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Brood Mares and Foals

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George Stubbs, A.R.A., Brood Mares and Foals\nSigned lower right: Geo: Stubbs pinxit\nOil on canvas\n99.7 by 188.6 cm.; 39 ¼ by 74 ¼ in.


This painting is a peaceful masterpiece, the very epitome of tranquillity and harmony.  Commissioned by one of the artist's most important patrons and remaining in the collection of his descendants until today, the painting has survived in remarkable condition and demonstrates to the full Stubbs's flawless, technical ability. Without a hint of ostentation, this iconic work defines the genre in which George Stubbs remains the un-surpassed master.

Painted in 1768, when the artist was firmly established in London and was enjoying considerable success, the painting forms part of a celebrated series of paintings that Stubbs produced for some of his most important patrons during the course of that decade.  In such paintings, Stubbs was able to gratify his patrons through the celebration and immortalisation of their most prized personal possession – the race-horse.  The theme of this series encapsulates the qualities expected by the patron on a grand scale: breeding, gracefulness and refinement.  This select group of patrons included Frederick St. John, second Viscount Bolingbroke, who commissioned the first painting in 1760 (Private Collection). He was followed by Charles Watson-Wentworth 2nd Marquis of Rockingham in 1762 (Private Collection), Augustus Henry Fitzroy 3rd Duke of Grafton in 1764 (Private Collection), George Broderick 3rd Viscount Middleton MP c. 1763-5 (Tate, London), Lord Grosvenor in 1764 (Private Collection), the Duke of Cumberland in 1765 (National Trust) and the present painting of 1767 for Colonel George Lane Parker second son of George Parker 2nd Earl of Macclesfield of Shirburn Castle, Oxfordshire.  Parker and his fellow wealthy young patrons were united in their passion for horses, in their political allegiance to the Whig party and in their admiration of George Stubbs. They were also all members of the recently established Jockey Club, which had been founded in 1751 with a mission to reform racing through the appointment of stewards, the keeping of accurate breeding records and the near universal acceptance of the authority of James Weatherby's General Stud Book.[1]

For each patron Stubbs varied the composition and landscape setting of the Brood Mares and Foals theme. Each painting was specifically designed to illustrate, through the characters of the horses and the relationships between them, an ideal and harmonious realm. They might be seen as equine 'conversation pieces' which illustrate the relationship between different breeds of animal where tolerance, benevolence and no apparent interference by any groom, owner or trainer prevails.

In the recent catalogue raisonné of George Stubbs' work, Judy Egerton, singled out the present painting for particular praise, concluding that, "of all Stubbs's groups of mares and foals, this is the noblest composition, its grandeur owing much to the towering rocky formation which seems to lend an air of hardiness to the animals, as well as acting as counterweight to the most spectacular figure in the group, the grey Arabian mare with her flowing tail."[2] In this painting, the horses and their landscape are painted with delicate brushstrokes placed upon the canvas with deft and assured movement. Not only the main focus of  the picture, the horses themselves, but also the landscape - the details of the distinctive burdock leaves lower right, the young oak tree saplings on top of the hills, the thatched stall and the river - all invite the most exacting close scrutiny and do not disappoint in anyway. The even, smooth fall of soft golden light overall, unifies the composition and yet defines every feature.

This is not an identifiable or specific topographical location but a landscape which is specifically designed to represent the optimum natural habitat for these horses. Behind the Arabian mare centre right, the ciltivated landscape is carefully managed with well kept hedgerows and trees, before which a river runs smoothly ensuring that all is easily irrigated and as fertile as possible. Behind the Barb mare to the left, the dark, sublime and yet protective form of a rocky outcrop, shelters the group and separates it from any adjoining land. These brood mares and foals display none of the trappings of trained animals when compared, for example, to the exquisitely groomed appearance of the stallion Whistlejacket (National Gallery, London), but they are certainly not portrayed as wild. The agricultural landscape and the thatched stall behind are indicative of the financial investment and attention dedicated to the care and maintenance of these animals. [3]

The early development of the thoroughbred horse in Britain came through the cross-breeding of imported Arabian, Turkish or Barb breeds with native English or Spanish strains. Since the 1st Duke of Buckingham first imported African and Spanish horses in the 1620s for Charles I (as celebrated in Van Dyck's Portrait of Charles I with M de St Antoine, Royal Collection) Royal patronage had played an important role in the improvement of equine blood lines. Following the execution of Charles I, Cromwell devoted more time to the dispersal of the confiscated Royal stud at Tutbury than to the sale of Charles I's collection of art. He ensured the safe keeping of the Helmsley Turk and a prized Arabian horse captured at the siege of Vienna which was reputedly sold for 500 guineas (over five times as much as Durer's portraits of himself and his father had together been valued in the sale of Charles I's pictures).[4] The most important of the Arabian imports in the early eighteenth century became known as the Godolphin Arabian. This stallion was soon joined by the Byerley Turk and the Darley Arabian and together these three became the "foundation sires" from whom all modern thoroughbreds descend. Underlying every carefully selected and managed encounter between a mare and stallion lay the hope that the offspring, whether colts or fillies, would become the thoroughbred animal par excellence.  Stubbs was the first (and last) artist to capture this precious moment full of expectation and hope.

For over a century owners had commissioned portraits of prized horses from artists including James Seymour (1701-1751), Peter Tillemans (1684-1734) and John Wootton (c. 1694-1764), amongst others. Often painted on a large, even life size scale, equine portraits and impressive sporting scenes were normally intended to be displayed in the entrance halls of great country houses, such as Longleat, Badminton and Althorp. By the middle of the century this began to change with the Marquis of Rockingham and others commissioning works on both the grand and domestic scale to be proudly displayed in their London houses (in his case in Grosvenor Square). Before Stubbs arrived in London with his drawings for the Anatomy of the Horse in 1758, no first class sporting painter had emerged to follow James Seymour, who had died in 1752, whilst John Wootton who was by this stage in his eighties. There were plenty of portrait and landscape artists but George Stubbs was unique. He had not only trained as a portrait painter, but had also recently spent no fewer than five years dissecting horse cadavers in order to study them to scientific standards. Such devotion led to his unique and quite unparalleled artistic mastery of this subject. His anatomical drawings of the horse distilled refined images from a reality that must have been anything but clear and clean. He apparently told his later biographer Ozias Humphry that he had copied old master paintings whilst an assistant to Hamlet Winstanley; after falling out with his master, however, he vowed that he would "for the future look into nature for himself and consult & study her only."

For Stubbs, painting was a serious intellectual process, as his dedication to the study of horses and the creation of his published engravings for the Anatomy of the Horse demonstrate. Not only was he a perfectionist in the technical portrayal of his subject matter but he also strove for an ideal beauty – an aspiration shared by his patrons who at this time were investing vast sums in the creation of their own 'ideal' environment. Landscape gardening, the canalization of rivers, tree husbandry, life-stock breeding and horticulture all demanded huge capital investment. But nowhere was the idea of perfection more expensively pursued or more difficult to obtain than by the young Whigs' pursuit of breeding the ultimate race horse. These carefully bred horses were brought into being by the specific vision and effort of their owners, and their subsequent beauty was born out of the precision and justness of proportion which created an animal of supreme speed and agility. The perfection of nature is an unattainable objective, but it is one which continues to be as eagerly sought today as it was in the eighteenth century. Stubbs was more than happy to celebrate and immortalize this through the exquisite qualities of the portraits of brood mares and foals in his paintings.

Stubbs was quick to establish his reputation amongst fellow artists. In 1765 he was made a Fellow of the Society of Artists, and was promptly elected one of its directors. Clearly held in great esteem, he was subsequently made Treasurer in 1768, the same year that the present painting was exhibited twice, first is the annual Spring exhibition and then again in September, in a special exhibition to honour a visit by the King of Denmark. Stubbs was President of the Society from 1772 until 1773, and also went on to exhibit at the Royal Academy, following its formation in 1768, where he became an Associate member. The present painting was the only one of the brood mare and foals series to be engraved and the mezzotint was exhibited by Benjamin Green alongside the original at the same Spring exhibition in 1768 to capitalize upon the broader public interest. Advertisements for subscriptions were made in both The Public Advertiser and The Gazatteer.

Stubbs was not prolific in his output – the time required to paint works of such technical perfection clearly limiting the number he was able to produce – and he painted only around 400 paintings over his entire career.  By contrast, his contemporary Sir Joshua Reynolds painted nearer 1,000 over a much shorter period of production. Although a significant body of his work was included in his studio sale in 1809, important works by the artist have only rarely appeared on the art market in the ensuing two centuries. The sale in these Rooms on 18th March 1970 of Stubbs's celebrated Cheetah with two Indian attendants and a Stag (Manchester City Museum and Art Gallery) was an undoubted watershed in respect of prices for the artist's works. Apart from the two Rockingham pictures of lions with a horse and a stag which had been sold in 1948 (Yale Center for British Art), it was by far the largest canvas by Stubbs to appear on the market since 1809. The composition is both sophisticated and groundbreaking highlighting the artist's skill both as animal painter and as portraitist. It had never left the family for which it had been painted in 1765, and its appearance on the market created an astonishing level of interest from around the world. The price of £220,000 paid for the picture by Agnew's was a record price for any English artist at the time – as Reitlinger noted with amazement the picture was "rated higher than any Gainsborough or Turner on the post-war market".


The provenance of the present painting is equally as distinguished as that of the Manchester picture, and it has resided for the greater part of its life at Shirburn Castle in Oxfordshire. The Parkers came to Shirburn in 1716 and it remained the seat of the Earls of Macclesfield until the 21st century. The family came to prominence with Thomas Parker, 1st Earl of Macclesfield (1667-1732) who rose through the law to become Lord Chancellor in 1718. Parker was staunchly Hanoverian and welcomed George I to England who rewarded him with an Earldom. He formed an important library and was a pall bearer at Isaac Newton's funeral. The 2nd Earl was equally distinguished and largely responsible for introducing the modern calendar to the British Isles. He was painted in a spirited portrait by William Hogarth and became President of the Royal Society from 1752 until his death in 1764. The first owner of this painting, was his second son, the Hon. George Lane Parker (1724-1791) who was a soldier in the First Foot Guards and eventually attained the rank of Major-General. He was also the M.P. for Tregony and a member of Brooks's Club. However Parker's main interest appears to have been the turf.

[1] See D. Oldrey, The Jockey Club, 2006

[2] J. Egerton, op.cit, 2007, p. 259

[3] Stubbs would have been only too aware of the commissions from leading architects such as William Chambers to build new stable and kennel blocks for wealthy patrons such as the 3rd Duke of Richmond taking place at this time.

[4] See J Egerton, op.cit., 2007, p. 37


Oil on canvas


George Stubbs, A.R.A.


London, Society of Artists, Spring Exhibition 1768, no. 165;

London, Society of Artists, Exhibition in Honour of the King of Denmark, November 1768 no 112;

Texas, Kimbell Museum & London, National Gallery, Stubbs and the Horse, 2004, no. 57, p. XI,  114, 193-4


99.7 by 188.6 cm.; 39 ¼ by 74 ¼ in.


M. Parker, Countess of Macclesfield, Scattered Notices of Shirburn Castle, 1887, p. 39;

W. Gilbey, Life of George Stubbs RA, London 1898, p. 169;

J. Egerton, 'George Stubbs and the Landscape of Creswell Craggs,' Burlington Magazine, London 1984, p. 743;

J. Egerton, George Stubbs 1724-1896, Exhibition Catalogue, Tate London 1984 a, p. 109;

C. Lennox-Boyd, R. Dixon, and T. Clayton, George Stubbs: The Complete Engraved Works, London 1989, pp. 74-76 with detail pp. 76-77 (cited below under engraved);

J. Egerton, George Stubbs: Painter, Yale, 2007, pp. 258-9, no. 89


in mezzotint (in reverse) by Benjamin Green, as Brood Mares, and inscribed; The Original Picture is in the Possession of the Honourable Colonel Parker: LONDON Publish'd as the Act directs, May 10: 1768


Colonel George Lane Parker (1724-1791) of Woodbury, Cambridgeshire, second son of George Parker, 2nd Earl of Macclesfield, of Shirburn Castle, Oxfordshire;

by descent to elder his brother, Thomas Parker, 3rd Earl of Macclesfield, of Shirburn Castle, Oxfordshire;

thence by descent to the present owner

*Note: The price is not recalculated to the current value. It refers to the actual final price at the time the item was sold.

*Note: The price is not recalculated to the current value. It refers to the actual final price at the time the item was sold.