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Selected and Introduced for Short Work by Paul Bonaventura, Senior Research Fellow in Fine Art Studies at the Ruskin School of Drawing & Fine Art, University of Oxford
George Stubbs (1724-1806) is recognised as one of the most original artists of the eighteenth century. His singular ability to translate the study of nature into extraordinarily balanced compositions marks him out from all other practitioners in the field of animal painting. Although his wide-ranging subjects also included portraits, conversation pieces and paintings of domestic and exotic animals, Stubbs is best known for painting horses, and his reputation was established among noblemen devoted to racing and breeding horses who recognised in him a shared sympathy for the English countryside and rural ways of life.
Stubbs’s career as a painter of horses was rooted in his extraordinary knowledge of equine make-up. In his early thirties, between 1756 and 1758, Stubbs spent eighteen months dissecting and drawing the bodies of up to a dozen horses at a remote farmhouse at Horkstow in Lincolnshire. Out of this unflinching and painstaking industry came a publication called The Anatomy of the Horse and a steadfast commitment to the pursuit of reality.
In A Memoir of George Stubbs, the only contemporary account of the artist’s life and career, Ozias Humphry described Stubbs’s working methods in Horkstow:
‘The first subject which was procured was a horse which was bled to death by the jugular vein – after which the arteries and veins were injected – Then a bar of iron was suspended from the ceiling of the room, by a teagle of iron to which iron hooks were fixed – under this bar a plank was swung at 16 inches wide for the horse feet to rest upon – and the horse was suspended to the bar of iron by the above mentioned hooks which was fastened into the opposite side of the horse that was intended to be designed, by passing the hooks through the ribs and fastening them under the back bone – and by these means the horse was fixed in the attitude which these prints represent and continued hanging in the posture six or seven weeks, or as long as they were fit for use –
His drawings of a skeleton were previously made – and then the operations upon this fixed subject were thus begun. He first began by dissecting and designing the muscles of the abdomen – proceeding through five different layers of muscles till he came to the peritoneum and the pleura, through which appeared the lungs and the intestines – after which the bowels were taken out, and cast away. –
Then he proceeded to dissect the head, by first stripping off the skin and after having cleared and prepared the muscles, et cetera, for the drawing, he made careful designs of them and wrote the explanation which usually employed him a whole day.
Then he took off another lay of muscles which he prepared, designed, and described, in the same manner as is represented in the book – and so he proceeded until he came to the skeleton – … It must be noted that by means of the injection [of wax or tallow] the muscles, the blood vessels, and the nerves, retained their form to the last without undergoing any change of position.
In this manner he advanced his work by stripping off skin and clearing and preparing as much of the subject as he concluded would employ a whole day to prepare design and describe, as above related, till the whole subject was completed.’
The first edition of The Anatomy of the Horse featured eighteen plates etched by the artist from his drawings, and more than 50,000 words of meticulous scientific text, and its publication in 1766 earned Stubbs instant and lasting appreciation, not least from the animal painters who followed him. ‘[Try] to imagine, for a moment,’ wrote Sir Alfred Munnings, President of the Royal Academy of Arts, ‘Stubbs at his work setting up and dissecting horse-carcasses in the barn there, making detailed drawings, for plate after plate with all the names of the muscles and finally engraving each plate himself, this latter part of the work, an entirely new departure for him, being spread over something like a period of six years, we may then begin to grasp the magnitude of this labour of love.’
Forty-two of Stubbs’s drawings for The Anatomy of the Horse survive in the Royal Academy Collections. Of these, eighteen are scrupulously finished on fine paper, made to be engraved for publication, and drawn to the same scale. The other twenty four are working drawings. Of the eighteen engravings in the accompanying eBook, many have drawings in Piccadilly that directly relate to Stubbs’s original plates. Fifteen of these are from the old set of eighteen, and five belong to the twenty-four working drawings.
The Anatomy of the Horse is a supreme achievement, but Stubbs’s belief in scientific inquiry as the basis for art should not blind us to the fact that his subsequent portraits of thoroughbed racehorses are more than just paintings of record for they absorb us on so many levels; by engaging the personality and feeding the spirit, they compel examination. To see Stubbs’s work solely as a reflection of the Enlightenment aspirations of his aristocratic clients is to neglect its phenomenal aesthetic quality and its lasting, but frequently overlooked impact on the later development of western art.