George Stubbs



Not on display

George Stubbs 1724–1806
Oil paint on wood
Support: 899 × 1368 mm
Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery, the Art Fund, the Pilgrim Trust and subscribers 1977


This is one of a pair with Haymakers (Tate Gallery T02256). They were the only works Stubbs exhibited in 1786, and his first exhibited pictures since 1782. He had painted earlier versions of the subjects, in oil on panel, in 1783 (National Trust, Bearsted Collection, Upton House). For his second versions, Stubbs improved the compositions, reorganising the groupings and increasing the number of figures from four in Haymakers and five in Reapers to seven in each of the 1785 paintings. He reordered the landscape elements, thereby altering the lighting and overall mood of the scenes. The pictures were most likely based on preliminary drawings made from nature, which he then rearranged to suit the design. Numerous studies and drawings of the subjects were included in the artist's posthumous sale, although they are now lost.

Both the 1785 paintings were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1786, then shown at the second exhibition of the Society for Promoting Painting and Design, Liverpool, in 1787. Stubbs announced his intention to engrave the pictures in 1788-9, publishing the engravings in 1791. He later adapted the subjects to three oval versions painted in enamel: Haymaking, 1794 (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight), Haymakers, 1795 (Lady Lever Art Gallery) and Reapers, 1795 (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut).

Picturesque rural subjects were popular during this period, and had been depicted by Gainsborough, Wheatley and Morland and some of the many illustrators of Thomson's Seasons. Stubbs's Haymakers is similar to an oval scene on the same theme painted in watercolour by Thomas Hearne, A Landscape and Figures from Thomson's Seasons of 1783 (Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester). This suggests that the two artists may have studied the same scene, or that Stubbs borrowed from Hearne the images of the girl pausing in front of the haycart with her hayrake upright, the woman raking in hay, and the man on top of the cart. Hearne's picture was exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1783, but Stubbs chose not to exhibit his early versions of Haymakers and Reapers that year, possibly to avoid the inevitable comparisons. The pictures' unsentimental yet sympathetic observation of work in the countryside, with little or no narrative content, is reminiscent of Stubbs's earlier depictions of groups of grooms and stable-lads rubbing down horses. The location of the scenes has not been identified. It is possibly in the south midlands, although such scenes could have been witnessed in fields on the outskirts of London, within a few miles of Stubbs's house at Somerset Street, London. Ozias Humphry noted in his manuscript Memoir of Stubbs (Liverpool Central Libraries) that the artist was accustomed to walk eight or nine miles a day.

Further reading:
Basil Taylor, Stubbs, London 1971, p.213, reproduced pl.100
Judy Egerton, George Stubbs 1724-1806, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1984, reprinted 1996, pp.166-8, reproduced p.168 in colour

Terry Riggs
January 1998

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Display caption

As a depiction of labour, this picture is greatly idealised. 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 like Arthur Young. Alternatively, you may think that his picture robs these workers of their individuality and denies the harsh realities of work for sentimental effect.

Gallery label, February 2016

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Catalogue entry

T02257 REAPERS 1785

Inscribed ‘Geo: Stubbs pinxit / 1785’ b.r.
Oil on panel, 35 1/2 × 53 7/8 (90 × 137)
Purchased with the aid of a special government grant, with assistance from The Friends of the Tate Gallery, The Pilgrim Trust, The National Art-Collections Fund, Mr. Paul Mellon KBE, The Trustees of the Sir Alfred Munnings Art Museum and Bonhams, and with the help of donations from Thos. Agnew & Sons Ltd., Associated Newspaper Group, BAT Industries, BSR Ltd., The Baring Foundation, The Chase Charity Trust, Mr. Algy Cluff, Editions Alecto, The Evening Standard, Fine Art Developments Ltd., The Gordon Fraser Gallery Ltd., Mr. Richard Green, Mr. and Mrs. H. J. Heinz II, Inchcape Management Services Ltd., The Jephcott Charitable Trust, The Post Office, The Joseph Rank Trust, The J. Arthur Rank Group, Rank Hovis McDougall Ltd., Thomson Holidays, The Wolfson Foundation and countless members of the public, 1977.
Prov: ... Caroline Victoria Jane Downer, The Red House, Carrog, near Corwen, Merionethshire, d. 24 December 1933; by descent to her nieces, Violet and Nancy Tombs; included in the sale of The Red House and its contents, Frank Owen, 13 July 1934 (? no catalogue), bt. Alderman James Conrad Cross of Liverpool, sold 1934 to Spink and Son Ltd.; Leggatt Brothers, 1935; Captain Arnold Wills, by descent to Major John Lycett Wills, from whom purchased, through Leggatt Brothers and Oscar and Peter Johnson Ltd., by the Tate Gallery, 1977.
Exh: RA 1786 (94 and 77); Society for Promoting Painting and Design, Liverpool 1787 (100, as ‘Harvest scene, Reapers’ and 101, as ‘Ditto, Haymakers’); George Stubbs, Whitechapel Art Gallery 1957 (45 and 44, repr. pls.XVI and XVII); English Painting c.1750–c.1850, Leggatt Brothers 1963 (10, repr., and 12).
Engr: in mixed method by the artist and published by him 1 January 1791 (Basil Taylor, The Prints of George Stubbs, 1969, 17 and 16, repr.).
Lit: Basil Taylor, Stubbs, 1971, pp.19–20, 39–40, 213, repr. pls.103 (detail 104) and 100 (detail 101); Constance-Anne Parker, Mr. Stubbs the Horse Painter, 1971, pp.122–30, repr. pp.123 and 127; Basil Taylor, ‘Farming as Stubbs saw it’, Country Life, 28 June 1973, pp.1858–60, repr. figs.2 and 5.

Painted in his sixty-first year, these were Stubb's only exhibits in 1786, and his first exhibited pictures since 1782, when five of the seven works he showed at the ra were enamel paintings. The interval between exhibits probably reflects Stubb's reaction to the evident lack of public enthusiasm for his enamels rather than a decline in output in that or any other medium; it may also reflect a deliberate pause in which Stubbs sought to diversify his subject-matter and make it more generally appealing to the public.

T02256 and T02257, both dated 1785, are Stubb's deliberate refinements of earlier versions of the same subjects, also painted in oils, on panels of similar size, both dated 1783 (National Trust, Bearsted Collection, Upton House; repr. Parker, pp.126 and 131; detail repr. Taylor, 1971, pls.102 and 105). In his choice of ‘Haymakers’ and ‘Reapers’ as subjects, Stubbs may have been partly influenced by the current popularity of picturesque rural subjects by Gainsborough, Wheatley and Morland, and by some of the many illustrators of Thomson's Seasons. There is enough similarity between both versions of ‘Haymakers’ and an oval haymaking scene painted in watercolour by Thomas Hearne, and exhibited at the Society of Artists, 1783 (108) as ‘A Landscape and figures from Thomson's Seasons’ (Whitworth Art Gallery; repr. British Watercolours from the John Edward Taylor Collection in the Whitworth Art Gallery, 1973, p.8) to suggest either that Stubbs and Hearne studied the same scene, or that Stubbs borrowed from Hearne the images of the girl pausing in front of the haycart with her hayrake upright, the woman raking in hay and the man on top of the haycart. Such borrowings by Stubbs from an exhibited picture by Hearne might partly explain why Stubbs did not choose to exhibit the 1783 versions of ‘Haymakers’ and ‘Reapers’; but in any case, Stubbs evidently realised that he could improve on the composition of his first versions of the subjects. He reorganised his subject-matter to produce, in the 1785 versions, seemingly natural and unforced groupings which are in fact controlled by a masterly sense of design.

There are numerous differences between the 1783 and 1785 versions. Some are matters of fact, though they subtly change the mood as well as the design of the pictures. There are seven figures in both the 1785 paintings, compared with four in the 1783 ‘Haymakers’ and five in the 1783 ‘Reapers’; the additional figures both contribute to the balance of the later compositions and reinforce the rhythmic links between the labourers' actions. The gentleman farmer (? or steward) in the 1783 ‘Reapers’ is an elderly man mounted on a sturdy cob, his figure having the air of a portrait drawn from life; in the 1785 picture, this figure is idealised into a younger and more handsome man mounted on a fine bay horse, and the glance he throws towards the young girl introduces a probably innocent yet distinctly perceptible hint of sexual interest into their encounter. The heavy trees on the right of the ‘Haymakers’ and left of the ‘Reapers’ of 1783 make the hayfield and the cornfield seem enclosed and deeply-shadowed; the light, which in both the 1783 pictures seems to be that of late afternoon or approaching dusk, is further decreased in the ‘Haymakers’ by the high and heavy load of hay almost ready for the carthorses' homeward plod. Stubbs re-ordered the trees to the left of the ‘Haymakers’ and to the right of the ‘Reapers’ of 1785, and made the sky in both lighter and clearer; the effect is to make the fields seem part of a larger and more prosperous estate, and to suggest the promise of a more bountiful harvest. Both the 1783 and 1785 versions are thinly painted in oils on panel; the thinness of the pigment and the choice of an inflexible support reflect Stubbs's current preoccupation with painting in enamel on Wedgwood plaques. Even allowing for their darker colouring, the 1783 pictures now appear to be in less good condition than the 1785 pair, in which the purity of Stubbs's colours and the fastidious balance of his tones are fortunately well preserved.

The only reasonably certain facts about the early history of the ‘Haymakers’ and ‘Reapers’ of 1785 are that Stubbs exhibited them at the ra in 1786, and the following year sent them up to his native Liverpool for the second exhibition of the Society for Promoting Painting and Design (where they were copied without his consent by Charles Towne); that he announced his intention to engrave the pictures in 1788–9 (and published the engravings in 1791); and that in 1794–5 he adapted the subjects to three oval versions painted in enamel. That it was the 1785 and not the 1783 pair (as was supposed before the rediscovery of the later versions) which was exhibited at the ra in 1786 and at Liverpool in 1787 is proved by the wording of Stubb's advertisement for the engravings, which closely follow the 1785 versions: in a notice published in London on 24 September 1788 and in Liverpool on 4 May 1789, he invited subscriptions for ‘Two Prints, Hay-Makers and Reapers, To Be Engraved by Mr. Stubbs, from Two Pictures of his own Painting, That have been exhibited at the Royal Academy London, and Liverpool’.

The ‘Haymakers’ and ‘Reapers’ of 1785 are probably to be identified with lots 69 and 72 on the second day of the sale of the contents of Stubbs's studio after his death (Peter Coxe, 26–27 May 1807): ‘Landscape at the time of the Hay Harvest, representing a Hay Field, with Hay Makers loading a Hay Cart - a Study for the same Subject, in enamel’ and ‘Landscape, a Scene during the Corn Harvest, representing a Corn Field with Reapers, a Study for the same Subject in enamel - painted from Nature’. Certainly the enamel versions (noted below) are more closely related to the 1785 than to the 1783 pictures; and since the enamels (largely unsold in Stubbs's lifetime) were given star billing in his posthumous sale, it is not surprising to see the versions in oils described as ‘studies for the enamels’.

Assuming that the 1785 pair were in Stubb's sale, they remained thereafter completely unrecorded until 1934, when they reappeared in Miss Downer's sale. How long she had owned them, or whether she had acquired them by inheritance or purchase, remains a mystery; legal papers relating to her family's possessions were destroyed by enemy action during the last war. The early history of the 1783 pair is equally obscure until 1898, when Sir Walter Gilbey recorded them as in his own collection (Life of George Stubbs R.A., 1898, pp.148–9).

Evidently both versions of ‘Haymakers’ and ‘Reapers’ were based on preliminary drawings made from nature. The first day of Stubb's sale included ‘Six studies of the Reaper [sic], and two finished drawings of ditto’ (17), ‘A capital Drawing, the original design for the Corn Field with Reapers’ (28) and ‘Ditto, ditto, the original design for the Painting of the Hay Field and Men loading a Hay Cart’ (30). The second days's sale included many drawings, some of which may have been studies for the background of the subjects, such as the ‘forty-six drawings of landscapes’ (part of lot 19), ‘One book with 20 landscapes, Views and Sketches’ (22) and ‘One book with 15 Sketches from Nature of Trees, in black chalk’ (29).

How far such drawings related to either pair of the finished compositions, or what clues they might have contained to the precise location for the original studies, is now impossible to tell: all the drawings in Stubb's sale have disappeared without trace (no copy of the sale catalogue annotated with buyers' names has been found, though a copy in the library of the Victoria and Albert Museum is annotated with the prices fetched by the first fifty-one lots). The backgrounds in the 1783 ‘Haymakers’ and ‘Reapers’, particularly that of the latter, appear to represent more precise locations than those of the 1785 pair. In a letter to The Times of 6 August 1977, Dr R. H. Richens, Director of the Commonwealth Bureau of Plant Breeding and Genetics, noted in the 1783 ‘Reapers’ ‘a magnificent row of hedgerow elms, immediately recognisable as to species and variety’; in later correspondence with the Tate, he identified Stubbs's elms as Ulmus minor var. vulgaris (= U. procera), but apart from a suggestion of the south midlands, doubted whether a precise location for Stubb's scenes could be established.

In both the ‘Haymakers’ and ‘Reapers’ of 1785, Stubbs evidently felt free to rearrange the landscape elements to suit his compositions; but that he made his original observations at first-hand is evident from the lyrical yet realistic manner with which he depicts the skilled movements of labourers reaping or stacking sheaves, raking or loading hay. Ozias Humphry noted in his ms. Memoir of his friend (Liverpool Central Libraries) that Stubbs was accustomed to walk eight or nine miles a day. He would not in fact have had to walk so far from his house in Somerset Street to see haymakers and reapers at work in fields on the outskirts of London, for instance in Lambeth, where Gilbert White's brother had an arable farm, in Bayswater, where Linnell sketched harvesters after the turn of the eighteenth century, or in Highbury: the foreground of North View of Highbury and Cannonbury Places, engraved in aquatint by R. Pollard and F. Jukes after Robert Dodd and published in 1787, is indeed enlivened by a group of haymakers which seems to be largely derived from T02256. Judging by Gilbert White's observations in Hampshire, Stubbs probably watched haymakers at work in late June or early July, and reapers in mid or early August. In 1783, White noted that on 28 June his men ‘ricked the hay of the great meadow in lovely order’, and on 16 August that the wheat harvest was finished; in 1785, he noted a poor yield of hay by 8 July, but on 15 August reported a bountiful harvest, adding ‘The harvest-scenes are very beautiful!’ (Gilbert White's Journals, ed. Walter Johnson, 1931).

Taylor and Parker count ‘Haymakers’ and ‘Reapers’ as part of a series of agricultural or farming subjects in Stubbs's work, of which the two earliest were the ‘Labourers’ commissioned by Lord Torrington apparently in the mid-1760s, about the same time as ‘Going out from Southill’, and ‘The Farmer's Wife and the Raven’, probably first painted in 1779 (versions of both pictures are listed in Basil Taylor, The Prints of George Stubbs, 1969, pp.46 and 44). But both these subjects have an anecdotal quality which effectively distances them from ‘Haymakers’ and ‘Reapers’; according to Humphry, ‘Labourers’ was painted because Lord Torrington ‘had often seen them [the bricklayers on his estate] appearing like a Flemish subject and therefore he desired to have them represented’, and ‘The Farmer's Wife and the Raven’ was an illustration to Gay's Fables, owing more to John Wootton's earlier illustration to that work than to first-hand observation of contemporary rural life.

In their concentration upon direct, unsentimental yet sympathetic observation of work in the countryside, with little or no narrative content, ‘Haymakers’ and ‘Reapers’ should perhaps rather be grouped with such pictures as ‘Phaeton with a pair of Cream Ponies and a Stable Lad’, dated by Taylor to 1780–5, and ‘Lord Clarendon's Gamekeeper with a Dying Doe and a Hound’, exhibited in 1801 as ‘A park scene at the Grove’ (both pictures Yale Center for British Art; another version of the second in a private collection, England). Many details in earlier pictures, notably the groups of grooms and stable-lads rubbing down a horse after exercise in the Goodwood ‘Racing’ picture of the early 1760s or in ‘Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath’, 1765 (two versions, Private Collection and the Jockey Club) seem to anticipate ‘Haymakers’ and ‘Reapers’ by the dispassionate sympathy with which Stubbs portrays the skilled, intent and unselfconscious demeanour of his labourers in the fields; but these remain details in larger compositions. Only with ‘Haymakers’ and ‘Reapers’ do such figures take the centre of the stage, and occupy it as fully, though less self-consciously, as do the upper-class sitters in ‘The Melbourne and Milbanke Families’, c.1770 (National Gallery).

Stubbs painted three oval versions of the subjects in enamels: ‘Haymakers’ (Lady Lever Art Gallery) and ‘Reapers’ (Yale Center for British Art), both dated 1795, are fairly closely based on the 1785 pair, though with fewer figures; ‘Haymaking’, dated 1794 (also Lady Lever Art Gallery) retains only the central figure of the girl from the 1785 oils, and introduces figures mowing and tossing hay. The three enamels are reproduced in Stubbs & Wedgwood, Tate Gallery exhibition catalogue, 1974 (pp.105, 107 and 109).

A painting in oils on panel, called ‘The Harvest Waggon’, apparently dating from c. 1785 and showing the two cart-horses from the 1785 ‘Haymakers’ pulling the haycart in from the left of the picture, is with Arthur Ackermann & Son (exh. English Sporting Paintings and Engravings 1975, 12, repr.). Two other oil paintings apparently related to Stubbs's ‘farming’ subjects of the 1780s are in need of further investigation. One is a harvesting scene dated 1785 and curiously blending ingredients from both ‘Haymakers’ and ‘Reapers’ (a waggon stacked with wheatsheaves, figures adapted from the 1785 ‘Haymakers’ and foreground details of wheatsheaves, barrel and jug adapted from the 1785 ‘Reapers’), sold under the title ‘The Harvest Waggon’ at Christie's, 22 March 1974 (36, repr., bt. Roy Miles, exh. by him: People and Places 1975, no number, repr.) and now in a Californian private collection. The other is a painting of a man with a horse-drawn harrow, formerly with Richard Green (exh. Sporting Paintings 1973, 49, repr.) and now in a private collection.

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



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