Happy centuries-belated birthday to my guy George Stubbs. The Liverpudlian Romantic painter was born on 25 August 1724, and went on to acquire a keen eye for the equine physique.
He received only the tiniest modicum of formal training, but Stubbs was able to hack out a living as a provincial portraitist. At the green age of twenty he did some sightseeing in Italy, just long enough to satisfy himself that “Nature was and always is superior to Art, whether Greek or Roman” and say arrivederci.
Though he quickly fled home for less exotic shores, he picked up a thing or two during his study of Classical and Renaissance masterpiece making. À la Leonardo da Vinci, he began an anatomical study of the horse while residing in Lincolnshire in 1758, dissecting and illustrating to his heart’s content, and eventually publishing an elaborate treatise of his findings eight years later.
Stubbs became increasingly popular around this time with Britain’s sporting aristocracy. For if you’ve acquired a horse spawned of legendary racing stock, you might as well immortalise the bugger in oil paint. The composition that’s come to be hailed as his finest achievement, Gimcrack with a Groom, Jockey and Stable Lad on Newmarket Heath, was also turned out in multiple versions around 1765.
It looks rather Surrealistic for the eighteenth century, with its eerily calm expanse of stretching sky and harsh right-angled architecture. A battle between dynamism and stillness is waged on the oddly punctuated horizon line, as a crush of hoof beats dash across a finish line in the middle ground and push the eye towards a more languid bit of the frame, where the star Gimcrack enjoys a good toweling off.
Stubbs painted this piece for a certain Viscount Bolingbroke, who owned Gimcrack and whose colour black is sported by the watchful jockey, who acts as a quasi focal point. In a splash of continuous narrative, reminiscent of scenes striping the sides of painted Greek amphoras, Gimcrack himself appears not once, but twice. Yes, we’ve spotted him getting pampered before the Rubbing House, but the champ can also be seen tearing it up in the race that drives the scene — leading the pack home just as he did at Newmarket on 12 July 1765.
What Stubbs did here, and throughout his lengthy career, was elevate stuffy, static horse portraits from niche images only a fetishistic old nobleman could love, to rational, human-dappled and action-packed renderings. Though we can’t all keep a winning stable just for laughs, we can all learn to recognise a stirringly excellent painting. Through the masterful arrangement of objects in space, Stubbs compels us to keep looking — beyond the pastoral class barrier to things timelessly well thought out.
Source: William Gaunt, A Concise History of English Painting, London: Thames & Hudson, 1964