Thursday, 20 April 2006

Pictures from an exhibition - George Stubbs works reunited

Stubbs - Self-portrait on a White Hunter

by Christopher Proudlove©
The exhibition marking the bicentenary of the death of George Stubbs - which opened at Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery earlier this month, prior to a spell at Tate Britain and subsequently at the Frick Collection - has been eagerly anticipated. Rarely does the public get to see paintings by the great artist from normally closed private collections, but cooperation between the Lady Lever Art Gallery and Tate Britain has reunited four unique works for the first time since Stubbs painted them in the 1770s.

Interestingly, however, they are not paintings in the accepted sense. Stubbs’ reputation as a painter of animals in general and horses in particular is unassailable. What is less well known is that in the 1770s, Stubbs began a series of experiments to perfect a technique of painting on pottery.

The catalyst was his friendship with Josiah Wedgwood, who had revolutionised the pottery manufacturing process at his Etruria works in the Staffordshire Potteries. Wedgwood invited Stubbs to stay with his family at Etruria in 1780 and together they worked on making large pottery plaques on which the process could be attempted.

In the first instance, Stubbs painted a number of wooden plaques as models for his pottery versions and he and Wedgwood subsequently worked to repeat the process using a ceramic “canvas” and enamels rather than oil-based paint. When the pot was fired, the enamel vitrified in the heat, much like a glaze, but with far more delicate and subtle results.

The work was successful, as could be seen in a self-portrait in enamels on an oval Wedgwood plaque that Stubbs painted in 1781, the same year that he was elected to membership of the Royal Academy. Regarded then as merely a sporting painter, Stubbs was looked down upon by the art establishment anyway and at a time when even watercolour paintings were regarded as somehow second class art, his fellow Academicians were not impressed.

To see how wrong they were, I recommend you visit the Walker exhibition. There, together again for the first time since they were painted are two of the Wedgwood earthenware plaques, on loan from the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, alongside the versions painted on wood, now in the Tate Britain collection. The plaques show haymakers at work and it is fascinating to compare the results.

One of five children of a comfortably off Liverpool leather worker, George Stubbs (1724-1806) started painting as a child drawing the animal bones from his father’s business. The boy had little formal art training, perhaps only for a few weeks in 1739, when he was briefly apprenticed to a Lancashire painter and engraver named Hamlet Winstanley. The tutelage ended after Stubbs objected to the amount of copying the was instructed to do, probably more for Winstanley’s benefit than his own.

By 1745 Stubbs had moved to York, and set himself up as a portrait painter. Interestingly, by the time he was 21, he also knew enough about anatomy to be able to instruct medical students studying at the hospital there.
George Stubbs: A Celebration runs at the Walker until July 30. Admission is free. From Liverpool it moves to Tate Britain from August 21 August to January 2007 and thereafter at the Frick Collection, New York, from February to May 2007.
He also won a commission from a Dr. John Burton in 1751 to draw engravings of foetuses to illustrate a book on midwifery, subsequently arranging for a local engraver to teach him how to etch the plates from which the book was printed.

In 1754, he went to Italy to study art and in the Palazzo di Conservatori, he saw an antique Roman statue of a lion clawing at a horse's back. This was almost certainly the inspiration for a series of later pictures of a horse being frightened and subsequently attacked by a lion. One of them, from the Lady Lever, can be seen in the exhibition.

By then, Stubbs was living in London with his common law wife, Mary Spencer. The couple had a son, George Townley Stubbs (1756-1815) who also became an engraver and printmaker.

By now the commissions were rolling in and many of Stubbs' great masterpieces featuring famous racehorses, hunters, their foals and their rich and important owners date from this period. He also produced a series of superb open-air portraits, so-called conversation pieces, of some of his clients and friends, notably the Wedgwood family.

Stubbs’ knowledge of horse anatomy was gained from scientifically dissecting the animals and he even managed to obtain the carcass of a tiger, which he also dissected and studied in detail, making dozens of drawings which were snapped up by veterinary surgeons of the day.

Despite a growing reputation as a scientist, Stubbs executed many commissions for the gentry, either riding to hounds or with their favourite hunter, which helped finance publication of his magnificent 1766 treatise called Anatomy of the Horse. In it, horses are shown with layer after layer of flesh and muscle removed, culminating in the perfectly drafted skeleton.

Stubbs was also commissioned to paint the first kangaroo brought to England, while other wild animals in Stubbs' pictures include a moose, rhinoceros, a baboon with a macaque monkey, a yak, and notable a commission commemorating the gift of a cheetah to George III by the Governor of Madras, Sir George Pigot.

Royal patronage followed, notably from the Prince of Wales, and all 18 paintings by Stubbs still hang at Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace.

However, by now in his 70s and despite his artistic success, Stubbs found himself in financial difficulties. Nevertheless, he embarked on yet another project which he called "A Comparative Anatomical Exposition of the Human Body with that of a Tiger and a Common Fowl" for which he completed 100 drawings and 18 engravings. Stubbs died on July 10,1806, in poor financial circumstances.

Pictures show, top: Self-portrait on a White Hunter. This is one of the enamel paintings by Stubbs on Wedgwood pottery plaques in the exhibition
Below, left to right: Haycarting - one of the enamel paintings by Stubbs on Wedgwood pottery plaques in the exhibition
A Cheetah and a Stag, one of the most important works in the exhibition, with its theme of raw animal speed waiting to be unleashed. Copyright Manchester Art Gallery
A Lion and a Lioness. Stubbs had an understanding of the anatomy of such creatures at a time when few people had seen them in the flesh. Copyright Simon C Dickinson Ltd

Stubbs - HaycartingStubbs - A Cheetah and a Stag © Manchester Art GalleryStubbs - A Lion and a Lioness© Simon C Dickinson LTD London

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Anonymous Ray Evans-Nixon said...

I have recently acquired several mezzotints by Hamlet Willstanley ten in all..they are mostly enscribed with a monograph. All appear to be quite old. The inscriptions date them c1733...I wonder if you could possibly add any info re their value ....Thank you.

13 June 2016 at 07:53  

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