Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Stubbs, George (1724-1806)

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STUBBS, GEORGE (1724–1806), animal painter and anatomist, the son of John Stubbs, a currier, was born at Liverpool on 24 Aug. 1724, and brought up to his father's business. He was scarcely eight years old when he began to study anatomy at his father's house in Ormond Street, Liverpool, a neighbour, Dr. Holt, lending him bones and prepared subjects to draw. When fifteen his father gave way to his son's desire to be a painter, and died soon afterwards, leaving his widow in comfortable cumstances. Shortly afterwards George was engaged by Hamlet Winstanley to assist in copying pictures at Knowsley Hall, the seat of the Earl of Derby. He was to receive instruction, a shilling a day, and the choice of pictures to copy; but Winstanley afterwards refused to let him copy the pictures he chose, and they quarrelled, Stubbs declaring that ‘henceforward he would look into nature for himself, and consult and copy her only.’ He lived with his mother at Liverpool till he was twenty. He then went to Wigan, and stayed seven or eight months with Captain Blackbourne, who took a great fancy to him from his likeness to a son whom he had lately lost. After a brief residence in Leeds, where he painted portraits, he moved to York, where he studied anatomy under Charles Atkinson, and gave lectures upon it to the students in the hospital. He also learnt fencing and French and maintained himself by his profession. Being requested by Dr. John Burton to illustrate his ‘Essay towards a complete new System of Midwifery’ (published 1756), he taught himself etching, and executed eighteen small copperplates (a copy of the book, with the etchings, is in the library of the Royal College of Surgeons). From York he removed to Hull, where he painted and dissected with his usual assiduity, and after a short visit to Liverpool set sail for Italy in 1754, in order to find out whether nature was superior to art. He went by sea to Leghorn, and thence to Rome, where he soon decided in favour of nature, and was noted for the strength and originality of his opinions, which differed from those of everybody else. Though he did not copy any pictures, he made many sketches from nature and life.

While in Italy he made friends with an educated Moor, who took him to his father's house at Ceuta, from the walls of which, or of another African town, he saw a lion stalk and seize a white Barbary horse about two hundred yards from the moat. This incident formed the subject of many of his pictures. On his return he settled at Liverpool for a while, and after his mother's death came to London in 1756, visiting Lincolnshire on the way to paint portraits for Lady Nelthorpe. He had now a considerable reputation, and charged one hundred guineas for the portrait of a horse. This was the price paid him by Sir Joshua Reynolds for a picture of ‘The Managed Horse.’ In 1758 he took a farmhouse near Barton, Lincolnshire, where he began preparations for his great work on the ‘Anatomy of the Horse,’ at which he was engaged for eighteen months, with no other companion than his niece, Miss Mary Spencer. He erected an apparatus by which he could suspend the body of a dead horse and alter the limbs to any position, as if in motion. He laid bare each layer of muscles one after the other until the skeleton was reached, and made complete and careful drawings of all. A great many horses were required before he had finished, and he carried the whole work through at his own expense and without assistance. At first he intended to get his drawings engraved by others, but he could not persuade any of the engravers of the day to take up the work, and so determined to execute all the plates with his own hand. This employed his mornings and nights for six or seven years, as he would not encroach on the hours devoted to his ordinary profession of painting. ‘The Anatomy of the Horse’ was published in 1766 by J. Purser (for the author), and had a great success. It was composed of eighteen tables, in folio, illustrated by twenty-four large engraved plates. It was the first to define clearly the structural form of the horse. A second edition was published in 1853, and it is still an acknowledged authority on the subject. The original drawings for the plates were left by Stubbs to Miss Spencer; they afterwards belonged to Sir Edwin and Thomas Landseer, by whom they were highly prized. Thomas Landseer left them to the Royal Academy, in whose library they are now preserved.

Meanwhile Stubbs's reputation as a painter of horses had greatly increased. In 1760 he was at Eaton Hall, painting for Lord Grosvenor; and shortly afterwards he went to Goodwood on receiving a commission from the Duke of Richmond, which is said to have been his first of importance. He stayed at Goodwood for nine months, during which time he executed a large hunting-piece, 9 feet by 6 feet, and many portraits. One of the latter represented the Earl of Albemarle at breakfast the day before he embarked on his expedition to Havana in 1762. This was also the year of his picture of ‘The Grosvenor Hunt,’ in which are introduced portraits of Lord Grosvenor, his brother the Hon. Thomas Grosvenor, Sir Roger Mostyn, and others. He had now joined the Incorporated Society of Artists of which he was treasurer in 1760, and president (for one year) in 1773. He was a constant contributor to the society's exhibitions from 1762 to 1774, and was one of its staunchest supporters. Besides numerous portraits of horses, dogs, and other animals, he exhibited two pictures of ‘Phaeton’ (1762 and 1764), ‘Hercules and Achelous’ (1770), ‘Horse and Lion’ (1763), ‘A Lion seizing a Horse’ (1764), ‘A Lion and Stag’ (1766), ‘A Lion devouring a Stag’ (1767), ‘A Lion devouring a Horse’ (1770), and several others of lions, lionesses, and tigers. In 1775 he began to exhibit at the Royal Academy, his contributions consisting principally of portraits of animals till 1780, when he was elected an associate. In the following year he was elected to full honours, but he resented the application to himself of a rule made subsequent to his election, which requires the presentation of a diploma work to the academy. He refused or neglected to send one, and his election was annulled in a very arbitrary manner, and another was elected in his place. He always maintained that he was entitled to the rank of R.A., but after 1782 he appears in the catalogues as an associate only, except in 1803, when, probably by accident, the initials R.A. are placed after his name. Between 1782 and 1786 he did not send any work to the academy. The contributions of his later years included ‘Reapers’ and ‘Haymakers’ (1786), a pair of genre pictures well known from his own engravings.

In 1771, at the suggestion of his friend Cosway, the miniature-painter, he began to make experiments in enamel, with the view of executing larger pictures in that material than had hitherto been attempted. His first enamels were on copper, one of which, ‘A Lion devouring a Horse,’ was exhibited in 1770. He now went through a course of chemistry, and succeeded in obtaining nineteen colours, and, not being satisfied with the size of the sheets of copper procurable, of which the largest was eighteen inches by fifteen, he applied to Wedgwood & Bentley, the celebrated potters, who, after much trouble and expense, succeeded in producing tablets of pottery three feet six inches by two feet six inches. Partly as a set-off to these expenses, Wedgwood employed Stubbs to paint his father, his wife, and a family piece, and purchased an enamel of ‘Labourers,’ the whole transaction being concluded and the balance paid on 7 May 1796 (Eliza Meteyard, Life of Josiah Wedgwood). He also painted a three-quarter head of Josiah Wedgwood, life size, in enamel, which was engraved by his son George Townley Stubbs and published in 1795.

In 1790 Stubbs undertook to paint for the ‘Turf Review’ all celebrated racehorses, from the Godolphin Arabian down to his own time, and 9,000l. was deposited in a bank for Stubbs to draw upon as his work progressed; but the outbreak of war caused the scheme to be abandoned by its promoters after Stubbs had completed sixteen pictures, including portraits of Eclipse, Gimcrack, Shark, Baronet, and Pumpkin. These were exhibited at the Turf Gallery in Conduit Street in 1794, and all were engraved, fourteen out of the sixteen in two sizes, one to suit the pages of the ‘Review,’ and in a larger size for framing (Sporting Magazine, January 1794). After 1791, in which year he exhibited a portrait of the Prince of Wales and three other works, he did not contribute to the Royal Academy till 1799. He was now seventy-five years of age, but he went on exhibiting till 1803, and in 1800 he exhibited the largest of all his pictures, ‘Hambletonian beating Diamond at Newmarket’ (thirteen feet seven inches by eight feet two inches), which belongs to the Marquis of Londonderry. His last exhibited work was ‘Portrait of a Newfoundland dog, the property of his royal highness the Duke of York.’ In 1803 he was engaged on another anatomical work, of which only three of the six intended parts were completed before his death. It was to have been called ‘A Comparative Anatomical Exposition of the Structure of the Human Body with that of a Tiger and a common Fowl. In thirty Tables.’ He retained the vigour of his mind and body till the last, and walked eight or nine miles the day before his death, which took place suddenly on 10 July 1806, at his house, 24 Somerset Street, Portman Square, where he had resided since 1763. He was buried at St. Marylebone.

Stubbs was a man of extraordinary energy, industry, and self-reliance. His talents were considerable and various, and his bodily strength very great, although we need not believe the tradition that he carried the whole carcase of a horse on his shoulders up three flights of a narrow staircase to his dissecting-room. Of his private life little is recorded, except that he was an intimate friend of Paul Sandby [q. v.] George Towneley Stubbs [q. v.], the engraver, who was his son, reported that he drank only water for the last forty years of his life. As an animal-painter his reputation was deservedly great, not only with the owners of the horses whose portraits he painted, but also with the public. His ‘heroic’ pictures (like the ‘Phaeton’ and the ‘Horse affrighted by a Lion’) were very popular in the form of prints, some of which were executed by Woollet, Val Green, John Scott, and Hodges, and others by himself and his son. His rustic subjects, like the ‘Farmer's Wife and the Raven,’ ‘Labourers,’ ‘Haymakers,’ and ‘Reapers,’ all engraved by himself, were also popular. But, speaking of him as an artist, he was greatest as a painter of animals, and greatest of all as a realistic painter of horses. He was probably the first painter who thoroughly mastered their anatomy, and he drew them with a lifelike accuracy of form and movement that has never been surpassed.

A great many, probably the majority, of Stubbs's most important works have not changed hands since they were painted. The king possesses fifteen, four formerly in the stud house of Hampton Court Palace (one of which contains a portrait of the Prince of Wales on horseback), and eleven at Cumberland Lodge, Windsor. The Earl of Rosebery has eleven, including a portrait of Warren Hastings with his favourite arab, and another of Eclipse. The Duke of Westminster has six, the Earl of Macclesfield eight, the Duke of Portland nine. Earl Fitzwilliam possesses six, including ‘Whistle-jacket’ (life-size on a bare canvas), ‘Horse attacked by a Lion,’ and ‘Stag attacked by a Lion,’ both very large pictures. Other possessors were Mr. R. N. Sutton Nelthorpe and Mr. Louis Huth. The king of Bavaria has the ‘Spanish Pointer,’ three times engraved, and the Duke of Richmond has no less than three, which are all remarkable for their size (ten feet eight inches by twelve feet six inches). But the largest collection of Stubbs's works belongs to Sir Walter Gilbey, who has no less than thirty-four (in oils and enamel) of famous horses and other subjects, including a ‘Zebra,’ Warren Hastings (enamel), and the large picture of Hercules capturing the Cretan bull, which was painted, it is said, to show the academicians that he had as consummate a knowledge of the human form as of that of a horse. Stubbs presented to the Liverpool Society for the Encouragement of Arts a model of a horse executed by himself, for which they awarded him a gold medal. There is a small but good example of Stubbs in the National Gallery (a white horse and a man in a landscape), and at South Kensington Museum is a large picture of a lion and lioness, and another of a goose with outstretched wings. There are several portraits of Stubbs: one by Thomas Chubbard when he was young, and others by Ozias Humphrey, Peter Falconet, Thomas Orde (Baron Bolton), and Elias Martin (exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1790 as ‘An Artist and a Horse’). He also painted a portrait of himself on a white hunter, which was sold at the sale of his property after his death.

[Life of George Stubbs, R.A., by Sir Walter Gilbey (privately printed); Memoir by Joseph Mayer; Sporting Mag. January 1894 and November 1810; Landseer's Carnivora; Monthly Review, 1767; Meteyard's Life of Josiah Wedgwood; Seguier's Dict.; Redgrave's Dict.; Redgraves' Century; Pilkington's Dict.; Bryan's Dict. ed. Armstrong; Sandby's Hist. of the Royal Academy; The Works of James Barry.]

C. M.