Stubbs and the Wild, Holburne Museum, Bath, UK — preview

Identified mainly for his horses, the British artist also excelled in research of much more exotic beasts

'Tygers at Play I' (before 1776)

George Stubbs had been a struggling provincial artist for 15 years when he migrated to London in 1758. The key to his virtually quick transformation into one of the most popular commissioned artists of his time lay in the portfolio of drawings he brought with him, the meticulous record of his own dissections of the skeleton, musculature and blood vessels of the horse. These had been the initial of their sort ever seen and convinced the horse-mad young aristocrats who saw them that Stubbs understood their favourite animal from the inside out.

The London art planet, on the other hand, saw him as a dirty-booted, steady-smelling horse-painter, excellent at his job but hardly bon ton. Stubbs could in no way accept the stereotype. Although continuing to paint horses for a living, he diversified. Stubbs taught himself to engrave, then printed and published his Anatomy of the Horse as a treatise he produced experimental enamel portraits and narrative paintings in partnership with the potter Josiah Wedgwood he created spirited conversation pieces and pastoral scenes, forming a sturdy affinity for landscape and he developed a new speciality — the study of exotic beasts. This last area of diversification will be the concentrate of a new show, Stubbs and the Wild, opening next month at Bath’s Holburne Museum.

Finished study for 'Anatomy of a Horse:10th Anatomical Table'. Credit: Royal Academy

Completed study for ‘Anatomy of a Horse:10th Anatomical Table’. Credit: Royal Academy

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Londoners did not have to travel far to look at a wild beast. Any passer-by could view Queen Charlotte’s zebra (or “painted ass”) grazing behind Buckingham House, and the Royal Menagerie at the Tower was on each and every tourist’s itinerary. There had been also a number of commercial zoos, these of Gough, Cross and Pidcock getting three of the greater recognized, giving a sight of their lions, tigers, monkeys and bears for a tariff of anything up to a (fairly stiff) shilling.

Another fellow displaying beasts on Tyburn Road, close to Stubbs’s house, hit the news in 1765 when he was caught acquiring human corpses from a gang of Cripplegate grave robbers to feed to his collection. Outside the capital, 1 of the very best-recognized big cats of the age was the massive tigress kept by the Duke of Marlborough at Blenheim, the subject of one of Stubbs’s most imperious research.

Of course Stubbs was not the initial excellent artist to appear closely at wild nature. Leonardo’s fascination with the wild — birds in particular — is scattered by means of his voluminous notebooks, and there are numerous exquisite nature studies amongst Dürer’s practically 1,000 extant drawings. But in all art history Stubbs was the very first fantastic figure to place himself at the disposal of zoological science.

His collaborations with the Duke of Richmond (an uncommon aristocrat in that he had a science degree from the University of Leiden), the health-related brothers William and John Hunter, Captain Cook’s science officer Joseph Banks and specimen collectors such as Marmaduke Tunstall, resulted in an unprecedented physique of function. Some of these exotic animals had been visual aids for lectures by William Hunter at the Royal Society. Others, as in the case of Richmond’s “Second Bull Moose” and Tunstall’s “Mouse Lemur”, are drawings carried out for the record, not necessarily intended to be worked up into show-pieces.

'Marmaduke Tunstall's Mouse Lemur' (1773). Credit: Trustees of the British Museum

‘Marmaduke Tunstall’s Mouse Lemur’ (1773). Credit: Trustees of the British Museum

Amongst Stubbs’s larger wild animal subjects in oils are the zebra, Indian rhino, yak, tiger, leopard, cheetah, nylghau and two various Canadian moose. These were initially studied from life employing chalks or graphite, although none of the sketchbooks containing these research has survived. Stubbs evidently filled one with life studies of huge cats, his favourite wild animals, which he later gave to another of his physician friends, Edgar Ashe Spilsbury. An amateur early lithographer, Spilsbury produced 3 prints from the book, and these give some idea of Stubbs’s skill with chalk and pencil.

An even a lot more tantalising survival are the three sheets accomplished at Tunstall’s home in Welbeck Street, which catch the diminutive lemur, the smallest of all Stubbs’s animal subjects, in a compendium of poses. The artist’s capability to take a series of mental images of an animal, and make a precise record of its posture and movements, is astonishing.

A highlight at the Holburne will be a likelihood to see the captivating oil painting of two young leopards “at play” in a rocky landscape. The picture, which sold this year at Sotheby’s for a record £7.7m, has been observed in public no far more than half a dozen times considering that it was created at some time before 1776. It is hugely revolutionary in its handling of wild nature. Big cats in art had often been snarling and fearsome or nobly commanding. They had in no way been noticed as youngsters romping and tussling collectively in this most organic and delightful way. It shows, but once again, how Stubbs’s art usually sought new methods of seeing, and doing.

‘Stubbs and the Wild’, Holburne Museum, Bath, June 25-October two,

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Section: Arts