Magazine article The Spectator

Anatomical Obsession

Magazine article The Spectator

Anatomical Obsession

Article excerpt

The philanthropist, art collector and horse-breeder Paul Mellon began buying pictures by George Stubbs in 1936. By the time Mr Mellon died earlier this year at the age of 91, he had assembled the greatest collection of Stubbs's work anywhere. Mr Mellon's interest in Stubbs, and his many gifts of Stubbs's work to the Yale Center for British Art, did an enormous amount to rescue Stubbs from his status as a slightly comic footnote to 18th-century English art.

George Stubbs (1724-1806) is undoubtedly one of the most condescended to painters of all time. This memorial exhibition of Stubbs's work from the collection of his most ardent collector shows that the condescension is not warranted. Stubbs was not a great painter. But he was an exceedingly interesting, and often quietly witty, one.

Stubbs is, of course, most famous for his pictures of horses. He was the son of a currier, so horses were so to speak in his blood. He delineated them with a care and lovingness that other painters have reserved for beautiful women. Indeed, there is a sense in which the best of Stubbs's paintings of horses may be considered portraits. That is to say, he did not paint horses in general; he painted them as creatures with distinct personalities. This is one important reason that Stubbs, from the late 1750s onward, was so much in demand among well-heeled sportsmen.

Stubbs's pictures of horses that include human beings - `Pumpkin with a Stable Lad' (1774), for example - can be slightly disconcerting precisely because the beast emerges with far more spark and individuality - far more humanity, one might almost say - than the man. People in Stubbs's animal pictures are rarely more than stage props. Gulliver would have found Stubbs to be the ideal artist to accompany him on his voyage to the country of the Houyhnhnms. Stubbs did not share Gulliver's misanthropy, but he would have understood his respect for horses. As I write, the Tate in London is showing an exhibition called Abracadabra: International Contemporary Art, which features as a kind of teaser a stuffed horse hanging from the ceiling. Stubbs's painstaking acts of homage to the horse provide a good antidote to such trashy obscenity.

Stubbs was self-taught, and it shows. His art is parochial and idiosyncratic. He commanded considerable technical skill, but he never really mastered the knack of enlivening the whole surface of his paintings or drawings. …

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