This finely executed study is an exceptionally rare autograph drawing by George Stubbs and appears to be the only animal drawing by him to have been on the market since 1947. As Judy Egerton noted in her Catalogue Raisonné in 2007: ‘The greatest gap in our knowledge of Stubbs’s working methods lies in the unaccountable disappearance of almost all of his drawings.’ There is a large body of evidence to suggest that Stubbs made drawings throughout his career and a number of discreet groups of studies survive relating to his anatomical projects. Indeed Basil Taylor calculated that no fewer than ‘575 drawings on separate sheets or in sketchbooks’ were sold in Stubbs’s studio sale in 1807. This is the first drawing from the 1807 sale to be identified; as such it is not only important evidence of the kind of graphic material that is currently missing from Stubbs’s oeuvre but a beautiful sheet demonstrating the full power of Stubbs as a draughtsman.
Although his achievements were prodigious, and his working life long and professionally rewarding, we know relatively little about Stubbs. He was born in Liverpool, the son of a currier and leather seller. He was briefly a pupil or assistant to the local artist Hamlet Winstanley and copied pictures from the collection of the 10th Earl of Derby at Knowsley Hall, near Liverpool. In the mid-1740s, Stubbs was established as a portrait painter in York but also undertook systematic anatomical dissections and provided illustrations for John Burton’s Essay Towards a Complete New System of Midwifery published in 1751.
Stubbs went to Italy in 1754 and, on his return, retreated with his common-law wife Mary Spencer to an isolated farmhouse at Horkstow in Lincolnshire, where he dissected horses and assembled meticulous drawings from which he planned to produce a volume of engravings. Largely on the basis of these drawings, from 1760, in London, Stubbs achieved success with portraits of thoroughbred racehorses and other sporting subjects that he executed for the prime minister, the Marquess of Rockingham, the Duke of Richmond, Lord Brooke, and their Whig racing associates. In the mid-1760s, following the successful publication of his The Anatomy of the Horse in 1766, Stubbs was elected to the committee of the Society of Artists, later serving also as treasurer and president. During this period he was associated with the Scottish men of science and medicine William and John Hunter, for whom he executed a series of portraits of exotic animals. He was elected an associated of the Royal Academy in 1780, and full membership followed the next year. His later years were occupied by large projects, first to document the history of the turf from 1750 in a series of paintings that were eventually exhibited at the Turf Gallery in 1794 and engraved by his son George Townley Stubbs. Finally, in 1795, commenced work on his ambitious Comparative Anatomical Exposition of the Structure of the Human body with that of a Tiger and a Common Fowl.
This meticulous drawing, prepared on distinctive buff coloured paper, was made by Stubbs towards the end of his career and is entirely characteristic of the few surviving drawings we have by Stubbs. The careful and sensitive observation of legs in motion is stylistically similar in technique, particularly the small diagonal hatched lines employed for the shadows under the horse's feet, to the drawings Stubbs prepared for the Comparative Anatomical Exposition which are now preserved at Yale. The soft tonalities, use of graphite and careful hatching also recall Stubbs’s squared self-portrait made in preparation for a plaque by Wedgwood and now in the National Portrait Gallery, London. The technical precision and specificity of subject-matter of Stubbs’s drawings suggest that he viewed them as essential steps in the production of finished works of art. Equally the present sheet also relates directly to Stubbs's oil painting: A draught-horse pulling a harrow, driven on by a farm labourer, signed and dated 1786. The arrangement of the legs precisely relate to the finished picture, suggesting that it was made in preparation for the final painting.
As such our drawing relates closely to an important pair of paintings Stubbs made in 1785: The Haymakers and The Reapers, now in the Tate. It was in these canvases that Stubbs marked his return to the Royal Academy, having fallen out over the issue of the exhibiting of his enamels. This pair of paintings have been viewed as a response to the popularity of picturesque rural subjects made by Gainsborough, Wheatley and Morland and some of the many illustrators of Thomson's Seasons. Stubbs's Haymakers is similar to an oval scene on the same theme painted in watercolour by Thomas Hearne, A Landscape and Figures from Thomson's Seasons of 1783 (Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester). The pictures' unsentimental yet sympathetic observation of work in the countryside, with little or no narrative content, is reminiscent of Stubbs's earlier depictions of groups of grooms and stable-lads rubbing down horses. As Judy Egerton has observed Stubbs evidently made a number of life studies in preparation for the finished composition. The first day of Stubbs’ sale included ‘Six studies of the Reaper [sic], and two finished drawings of ditto’, ‘A capital Drawing, the original design for the Corn Field with Reapers’ and ‘Ditto, the original design for the Painting of the Hay Field and Men loading a Hey Cart.’ The present sheet shows the legs of a draught horse, which is close in design to the draught horse on the right of The Haymakers. The same horse, with distinctive white fetlocks, was used in the Draught-horse pulling a harrow, driven by a farm labourer. This points again to the systematic way that Stubbs prepared drawings from life for the execution of his most important finished oil paintings. Stubbs sent Haymakers and Reapers to the 1787 exhibition of the Society for Promoting Painting and Design in Liverpool. His personal vote of confidence in his subjects was to translate them into enamel. In printed Proposals issued on 24 September 1788, Stubbs invited subscriptions for engravings of Haymakers and Reapers.
This drawing was purchased by the animal painter James Ward at the 1807 sale of Stubbs’ collection. It was almost certainly contained in lot 30, listed as 'one drawing of four horses legs'. As an equine painter James Ward was passionately interested in the work of George Stubbs. In his surviving account book, Ward listed cleaning and repairing works by Stubbs for the sugar merchant Thomas Garle in 1807, presumably paintings Garle had purchased from Stubbs’ studio sale. At the same moment he borrowed £14 from Garle listing the money as: 'cash lent at Stubbs sale'. This confirms Ward as a purchaser at the auction. Lot 30 also contained '2 Academy Figures', Ward certainly owned at least one other drawing by Stubbs, described as an 'Anatomical figure', as it was sold along with his own drawings at Phillips on 4 April 1835. The present sheet remained with James Ward, who inscribed it ‘Stubbs’ in his distinctive hand, and has an unbroken provenance to the present.
- Judy Egerton, George Stubbs, Painter. Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 2007, p.80.
- Quoted in: Judy Egerton, George Stubbs, Painter. Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 2007, p.80.
- Basil Taylor, Stubbs, London, 1971, pp.7-51.
- Eds. Peter Black, Mungo Campbell and Anne Dulau, ‘My highest pleasures: William Hunter’s art collection, exh. cat., Glasgow (Hunterian, University of Glasgow), 2007, pp.45-47.
- Christopher Lennox-Boyd, Rob Dixon and Tim Clayton, George Stubbs: The Complete Engraved Works, London, 1989, pp.43-55.
- Ed. Judy Egerton, George Stubbs 1724-1806, Exh. cat., London (Tate Gallery), 1984, pp.183-216.
- J. Egerton, George Stubbs, Painter. Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 2007, p. 478, no. 253.
- Judy Egerton, George Stubbs 1724-1806, exh. cat., London (Tate), 1984, p.168.
- Ed. Edward Nygren, ‘James Ward, RA (1769-1859): Papers and Patrons’, The Walpole Society, vol.75, 2013, p.91.
- Ed. Edward Nygren, ‘James Ward, RA (1769-1859): Papers and Patrons’, The Walpole Society, vol.75, 2013, p.120.