The Art of the Sublime

ISBN 978-1-84976-387-5

Sublime Action: George Stubbs’s Lion and Horse series

Aris Sarafianos

George Stubbs 'Horse Frightened by a Lion' ?exhibited 1763
George Stubbs
Horse Frightened by a Lion ?exhibited 1763
Tate T06869

Tate owns three works from George Stubbs’s famous group of paintings representing the dramatic encounter of a horse and a lion in the wilderness. From 1762, the Lion and Horse theme preoccupied the artist for over thirty years, during which he developed different episodes of the cycle with numerous variations. Tate’s paintings represent the first moment of the horse’s fright at the sight of a lion (T06869, fig.1), the moment of the attack (T01192, fig.2) and, ultimately, the lion devouring a helpless horse (T02058, fig.3). It is very likely that the first and last of these paintings were exhibited together as companion pieces in 1763 at the Society of Artists exhibition, where Stubbs showed examples of the Lion and Horse cycle for the first time.
George Stubbs 'Horse Attacked by a Lion' 1769
George Stubbs
Horse Attacked by a Lion 1769
Tate T01192
George Stubbs 'Horse Devoured by a Lion' ?exhibited 1763
George Stubbs
Horse Devoured by a Lion ?exhibited 1763
Tate T02058

The choice of subject and the intensity of the treatment in Stubbs’s series mark a clear break from contemporary animal art, including Stubbs’s own work, thus eliciting conflicting opinions by critics and scholars as to its place in art history. Some have described the paintings in anachronistic terms – ‘as early products of English romanticism’ – and called them ‘Stubbs’s chief contribution to Romantic art’.1 Others have chosen to emphasise the ‘antique’ prototypes of this ‘romantic’ theme to champion a ‘classicist’ or antiquarian Stubbs.2 Such ahistorical and anachronistic uses of concepts that Stubbs ignored (Romanticism) or frequently criticised (the antique) are less useful in revealing the historical references and far-reaching implications of these works than other pervasive frameworks of aesthetic practice at the time, which are better attuned to the scenarios of extreme violence and the broad spectrum of powerful emotions explored in these paintings. Particularly relevant here is the theory of the sublime, developed contemporaneously with Stubbs’s series, and more specifically Edmund Burke’s extreme and fully evolved version of the concept in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, first published in 1757.
There is evidence that there were strong affinities between Burke and Stubbs. As valuable members of the tight-knit cultural community identified with opposition Whigs and Lord Rockingham, in particular, who was the patron and supporter of both, Burke and Stubbs acquired and projected shared interests. Moreover, Stubbs’s plotting and pictorial handling of the Lion and Horse series reveal an intimate dialogue with Burke’s notion of the sublime: these paintings appear sublime in their choice of thematic motifs, their techniques of narrative dramatisation, the affective modes of viewing participation that they enable, and, ultimately, in their bold visualisation of the extreme anatomo-physiological changes experienced by the subject/viewer of the sublime.
At the thematic level, the depiction of a wild horse roaming in a prehistoric environment devoid of human presence resonates with Burke’s description of the horse in its natural state as a creature through which ‘the terrible and the sublime blaze out together’ with ‘fierceness and rage’. But, inversely, Burke had also acknowledged that in its domesticated, subjugated and ‘useful’ existence, the horse ‘has nothing of the sublime’. In Burke’s logic, the sublime is a higher, more powerful form of affect because, like the untamed horse, it exceeds human will and can hurt. The bull and, most significantly, the lion were also deemed sublime because they are ‘strong’, but, far more importantly, because they are ‘very destructive’ and ‘seldom ... of any use in our business’.3
Stubbs’s use of the wild horse and the lion in these pictures follows and simultaneously extends and dramatises Burke’s account. Evidently, Stubbs’s initially sublime wild horse falls prey to another sublime creature, the lion. Stubbs’s scenarios, involving a horse paralysed by fear at the sight of a lion before being devoured by it, set up a hyper-sublime spectacle unleashed by the collision of two sublime forces in a way that even Burke had not imagined. By setting up a fateful opposition between two signs of the sublime, Stubbs discovered a successful new way of increasing the affective charge of his paintings: the sublime does not draw its force simply by opposition to the beautiful, as Burke had shown to great effect, but also, as Stubbs realised, by an internal split which increases the impact of pictures as one form of the sublime is overpowered by another.
The way in which the status of the horse’s figure shifts across the series echoes Burke’s remarks on the animal’s dual identity as, in turn, aggressive and submissive, frightening and affright. More significantly, however, this switch does not expel the horse out of the sublime; rather, it reveals another dynamic ambiguity rooted in this affect. In Burke’s description of the mechanics of sublime affects, the ‘ability to hurt’ was only one part of the story; that of getting hurt was the other. The sublime presupposes a force like the lion able to cause physical injury, but, more innovatively, it also presupposes a subject or viewer exposed like the horse to the experience of terror and pain. In this sense the horse’s transition from a terrifying to a terrified creature in Horse Frightened by a Lion epitomises the ambiguities inherent in the experience of viewers of the sublime as Burke defines them. On the one hand, this viewer resembles the state of a threatened creature shaken, injured and overwhelmed by dangerous forces that exceed his ability to control. And yet, drawing on radical medical theories of the time, Burke presented this state of hazard and physical precariousness as health-enhancing and empowering. As a result the sublime viewer experiences, like Stubbs’s ‘horse frightened by a lion’, a special combination of empowerment and vulnerability, or rather he or she embodies a form of vulnerability as empowerment. It is in this sense that the horse marks out within Stubbs’s paintings a position for viewer insertion, an open invitation for viewer identification through which the affective charge of the pictures is further amplified. Long-established practices connecting humans and horses, as well as numerous visual precedents recording fatal human encounters with wildlife in which the devoured horse was frequently replaced by a human protagonist, had prepared the efficacy of Stubbs’s choice. In Burke’s discussion of tragedy, though, such mechanisms of affective substitution between viewers and images of suffering – mechanisms of empathy or, closer to Burke’s vocabulary, of ‘sympathy’ – were put at the centre of a critical discourse on the production of extreme affects such as the sublime.
It is from this process of high intensity affective communication between human beings and animals that one of Stubbs’s most important contributions to the sublime stems. The sublime viewer fashioned by Burke and Stubbs does not only slip into the horse’s affective or experiential position of terror, but, insofar as they do so, they undergo significant corporeal changes with important visual corollaries. For Burke, indeed, the sublime viewer is an agitated creature, literally vibrating with the energy of terror, both shaken and delighted by a kind of pain which, like intense labour, stretches, convulses and enlivens the muscular, sensory and nervous systems. Overwhelmed by fear, the horse’s body in Horse Frightened by a Lion also stretches and contracts every sinew and fibre with an unprecedented precision that visually replicates the physiological state of embodied contractility described by Burke as the principal ‘effect’ of fear and terror on human viewers. No one was more sensitive to the visual spectacle of this anatomical and physiological empathy than Horace Walpole in a poem directly inspired by Stubbs’s painting.
‘On seeing the celebrated Startled Horse, painted by the inimitable Mr. Stubbs’ was written in 1763 on the eve of Stubbs’s exhibition of Horse Frightened by a Lion at the Society of Artists and was immediately published in the Public Advertiser.4 The poem epitomises the two moments of terror that I have just discussed: the terrifying horse – ‘the furious beast with fascinating fire’ – of the opening lines soon becomes an ‘elegant and tender’ creature, ‘rooted there’ and ‘unable to retire’ at the sight of the advancing lion. The poem also expresses the sympathetic bond between viewer and horse facilitated by Stubbs’s pictures:
 In that sublime essay – my blood runs back,
 My fibres tremble, my sinews slack;
 I feel his [the horse’s] feelings; how he stands transfix’d!
 How all the passions in his mien are mix’d!
Moreover, throughout the poem Walpole intimately fuses his own physical response to the painting with the similarly agitated body of the painted horse. Walpole’s body ‘trembles’ and his ‘fibres’ convulse like the horse’s ‘distending’ ‘veins’ and ‘joints’. Walpole replicated in writing the contractile physicality of the viewing experience associated with the sublime in accordance with the same maximalist vocabulary of fibres and sinews and the very neuro-physiological language of affect that Burke had used to describe the embodied sensation of the sublime.
Walpole’s poem also throws light on the close relation between high-precision visual representations and the production of sublime affects. Walpole was convinced that the dramatic charge and extreme viewing effects required by the sublime could not be produced without Stubbs’s unprecedented talent for visual simulations. It is no coincidence that Walpole concluded his poem just as he had started it: the opening subtitle ‘And Picture snatch the Palm from Life’ is appropriately matched by the closing line, which affirms that Stubbs’s painting does ‘Not mimic art, but life itself is here’. For Walpole, Stubbs’s art of simulation did not draw from Baroque tricks of mimicry, artifice or illusionism: the painting is obviously not ‘a meer machine’. Rather, Walpole understood that Stubbs’s startling imitations emblematised a new type of rigorous, painstaking and unflinching accuracy based on the scientific study of extreme natural phenomena. Anecdotes that record the genuine impact of wonder and surprise produced by Stubbs’s naturalist technique on his contemporaries have routinely been dismissed, but they point to a significant dimension of the sublime.
Among those who grasped the importance of Stubbs’s new combination of sublimity and ‘surprising reality’ was the painter James Barry, a friend of Burke’s who discussed Stubbs’s work with their common friend, Dr Joseph Sleigh.5 Barry estimated that Stubbs’s naturalist version of the sublime ‘must rouse and agitate the most inattentive’,6 while maintaining that Burke had ‘often confirmed’ his judgements.7 Stubbs’s Lion and Horse series became so emblematic of the painter’s special skills that, when the dramatist Richard Cumberland celebrated Stubbs’s crucial role in the long-awaited arrival of ‘wonder-dealing art’ on ‘Britain’s stormy coast’, he could only describe the painter ‘like a lion [that] springs upon his prey’.8 Barry himself turned to Stubbs’s series when he was given the commission to decorate the Great Room of the Royal Society of Artists at the Adelphi, London, which he worked on from c.1777–84. Understanding and elaborating on the empathetic scenarios between men and horses in Stubbs’s paintings, Barry started his series with Orpheus, which stages among other scenes a frightening encounter between two children and a lion ‘who discovers them as he is prowling about for prey’ in the middle ground of the picture, while ‘a little farther in the distance’ are depicted ‘two horses, one run down by a tiger’ and another running away.9 In Barry’s painting the dramatic contortions of the horse and tiger locked in a lethal embrace are eclipsed by the figure of Orpheus in the foreground, who stood for Barry, as the legislator, divine, poet and philosopher who pulled humanity out from its prehistoric conditions of abject savagery. Barry also followed Stubbs’s suggestion of a prehistoric setting for the lion and horse confrontation; but here is where the similarities between Barry’s and Stubbs’s use of the motif end.
Barry’s painting in fact demonstrates how difficult it was to follow the potentialities opened up by Stubbs’s enquiry into the sublime. Stubbs used scenarios of sublime action in order to probe into the complex dynamics of extreme affective states and their role in connecting art to life and animal to man. By contrast, Barry diverged from this model in drawing a divisive opposition between polite notions of civilisation and the terrifyingly inferior life of ‘savage people’ rooted in a ‘state of nature ... far short of the golden age and happiness’.10 By appealing to an archaic realm of pre-linguistic aesthesis, the language of sensations used by Burke, Walpole and Stubbs highlighted the primary animal functions common to all sentient beings. In contrast, Barry’s picture provided an oversimplified, didactic and moralising agenda designed to point out that ‘the want of human culture is an evil’ that ‘extends (even beyond our species) to all those animals which were intended for domestication’.11 Barry thus utilised the Lion and Horse theme to reinstate, in an allegorical scenario, age-old, hierarchical divisions between reason and feeling, nature and culture, savagery and politeness, good and evil. Stubbs’s paintings, on the other hand, rehearsed and explored the ambiguities of violence and power embedded in the sublime, as well as the life-enhancing contradictions involved in the operation of intense affects, the materialist – anatomo-physiological – basis of experience and expression, and, ultimately, the rich synergies between scientific imitation and primal sensations. Unlike Barry’s un-sublime variation on the theme, Stubbs’s Lion and Horse series provides a unique insight into eighteenth-century notions of the sublime that would have far-reaching implications for the future.


Judy Egerton, ‘Stubbs’, in Jane Turner (ed.), Dictionary of Art, vol.29, London 1996, p.808.
Nicholas Hall, ‘Fearful Symmetry: George Stubbs, Painter of the English Enlightenment’, in Nicholas H.J. Hall (ed.), Fearful Symmetry: George Stubbs, Painter of the English Enlightenment, New York 2000, pp.11–34, especially p.32.
Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas on the Sublime and Beautiful, London 1759, p.113.
Public Advertiser, no.9050, 4 November 1763.
James Barry, The Works of James Barry, vol.1, London 1809, p.16.
Ibid., p.23.
Ibid., p.17.
Public Advertiser, no.11075, 12 June 1770.
James Barry, An Account of a Series of Pictures in the Great Room of the Society of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, at the Adelphi, London 1783, p.45. Orpheus, first in the series The Progress of Human Culture and Knowledge c.1777–84, is reproduced at A print after the painting is in Tate’s collection (T06557).
Ibid., p.44.
Ibid., p.45.
Aris Sarafianos is Lecturer in Art History, History and Archaeology at the University of Ioannina, Greece.

How to cite

Aris Sarafianos, ‘Sublime Action: George Stubbs’s Lion and Horse series’, in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, Tate Research Publication, January 2013,, accessed 23 May 2024.