Stubbs painted this beautiful and atmospheric picture in 1769 and exhibited it that year at the Society of Artists, at the end of a momentous decade in which the artist progressed from being a well established local artist in the north of England to becoming the leading painter in the country. This astonishing transformation was the result of his encounter with the new generation of old Whig landowners who had come of age in the 1750's. Centred around the Marquess of Rockingham, his patrons included the Dukes of Richmond, Portland and Grafton, the Viscounts Torrington and Bolingbroke, Earl Spencer and Richard Grosvenor (later Earl Grosvenor). The pictures painted by Stubbs in this decade included the celebrated set of three paintings at Goodwood, the Grosvenor Hunt and Whistlejacket (now in the National Gallery) as well as the first of both his Mares and Foals series and his Lion and Horse subjects.
In his annotated catalogue for the 1769 Society of Artists exhibition, Horace Walpole added a comment relating to this picture: 'very fine tho the muscles exaggerated'. It is not surprising that Walpole found Stubbs's accurate portrayal of the stallion's anatomy 'exaggerated' since it was the artist's study of anatomy at the outset of his career which set him apart from all previous equestrian painters. It is no exaggeration to state that Stubbs raised the subject of equine anatomy to a new level. Furthermore, he was also the first artist to have attempted, in his Lion and Horse series, the portrayal of emotion in horses. As Malcolm Warner has pointed out in his essay 'Stubbs and the Horse of Feeling' (in the catalogue for the 2005 Stubbs exhibition), Stubbs's work in equine anatomy was part of a shift in the understanding of the horse. Jonathan Swift in Gulliver's Travels (1726) had depicted horses as wise and rational creatures with all the feelings and emotions found in humans, and that book has been described as the apotheosis of the idea of the noble horse. Sawrey Gilpin painted scenes from Gulliver in 1768-1772, and though Stubbs did not follow him, he was passionately interested in the elevation of animal painting. Stallion and Mare is a powerful example of Stubbs's portrayal of emotion in horses. There is a palpable intensity in his depiction of the young adult stallion approaching with anticipation the apparently docile mare, and the picture clearly follows in the tradition of the great Horse and Lion composition painted for Lord Rockingham (now in the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven), where the emotion shown by the threatened horse is depicted to powerful effect.
Whilst most of the great compositions of the 1760's were acquired by aristocratic landowners and racehorse-breeders, Stallion and Mare was bought by a theatrical proprietor who would have appreciated the fact that the subject of the picture is not the portrayal of a specific horse but rather a representation of animal passion. Willoughby Lacy (fig. 1), the first recorded owner of the picture, was the son of the actor and theatre manager, James Lacy, who became the successful partner of the celebrated David Garrick. Described by Cecil Price as 'a wildly extravagant but pleasant person' (Letters of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, 1966, Vol. I, p. 96), Willoughby Lacy shared his father's enthusiasm for the theatre and inherited his share of the partnership in 1774. It is likely that it was at this date that he acquired the picture. Very few of Stubbs's romantic subject pictures were in fact commissioned by the artist's regular patrons, and Stubbs probably had to wait a few years until he found a buyer. Willoughby Lacy fell into debt in later life, and between 1798 and 1801 was the recipient of a series of theatre benefit performances. It was probably at this period that he sold the picture. Some years later it entered the collection of Walter Gilbey, a prosperous wine merchant and a great lover of country sports, whose collection of sporting pictures, prints and books at his country seat, Elsenham Hall in Suffolk, was unrivalled in its day for its breadth and quality. Gilbey was author of the first serious study of Stubbs's work which was published in 1898.
Stallion and Mare was last exhibited at the comprehensive exhibition in 1984-1985 at the Tate Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven. At this time, the presence of a date was not noted. However, since the picture has been cleaned , the date 1769 is clearly visible, confirming Judy Egerton's opinion that it is the picture shown by Stubbs at the Society of Artists that year. The high quality of the painting, both of the horse and of the finely contrasted landscape background, is entirely consistent with the artist's work of that period. It is interesting to note that Gilbey recorded that the picture was dated but misread the date as 1789, which is improbable, not only on stylistic grounds, but also because of the date of the mezzotint by George Townly Stubbs (fig. 2). Gilbey also wrongly identified the stallion as Jupiter, a chestnut, which was not foaled until 1774.
It is generally accepted that Stubbs is supreme amongst animal painters, and through his study of anatomy he achieved an understanding of the horse which has never been equalled. Moreover, his greatness lies in the fact that at his best he was able to transcend the limits of mere sporting and animal painting and reach the realms of great art. This fine composition illustrated to perfection Stubbs's superiority over such earlier sporting painters such as Wootton, Seymour and Morier with their somewhat formalised poses, and shows why he became the favourite animal painter to such a distinguished group of collectors.
Oil on canvas
Society of Artists, 1769, no. 178 ('A horse and mare');
J & W Vokins, Loan Collection of Pictures by George Stubbs and Engravings from his Works, 1885, no. 22;
Grosvenor Gallery, Sports Exhibition, 1890, no. 234;
Burlington Fine Arts Club, Loan Exhibition, Summer 1934;
Leeds City Art Gallery, Masterpieces from Collections of Yorkshire and Durham, 1936, no. 24;
Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, George Stubbs, 1957, no. 27;
Virginia Museum of Art, Richmond, Sport and the Horse, 1 April-15 May 1960, no. 28;
Richartz-Wallraff Museum, Cologne, 7 October-6 November 1966, Palazzo Venezia, Rome, 21 November-20 December 1966, Kunsthaus, Zurich, 7 January-5 February 1967 and National Museum, Warsaw, 18 February-19 March 1967, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century British Paintings for Europe, no. 51;
Royal Academy, London, Bicentenary Exhibition, 14 December 1968-2 March 1969, no. 30;
Petit Palais, Paris, British Romantic Painting, January-April 1972, no. 254;
Tate Gallery, 17 October 1984-6 January 1985, and Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 13 February-7 April 1985, George Stubbs 1724-1806, no. 93
95.3 by 122 cm.; 37 ½ by 48 in.
Sir Walter Gilbey, Life of George Stubbs, R.A., 1898, pp. 146-7;
Basil Taylor, Stubbs, 1971, p. 29, illus. fig. 6;
Constance-Anne Parker, Mr Stubbs The Horse Painter, 1971, p. 152, illus. p. 147;
Christopher Lennox Boyd, Rob Dixon and Tim Clayton, George Stubbs, The Complete Engraved works, 1989, pp. 156-159;
To be included in the forthcoming Catalogue Raisonée of the Works of George Stubbs by Judy Egerton, 2007
In mezzotint by George Townly Stubbs, first published 20 September 1776 and later on 1 December 1776 ('from an Original Picture, in the Possession of Willoughby Lacey Esqre') and several times during the artist's life.
Purchased by Willoughby Lacy (1749-1831) by 1776 and sold by him in c. 1800;
Sir Walter Gilbey, 1st Bt. (1831-1914) by 1885;
Gilbey sale, Christies, 11th June 1915, lot 392 (as 'Portrait of Jupiter with a mare near a shed dated 1789'), bt. Goslett for 10 guineas;
E.G. Cundall, from who purchased by Agnew and sold to the Hon. Sir William Gervase Beckett, M.P. in 1922;
Thence by descent until sold Christies, 17th July 1987, lot 26, for £380,000