Stubbs's Unbridled Passion; A New Exhibition Is the First to Focus Solely on the Theme That Looms Largest in the Great 18th Century Artist's Work - the Anatomy of the Horse
Byline: BRIAN SEWELL
IT IS not possible in one single sentence to define that extraordinary 18th-century phenomenon, the Age of Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, but a man must have some idea of what it was if he is to understand Stubbs as a painter and anatomist of horses, or Hogarth as the humanitarian satirist, or Reynolds as the deliverer of discourses in which he sought to make art orderly. In their century it was still possible to be a polymath, to have some grasp of the whole sum of human knowledge, be it philosophy, history or the material world and, in believing in man's omniscience, to propose fundamental laws that determine the nature and perhaps the purpose of every natural thing. What Newton had begun in the later 17th century, British empiricist philosophers continued, and the mundane practical consequences that still benefit us all were the dictionary, the encyclopaedia and the lexicon, the museum and the gallery, newfangled engines that produced more power than ever man or beast in multitude, great leaps in medicine and surgery, and the steady revelatory plod into indisputable knowledge that came from the classification of species. To all this George Stubbs, selftaught anatomist, added his mite of scrupulous scientific enquiry, The Anatomy of the Horse, the early study that underlies the fondly cared-for flesh of all the mares and foals, the racing steeds, the combative stallions and the haulers of carts and phaetons that are the subject of a summer exhibition at the National Gallery.
Stubbs was born in Liverpool in 1724, the son of a currier - that is the craftsman whose trade was dressing and colouring hides after they had been tanned. In that great port, the currier worked on hides from Canada and Russia, on the skins of whale and wolf, seal and porpoise, as well as of cow and calf from the local slaughterhouse, stinking of dogs' urine and other vile elements of the tanner's craft, perhaps rotting if inadequately cured; it was his work to pare them with the currier's blade and render them pliable with soft soap, borax, glycerine, tallow, boiled oil and lanolin. With these stinks in his nostrils as a boy, young George the man was never known to be squeamish; without this beastliness in his background, without the brutal, prodigal deaths represented by each skin, he could never have been so inured to the suffering, distress and revulsion that would have been engendered in any ordinary man by his work as an anatomist, work that has led writers to compare him with Leonardo da Vinci as the second-best painter-scientist in the history of art.
He taught himself to paint, and at 19 was at work on the worthies of Wigan as a portrait painter; then, for more face-painting, he took himself to Leeds and York, where his growing interest in anatomy - he first drew human bones when he was only eight - was expert enough for him to lecture medical students. The directness of his early approach is illuminated by an illustration to John Burton's New System of Midwifery, in which the huge hand of the midwife plunges through the neck of the womb to grasp the ankles of a breechbirth baby - he was himself involved in the necessary dissections for this book, and I suspect the midwife's hand to be his own. At the other end of his life he was working on the comparative anatomy of the tiger, the chicken and the human body; he had been at it for more than a decade and was still at it on the day of his death.
But the real triumph of nastiness for which his father's trade had prepared him was The Anatomy of the Horse. In 1756-58, living in a rented farmhouse near Hull, Stubbs spent 18 months on this gruesome work with only Mary Spencer, his mistress-cumhousekeeper, to assist him.
His friend Ozias Humphry, a younger painter, left an account of the business that is the more horrifying for the coolness of its temper; a horse was bled to death by the jugular vein and then suspended on an iron bar and complementary iron hooks that fixed it in a natural attitude, with its hooves supported on a suspended plank - and thus it "continued hanging in this posture-for the six or seven weeks or as long as it was fit for use". …