Issue Number: 93
Tate Britain’s two-room display of George Stubbs seems like a back-handed compliment, says Simon Wilson
Together with Gainsborough and Wright of Derby, George Stubbs RA (1724–1806) was one of a trio of great innovators and original geniuses to emerge in British art in the 1760s. However, you wouldn’t immediately learn this from the so-called ‘Celebration’ of his work at Tate Britain to mark the bicentenary of his death.
Horse Play The Fourth Anatomical Table of the Muscles... of the Horse, 1756-58, by George Stubbs RA The Fourth Anatomical Table of the Muscles... of the Horse, 1756-58, by George Stubbs RA.
In this modest two-room display (stated aim: ‘To celebrate concisely the full scope of his art’), the author of the wall texts indulges in arcane academic doubts about the ‘quality and character’ of Stubbs’ paintings and takes the artist to task for his rosy (politically incorrect) depiction of rural working life.
Throughout these texts echo the sounds of museum mandarin calling to museum mandarin like, to misquote P.G. Wodehouse, mastodons across the primeval swamps. While such arguments are appropriate to a catalogue essay, is it really fair to burden the public with them in a display that is intended to arouse their interest in an often overlooked artist?
If you ignore the overwrought writing on the wall, however, this is a rare chance to see a substantial group of Stubbs’ works as part of the history of British art at Tate Britain, and to understand better than is usually possible his place in that history. The exhibition includes nine of the fourteen Tate paintings by Stubbs, together with some important loans. Highly recommended too is an accompanying publication, by a different author from the wall texts which contains an excellent introduction to the artist.
Underpinning Stubbs’ uniqueness is a combination of three qualities: an exceptionally active and enquiring scientific mind, an unsentimental empathy with man and beast, and an understanding of classical aesthetics. Early in his career, around 1758–59, Stubbs shut himself up in a farmhouse in Lincolnshire for a year and dissected horses, recording the results in a series of superb drawings (now in the RA’s collection). The resulting publication, The Anatomy of the Horse (1766), brought him Europe-wide celebrity, possibly more in scientific than artistic circles. This marks him as a man of the Enlightenment.
Stubbs’ knowledge of anatomy gives his animals (and humans, which he also studied) their vivid naturalism, while his individualisation of them, and the little narratives he constructs, engage us more deeply. In the celebrated Mares and Foals, the three mares seem to be in conversation, while the foals feed. In A Couple of Foxhounds (1792), the bitch sniffs the ground at the dog’s feet, suggesting their relationship both by this gesture and by the way it visually fits her together with him. In Reapers (1785), does the exchange of glances between the farmer on horseback and the female worker betray a hidden tryst? Look again at the painting to find out.
Aesthetically, using a precise and luminous technique, Stubbs applied classical principles (balanced, near-symmetrical compositions, triangular groupings) to the lowly genres of animal painting and scenes of rural life. He thus elevated them to the realm of high art (although his contemporaries could not see this). His dramas, such as the series of encounters between a horse and a lion, were the first animal history paintings. Consequently, his paintings vibrate with an extraordinary tension between their naturalism, empathy and informal narratives, and an almost frozen, timeless and monumental quality. In addition, Stubbs’ group compositions, such as Reapers, Haymakers and Five Hounds, demonstrate a remarkable sense of rhythm and interval, reminiscent of a classical frieze.
Stubbs’ Enlightenment credentials are underlined by his technical research into a more permanent medium for pictures than the relatively fragile oil on canvas. In the 1770s, he began to experiment with fired enamel, working with the pioneer industrial potter Josiah Wedgwood to perfect a ceramic base that would permit a much greater scale for enamel paintings than the traditional copper. This links him to the industrial, as well as the scientific, revolution of the time, and his success can be seen in the freshness of colour and light in his enamels, compared with the oils. (The contrast is particularly evident at Tate Britain, where only the enamels stand up to the savagely bright walls.)
Sited as it is in the collection displays, this new show constitutes what a distinguished former Tate curator, the late David Brown, used to call a ‘boom boom cluster’ – a group of works that make a striking impact in the gallery. He believed that all displays should be hung with an eye to visual appeal and not to score art historical points. Stubbs is one of the true stars of British art, and one could wish that he and his fellow stars at Tate Britain could have their ‘boom boom clusters’ – their celebrations – not just on occasion, but permanently.
George Stubbs: A Celebration, Tate Britain, London (020 7887 8888), until 14 Jan; The Frick Collection, New York
(+1 212 288 0700), 14 Feb–27 May. George Stubbs: A Celebration, by Alex Kidson (Tate Publishing, £2.50)
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