We are very grateful to Mrs. Judy Egerton for providing us with the following entry:
This is the largest and most imposing of Stubbs's three versions of a portrait of a tiger presented by Lord Clive, Governor of Bengal, to George Spencer, 4th Duke of Marlborough, of Blenheim Palace. 'Lord Clive has sent a tiger to the Duke of Marlborough's menagerie at Blenheim', reported Jackson's Oxford Journal (quoted by M.S. Henderson, Three Centuries in North Oxfordshire, 1902, p. 98). The tiger must have been presented by Lord Clive some time after 15 March 1762, when Clive was created Baron Clive of Plassey. The tiger was installed in the Duke of Marlborough's menagerie at Blenheim by 1763. The Blenheim Palace archives include a butcher's bill dated that year for delivering 24lbs. of meat for the tiger every two or three days, at a cost of three shillings a time, with the occasional head thrown in for fourpence, and an account headed 'Meat for the Tiger' shows that the animal continued to be provided with a vast amount of beef (David Green, Blenheim Palace, 1951, p. 282, note to p. 183).
With accuracy as well as dignity, Stubbs has portrayed a tiger of the Indian or Bengal race, sometimes known as the Royal Tiger; named Panthera regalis by Gray in 1867, it is now synonomised as Panthera tigris tigris. The short fur and widely-spaced stripes are typical of the Indian race. The Duke of Marlborough's tiger is almost certainly a female (and was to be engraved as 'A Tigress'); though the pose does not reveal the animal's sex, the rounded head, relatively short nose and absence of ruff around the neck suggest that this is the female of the species.
In each of Stubbs's three paintings of the tigress, the animal is shown in exactly the same pose, though on a different scale. Presumably the first to be painted was the picture commissioned by the 4th Duke of Marlborough, probably around 1763-8, and still at Blenheim Palace (oil on canvas, 39½ x 49in., sight size). This was probably the picture which Stubbs exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1769 (no. 175) as 'A Tyger'. Certainly it was the Duke of Marlborough's picture which was engraved by John Dixon and published on 1 November 1772, dedicated to the Duke with the engraved inscription A TIGRESS./In the Possession of His Grace the Duke of Marlborough (Lennox-Boyd, Dixon, Clayton, op.cit, no. 33, repro.).
The Marlborough version is less than half life-size (an adult Indian tigress should measure about six feet from nose to rump). As engraved by Dixon, the animal is shown at the mouth of a rocky cave, lying on a bank overgrown with brambles, ferns, and other small woodland plants perhaps more appropriate to Blenheim than to Bengal. In the Portman picture, the animal is portrayed much closer to life-size; and in this picture, Stubbs appears to be essaying a background more suggestive of a native habitat. The tiger reclines on the largely bare sandy floor in front of a cave; the shadowy base of massive rocks entirely fills the background. Foliage is restricted to a clump of burdock leaves (Stubbs's favourite 'architectural' foreground detail) on the left, a single straggling bramble and a few smaller plants on the right. In a third, smaller version (24 x 28½in., 61 x 72.5cm., evidently offered twice for sale in 1813), now in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon (repro. B. Taylor, op.cit., 1969, p. 30, fig. 5), the tiger is in the same pose as in the two larger paintings, but there are differences of detail both in the foreground (which includes a larger and more elaborated clump of burdock) and in the rocky background which indicate that the smaller version was not directly derived from either of the larger pictures; nor does it correspond in detail to engravings of the subject.
The largest, almost life-size version from the Portman collection was probably painted in the 1770s, not long after the picture painted for the Duke of Marlborough and exhibited in 1769. Stubbs may have painted it in response to interest shown in the first picture in the Society of Artists' exhibition of 1769; but if he had a particular commission for a larger picture, it did not materialise, and the painting remained in Stubbs's studio until his death on 10 July 1806.
In Stubbs's subsequent two-day studio sale, the Portman picture was sold as lot 92 on the second day (27 May 1807). The description in the sale catalogue reads PORTRAIT OF THE ROYAL TIGER - the same size as the living Animal of that Species that died some years since in the Tower; nothing can exceed the ferocious dignity and attitude of the Animal, or the Beauty and management of the Form - painted from nature, - this noble Animal was in the Possession of the Duke of Richmond. The sale catalogue does not record picture sizes, but an annotated copy in the Courtauld Institute Library estimates the size as '108'; this according to the annotator's system, which gives width before height, means '10 x 8ft', perhaps a guess (exaggerated) at the picture's framed dimensions. The sale catalogue relies throughout on eulogy rather than facts; what documentation there is was presumably supplied by Stubbs's common-law wife Mary Spencer (by then probably 70-80 years old). There can be no doubt that the tiger portrayed in lot 92 (the present picture) is an exact replica of the Duke of Marlborough's tiger, though near the life-size. The catalogue's reference to a recently-dead tiger in the Tower of London may have been intended by the auctioneer to give the picture some popular topical reference, while the reference to the Duke of Richmond (well-known as a patron of Stubbs, but not known to have owned either a real tiger or Stubbs's painting of one) is probably a confusion with the Duke of Marlborough.
There appears to be no record of the name of the purchaser of lot 92 on the second day, 'Portrait of the Royal Tiger'; no copy of the 1807 sale catalogue fully-annotated with buyers' names and prices is known. Fortunately most prices fetched are marginally noted in the Courtauld Institute Library copy. From this we know that the 'Portrait of the Royal Tiger' was sold on 27 May 1807 for 350 guineas, by far the highest price fetched on either day of the sale. Other wild animal subjects sold on the same day also fetched high prices. 'Portrait of the celebrated Zebra' (lot 88), a 40 x 50in. canvas painted from an animal presented to Queen Charlotte in 1762, fetched 132 guineas (now in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon). A 'Lion devouring a Stag - in a grand Rocky Scene' (lot 95, perhaps the now untraced painting engraved by Benjamin Green in 1770) fetched 210 guineas, while 'Lion and Lioness in a rocky Cavern' (lot 80) fetched 101 guineas (probably the picture now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, USA). Of what was available in the studio sale, it seems that buyers generally preferred Stubbs's wild animal subjects to his single portraits of racehorses and stallions. Sixteen of the 'Turf Review' series of racehorse portraits (replicas of earlier works) were in the first day's sale; although the portrait of 'Gnawpost' with two colts made 155 guineas, the other fifteen averaged a sale price of under 28 guineas.
In a summary of Stubbs's achievements, Fuseli singled out his portrayal of the tiger for praise: 'His tiger for grandeur has never been equalled' (ed. Pilkington, 1810, op.cit., p. 523). This tigress, a prime specimen evidently abundantly well-fed and cared for in Blenheim Park, has a more convincing presence than most of Stubbs's lions and lionesses. It is observed with the underlying knowledge of anatomy which Stubbs had acquired a decade or more earlier through his studious dissection of the anatomy of the horse; but this tigress is not painted with pure scientific detachment. Stubbs brought the force of his imagination to bear on suggesting the latent power within the animal.
Though the tigress is depicted reclining and apparently replete (unsurprisingly on the meat supplied by the local Oxfordshire butcher), Stubbs leaves us in little doubt that if menaced, the tiger would spring to attack with one lithe and supremely-coordinated bound. This inherent sense of danger in one of nature's most formidable creations links Stubbs's 'Tiger' with subjects in the natural world which contemporaries deemed to be 'sublime', since they aroused emotions of awe and fear. Twelve years before Stubbs's death, William Blake composed and illustrated what are certainly the best-known lines about a tiger in English literature, as Stubbs's image is the best-known in English art:
'Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?'
(Songs of Experience, 1794)
But Blake's image of the tiger (standing) owes no direct debt to Stubbs, and appears rather to derive from Thomas Bewick's woodcuts of wild cats. Stubbs's tiger is observed with all the truthfulness to nature which the artist himself consistently declared to be his guiding principle. The eyes themselves reflect, unforgettably, this truthfulness. Unwavering in the gaze they turn upon us, they appear as uncommunicative as rock crystal. The quasi-human emotions with which Landseer imbued his animals have no place here. Stubbs instead conveys his knowledge that the tiger will respond, swiftly enough, and purely (in both senses of the word) to the laws of nature.
Above all, Stubbs brought his skills as a painter to bear on the body of the tiger, suggesting the muscles beneath the skin, and painting the stripes of the coat with a controlled virtuosity which, two centuries later, still suggests the delicate play of filtered sunlight over the vibrant black and yellow of the tiger's coat. The subtlety of the paint is seen to most telling effect in daylight.
Almost certainly, Stubbs's paintings of the tiger were based on preliminary chalk studies made from life, but now lost. The section headed 'Drawings, Drawing Books, Studies from Nature, Sketches, &c' in his studio sale on 27 May 1807, included 'One Book with 34 Tigers in black chalk' (Lot 27), followed by 'One Book with 7 Cats, in black Chalk...'. Like all the drawings, studies and sketchbooks offered on both days of the sale (? and almost all bought in), these have vanished. Since the word 'tiger' was widely used in the eighteenth century in the sense of 'tiger-cat', connoting any moderate-sized feline (leopard, ocelot, panther or cheetah) resembling a tiger, there can be no certainty that the drawings in the 'Book with 34 Tigers in black Chalk' were all of the true Indian tiger (Panthera tigris).
Stubbs himself used the word 'tiger' with the same inaccuracy as most of his contemporaries. In an untitled engraving published on 1 May 1788, advertised by Stubbs as 'Two Tygers' but now known as 'A Tiger and a sleeping leopard' (Taylor, 1969, op.cit., no. 2, repro.; Lennox-Boyd, Dixon, Clayton, op.cit. no. 72, repro. pp. 190-1), the foreground is dominated by the image of the tiger as portrayed in the Marlborough, Portman and Mellon paintings, but reversed. Behind the tiger, Stubbs introduced the image of the sleeping leopard (also reversed) which he had painted in enamel colours on an oval fragment of Wedgwood ware in 1777. No painting depicting the two animals together is known. The foreground foliage in Stubbs's engraving corresponds fairly closely (though with more intricate detail) to that in the Marlborough painting, though the rock-face in the background is closer to the Mellon version, and an additional bramble has been added to link the two animals. Stubbs exhibited the painting now known as 'Cheetah and Stag with Two Indians' in 1769 as 'Portrait of a Hunting Tyger'; he exhibited the painting now known as 'Leopards at Play' at the Royal Academy in 1776 (no. 293) as 'Tygers at Play', using the same title for his own engraving of the subject (Taylor 2); and in an advertisement of 1788, he referred to his print of a sleeping leopard (Taylor 18) as 'A Tyger'.
Engravings such as the 'Lion and Horse' and 'Lion and Stag' published in 1767 and 1769 had helped to spread Stubbs's fame as a painter of wild animals. John Dixon's mezzotint engraving 'A Tigress', after the painting in the Duke of Marlborough's collection, probably did more than Stubbs alone could do to make his image of the tiger famous, since it combined printmaking skills of a high order (at an affordable price, when issued) with the appeal of a subject inspiring authentically 'sublime' feelings of awe and fear. Dixon's mezzotint was exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1773 as 'A Tygress after G. Stubbs' (99); but his engraved copper plate was later destroyed by fire at the printers'. Partly because of this (but also because the mezzotint is of very high quality), Dixon's 'Tiger' became the most highly praised print after Stubbs in its day, with good impressions fetching high prices at auction. In 1798 the subject was re-engraved by John Murphy (C. Lennox-Boyd, R. Dixon and T. Clayton, op.cit., no. 133, repro. p. 271).
Stubbs's image of the tiger had a long life. In 1787, 1790 and 1793 the Polygraphic Society, which reproduced paintings 'by a Chymical and Mechanical Process', advertised two 'companion pieces by Stubbs at 3½ guineas each ('The Tygress' and 'The Frightened Horse and Lioness'), exhibiting their reproductions together with the original painting; but as no example of the 'Tygress' polygraph is now known, it is not possible to know which of the three versions was copied. Mary Linwood, who won some renown for her skill in reproducing paintings in needlework, exhibited 'Tygress by Stubbs' in her 'Gallery of Pictures in Worsted' in 1798. For Thomas Bewick's wood-engraving of the tiger and other engravings derived from Stubbs (but with added snarl), see Lennox-Boyd, Dixon & Clayton, op.cit.. Three out of four oil copies of 'A Tiger' after Stubbs, formerly attributed to Gericault, are considered by Germain Bazin to be not by him but by an 'auteur inconnu'; he has yet to see the fourth copy (Theodore Gericault, Vol.II, Paris, 1987, pp.300-1, cat. nos. 348-350). The 'Tiger' at Temple Newsam House, Leeds, reproduced by Basil Taylor as by Stubbs (Animal Painting in England, 1955, pl.25) is by Edgar Ashe Spilsbury (lithographed by him c. 1803-5).
Before exhibiting 'A Tyger' at the Society of Artists in 1769, the paintings of wild animals which Stubbs had already exhibited there included 'The Zebra' (1762), 'A Tiger and Lion' and 'A Lion seizing a Horse' (1764) and 'Portrait of a hunting tyger' (1765), the latter picture being deservedly well-known today as the 'Cheetah with two Indians and a Stag' (Manchester City Art Gallery). Later paintings of wild animals, exhibited either at the Society of Artists or the Royal Academy, included 'Lion and Lioness' (1771), 'The Kongouro, from New Holland' (1773), 'Portrait of a Monkey' (1775) and 'Tigers at Play' (1776).
In all of these (except the 'Kangaroo', necessarily painted from a stuffed skin brought back by Sir Joseph Banks), Stubbs combines an unequalled power of accurate observation, carefully restrained in order to be truthful to nature, with a still underestimated power to respond - with barely suppressed romanticism - to the drama inherent in the life of wild animals. Nowhere is this balance of restraint and romanticism more strongly in evidence than in his portrait of the tiger, a picture which in itself is enough to refute E.J. Waterhouse's assertation that 'imagination and a sense of the grand style were equally lacking to Stubbs' (Painting in Britain: 1530-1790, 1953, p.209). The selection committee which included the Portman 'Tiger' in The Romantic Movement exhibition in 1959 was more discerning.
While the Portman Tiger is a portrait of a specific animal, the fact that the picture seems to have been painted as a speculation indicates that it is also something more. So ambitious a representation of the species would have had little point if tigers were only to be seen in the menagerie of the Duke of Marlborough.
The doyen of owners of exotic animals in England was the king's uncle, William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, who was significantly a political ally of one of Stubbs's most loyal patrons, Lord Rockingham. It was to the Duke in May 1764 that King George III entrusted the cheetah presented to him by Sir George Pigot, and so presumably at Windsor that Stubbs studied the animal for the celebrated picture of it and its handlers painted for Pigot and exhibited in the following year, now in the Manchester City Art Gallery. The Duke employed a 'Lyon Keeper' as early as 1753 and in August 1754 Horace Walpole referred to his menagerie in a letter to Henry Seymour Conway:
'If the Duke is to fall out of battle, he has such delicious lions and tigers, which I saw the day before yesterday at Windsor, that he will be exceedingly to blame if he does not give them an exclusive patent for tearing him to pieces." (Horace Walpole's Correspondence, 37, p. 383)
A neighbour at Twickenham, Mr. Crammond, owned a 'beautiful tiger' which the Townshends affected to believe was the 'only thing [Walpole] ever wanted to kiss' (Idem). In 1763 Walpole's friend the Rev. William Cole recorded that the two, when visiting Lord Halifax's menagerie at Horton, designed by Thomas Wright in the previous decade, saw 'a young tiger not bigger than a cat' (op.cit., 10, p.334).
Walpole's ironic tone shows that the ferocity of such beasts in the wild was well understood. Transported to England, their behaviour could be unpredictable. When Cumberland wished to see how the Pigot cheetah would attack its prey, it was let loose with a stag which, contrary to expectation, so terrified it that it fled into the woods and then killed a fallow deer. In 1757, however, as Mrs. Delaney reported, the Duke's tiger escaped its den and 'tore a boy of eight or nine years of age to pieces' (The Autobiography and Correspondence of Mary Granville, Mrs. Delany, ed. Lady Llanover, London, 1861, III, pp. 460-1): as a result the animal was placed with other 'such fell beasts' in the Tower of London. Stubbs's audience was well aware of the latent power of the tiger as a species: as contemporary landscape painters responded to concepts of the sublime, in much the same way that Reynolds set out to raise portraiture to a higher plane, so with his Tiger Stubbs sought to transcend the traditional limitations of animal painting. His image is indeed heroic.
George Stubbs, A.R.A. (1724-1806)
The Property of The Trustees of The Portman Family
Signed, lower right 'Geo: Stubbs/pinxit'
London, Royal Academy, Old Masters and Deceased Masters of the British School, 1892 , no. 10 (Lent by Viscount Portman).
On loan to the Tate Gallery, 1947-1961.
Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery, George Stubbs, 1951, no. 49.
London, Tate Gallery, The Romantic Movement, 1959, no. 338.
55 x 85in. (139.7 x 215.9cm.)
H. Fuseli, in Mathew Pilkington, A Dictionary of Painters, revised edition, 1810, p. 523.
B. Taylor, The Prints of George Stubbs, 1969, pp. 30-1.
B. Taylor, Stubbs, 1971, p. 208, no. 40 (illus.).
J. Egerton, British Sporting and Animal Paintings (in The Paul Mellon Collection), 1978, pp. 83-85, under no. 81.
C. Lennox-Boyd, R. Dixon, T. Clayton, George Stubbs, The Complete Engraved Works, London and New York, 1989, no. 33 (engraved Dixon), pp. 132-3; no. 72 (engraved Stubbs), pp. 190-1; no. 133 (engraved Murphy), p. 271.
The Artist's Studio Sale; Peter Coxe, 27 May 1807 (2nd day) lot 92 (350gns.).