The most famous painter you never heard of
I've been a groupie of George Stubbs, the 18th-century English sporting artist, for as long as I can remember. Well, ever since, as a teenager, when my father trotted me by the Tate Gallery (as Britain’s national gallery was known then) to see its Stubbs collection. Over the years, I've followed up with pilgrimages to major collections at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge; the Woolavington Collection in Northampton; and, in the 1980s, I even made my way to the public library in Worcester, Massachusetts, to view one of the rare full sets of Stubbs' anatomical drawings of the horse.
Given this painter’s almost inbred renown among sporting art connoisseurs trolling Bond Street galleries and Mayfair auction houses— not to mention effete interior decorators of geezer men's clubs and cholesterol-laden steak houses— it isn't surprising that Stubbs needs be reintroduced to the wider art world from time to time.
But Stubbs is hardly just an artist for the horsey set or its wannabes. Since the ancient Greeks, horses have been portrayed with reverence and romance, but with varying degrees of accuracy. That changed forever with Stubbs (1724-1806), a tanner’s son who eventually transformed the way artists depicted horses and sporting scenes. What 19th-Century English photographer Eadweard Muybridge did in photography (capturing, in never-before accuracy, the gaits of horses in series of stop-motion pictures), Stubbs, a hundred years before, was also able to do in oil, harnessing a new realism (based on his dissections of the horse, depicted in his pen-and-ink plates) to the canvasses of sporting art.
Sometimes being reminded of Stubbs requires a blockbuster show, as was the case with the “Stubbs and the Horse” retrospective that toured the U.S. in 2005. (I saw that collection at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.)
Other times, there's a peg to a new unveiling. The bicentennial of Stubbs’s death is the latest advertised reason for a newest show of Stubbs' virtuoso repertoire of paintings of wildlife, dogs, barnyard animals and— most important, of course— horses, which opened in early February at the Frick Collection in New York. That show was originally organized by the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, and was at the Tate Britain (what the Tate Gallery is now called) before it moved to New York.
“No other 18th-century British painter who was so successful in his own lifetime was so quickly forgotten after his death,” noted Denise Allen, associate curator of the Frick Collection.
A revival on the Atlantic coast
Fortunately for American fans of British sporting art, some of the world's greatest collections of this genre—thanks largely to the late horseman and art collector Paul Mellon— are found in the U.S., at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and, most significantly, at the Yale Center for British Art. At New Haven, scores of great works by Stubbs and other period artists (Alfred Munnings is just one) are showcased cheek-by-jowl, floor by floor. (Those anatomical drawings I saw in Worcester are now at Yale’s Center for British Art, as well).
Closer to home, at the Art Museum, Philadelphians can get a local taste of Stubbs's oeuvre. Three pictures, The Grosvenor Hunt, Hound Coursing a Stag, and Labourers Loading a Brick Cart— albeit not of such great stature and fame as Whistlejacket (at the National Gallery, London) or Horse and Lion (at Yale)— are on permanent display, this time thanks to a gift by Philadelphia lawyer John H. McFadden.
What is less known— and rarely seen— is another Stubbs work (one of those famous anatomical plates I first saw in Worcester) that's been squirreled away at the University of Pennsylvania over the years without much notice, nor fanfare. That is, until now.
A pleasant surprise at Penn
To be sure, the Stubbs piece now on display at Penn's Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center is only a tiny Stubbs starter-kit, just one of the 37 legendary anatomical plates by the artist. Moreover, this one item was seemingly an afterthought.
When I called Lynne Farrington, of the Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library, a week or two before the Van Pelt exhibit debuted in mid-March, she told me that the Stubbs plate would not be on display. Yes, she said, the drawing is part of the larger collection of horse-related art collected by the 19th-Century Penn professor Fairman Rogers, which comprises the corpus of the current exhibit, “Equus Unbound: Fairman Rogers and the Age of the Horse.” Unfortunately, she went on, because of the plate's 18th-Century provenance, the work falls outside the 19th-Century scope of the show.
I was pleasantly surprised, however. When I turned up at the opening, the Stubbs drawing of “the bones, cartilages, muscles, fascias, ligaments, nerves, arteries, veins, glands....” published in 1766— by now an “old friend,” after my first viewing more than 20 years ago in Worcester— was there. In fact, up front, in a place of honor.
Nor was I disappointed with the show as a whole. Curator Ann Greene, a Penn lecturer and author of Harnessing Power: Industrializing the Horse in 19th-Century America, to be published by Harvard next year, chose well from the abundant Rogers Collection of books on the horse and equitation.
A veterinarian with eclectic tastes
Rogers, himself, a Penn trustee, co-founder of Penn's School of Veterinary Medicine, and coaching expert, was, if anything, eclectic. Works in his collection from the 18th Century “reflect the traditional view of horses as noble creatures” and “the interests and perceptions of those who had the means to own and utilize horses, namely the upper classes,” according to the show’s brochure. But Rogers, though a bluestocking Philadelphian himself, had more expansive ambitions, as well, collecting works from equine medicine to horseshoeing.
No less a figure than Eadweard Muybridge himself is also represented. Sixteen prints of “an electro-photographic investigation of consecutive phases of animal movements, 1872-1885,” published by Penn in 1887, are familiar from re-publication— but welcome, at least, for me, to see in an original printing.
So go to see the Stubbs and stay to see the rest.