George Stubbs was the finest horse painter that England has ever produced, combining a profound knowledge of horse anatomy with psychological insight, naturalistic observation and a calm, classical sense of composition. Born in 1724, the son of a Liverpool currier, he was largely self-taught as an artist. About 1741 he studied briefly with Harriet Winstanley, an artist from Warrington, Lancashire. Four years later Stubbs studied anatomy at York Hospital, illustrating Dr John Burton’s Essay Towards a Complete New System of Midwifery (1751) with drawings made from dissections at which he had assisted.
From c.1741-56 Stubbs made a living painting portraits, such as that of his earliest patron Sir Henry Nelthorpe, 5th Bt, and his second wife, c.1745 (Nelthorpe Collection). He went briefly to Rome in 1754. In 1756 Stubbs started eighteen gruelling months studying the anatomy of the horse by dissecting corpses supplied by tanneries at a farmhouse in Horkstow, Lincolnshire. The fruit of this were exquisite drawings, engraved by Stubbs and published in The Anatomy of the Horse (1766).
In 1758 Stubbs settled in London, where his anatomical drawings attracted the attention of wealthy patrons with a passion for breeding and racing horses. In 1759-60 he painted three large hunting, shooting and racing canvases for the 3rd Duke of Richmond (Goodwood House, West Sussex); in 1762 he painted the celebrated Grosvenor Hunt for the 1st Earl Grosvenor (Eaton Hall, Cheshire). The same year Stubbs painted his first commissions for the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham: the near-life-size Whistlejacket (National Gallery, London) and the friezelike Mares and foals without a background (Fitzwilliam family collection). Horse attacked by a lion, 1762 (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven), also painted for Rockingham, showed Stubbs adapting Romantic sturm und drang to an animal subject.
Stubbs exhibited at the Society of Artists from 1761 to 1774 and was its President in 1772-3. He exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1775-1803, becoming an Academician in 1781, an honour later withdrawn because he refused to submit a Diploma painting.
Stubbs was a fine observer of human beings – from stable lads to languid aristocrats – as well as horses. He also painted exotic animals, mythological works and poetic, rustic scenes of Haymakers and Reapers, 1785 (Tate Gallery, London). He experimented with mixed method engraving techniques and, with the help of his friend Josiah Wedgwood, in painting in enamel colours on Wedgwood ceramic supports. From the early 1790s Stubbs’s financial difficulties were ameloriated by the patronage of the Prince of Wales (later George IV), for whom he painted at least eighteen oils. Among Stubbs’s latest, most monumental images is the exhausted racehorse Hambletonian, rubbing down, 1800 (Mount Stewart House, Co. Down, NT). George Stubbs died in London in 1806.