular grace and delicacy a standard type of sporting portrait. A country squire out for a day's shooting on his estate loads his gun, his arm upraised to guide the ramrod down the barrel. The picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1782, as a pendant to Isabella Saltonstall in the Character of Una (1782, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge). The sitter is presumed to be 'a young Gentleman (William (?) Huth Esqr) son of a Gentleman Farmer' which Ozias Humphry notes in his Stubbs memoirs as 'painted on Enamel from Nature'. Nothing further is known of the sitter.
Bruce Tattersall (ed.), Stubbs & Wedgwood: Unique alliance between Artist and Potter, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery 1974, reproduced p.81
Judy Egerton, George Stubbs 1724-1806, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery 1984, reprinted 1996, p.162, reproduced in colour
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Technique and condition
This painting is in enamel colours fired onto a clay tablet prepared for Stubbs by Josiah Wedgwood. Stubbs had been painting in enamel medium since 1769, when he followed tradition in using a copper plate as his support. Becoming frustrated by the limitations of size imposed by copper, in 1775 he contacted Thomas Bentley, Wedgwood's partner, with the idea of producing ceramic tablets for paintings. Wedgwood accepted the challenge and after much trial and error was by 1779 able to write that, 'We shall be able now to make them with certainty ... perhaps ultimately up to 36 inches by 24, but that is at present in the offing and I wo. not mention it to Mr Stubbs beyond 30 at present' (letter to Thomas Bentley, 30 May 1779; quoted in Bruce Tattersall (ed.), Stubbs & Wedgwood: Unique Alliance between Artist and Potter, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1974, p.19). The earthenware body used for the plaques was Queen's Ware and the slightly convex, oval shape was chosen for its comparative reliability during firing, flat rectangular tablets having more tendency to crack or warp. Once it had been shaped in a mould, the clay was low fired in a 'biscuit' kiln (probably at Etruria) to form a hard, porous body ready to take the enamel colours.
The greatest difficulties in using enamels for finely toned paintings were finding pigments that would remain true to their original colours during firing and then applying them to the surface. In attending to the first difficulty, Stubbs, as we know from Ozias Humphry's manuscript biography (Tattersall, 1974, p.26), spent two years experimenting with enamels, producing a range of nineteen tints. He would have needed to experiment further on switching to ceramic supports, as the final firing temperature of clay is different from that of copper. As late as 1783 Wedgwood was noting in his Oven Book, '14 square tiles for Mr Stubbs to trie his cullors on' (R.V. Kemp, George Stubbs and the Wedgwood Connection, Stoke on Trent 1986, p.49) and in 1788 he sent down a recipe for blue enamel (B. Taylor, 'Josiah Wedgwood and George Stubbs', Proceedings of the Wedgwood Society, no. 4, 1961, p.222).
Before being applied to the clay, the pigments were mixed with glassy substances in powder form. It is possible that water alone would have been sufficient to bind them together. In the glazing of pottery the pigment is suspended in water which, on being absorbed into the biscuit, leaves the pigment on the surface of the pot. Firing them fuses them together. Perhaps a light, temporary binder such as gum would have been necessary for Stubb's highly worked paintings; the raking light photograph reveals repeated applications with small brushes and an alteration to the position of the young man's arm. Dossie, writing in 1758 about general enamelling onto metals, notes that essential oils have good workability as temporary binding media, after which they would be sublimated by the heat of the firing (R. Dossie, The Handmaid to the Arts, I, 1758, p.231). This application, however, may not have been suitable for porous clay.
Once painted, however, the biscuit plaque would be sent back to the enamelling kiln (at Etruria or in London) and fired to a higher temperature, at which the glassy substances would fuse together and lock the pigment inside on cooling. An analysis of the paint on a similar picture Erasmus Darwin of 1783, revealed that it contained silica and alumina with traces of calcium and potash (Tattersall, 1974, p.30. Analysis carried out at the British Ceramic Research Association). Despite the care of both sides, artist and potter, things often went wrong. The portraits of Josiah and Sarah Wedgwood, done in 1780, developed bubbles and cracks in the flesh tones during firing. In this painting problems occurred in the dark blue coat, where the surface is rough and pitted. Others cracked or had to be retouched in oil afterwards. Stubbs ceased to paint enamels after the death of Wedgwood in 1795.
Apart from the coat, however, this painting is in excellent condition. When acquired by the Tate in 1988 it bore the remains of a discoloured varnish and the coat was covered in a layer of newer varnish to reduce the effect of its damaged surface. Both types of varnish were removed. A clear synthetic resin varnish was applied to the coat for the same reason as above. The rest of the painting was left as it was. It is unlikely that Stubbs would have varnished these works; indeed, if all went well in the firing, there would have been no need. The colours would have been permanently fixed into a glassy surface, subtly varied in gloss by the underlying brushwork and the matt surface of the clay body.
Rica Jones<BR>June 1997