George Stubbs
George Stubbs; drawing by David Levine

Sixteen years ago it was possible for the learned Dr. Schmalenbach to produce a study of the role of the horse in the history of art and never once to mention George Stubbs. When Adel des Pferdes was translated into English under the title The Noble Horse with an introduction by Lionel Edwards, the omission was noted, but without astonishment. Mr. Edwards was no doubt aware that European art historians, if they could be persuaded to recognize the existence of any British art at all, would think of it only in terms of portrait painting or of landscape. Moreover it was usual to describe the islanders as a race of colorists, vaguely sentimental observers of light and color, virtuosos of the brush but not, as we should now say, of the pencil. The English, it was generally agreed, had never produced a competent draftsman.

There is a view of English eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century painting which permits a reasonably absent-minded critic to accept such a generalization; but it is a position that becomes increasingly hard to maintain as we rediscover the half-forgotten work of Wright of Derby and of George Stubbs. Indeed, today the tendency is so much reversed that we are in some danger of forgetting the portrait painters entirely; but it would be unreasonable to complain of a current of opinion which is so long overdue and which has given us Benedict Nicolson’s valuable study of Wright of Derby. The late Basil Taylor would, we hoped, give the world a definitive monograph on Stubbs and perhaps one may still hope for a posthumous work; for the moment we have his interim essay of 1971, Constance Anne Parker’s critical biography of the same year, and now the present imposing volume of the anatomical works by Terence Doherty.

No one who is at all familiar with the work of Wright and of Stubbs can doubt that they were exact and competent draftsmen. There are other points of resemblance and it seems probable that Wright, who was born in 1734, ten years after Stubbs, owed a good deal to his senior, but the common circumstances of their careers suggest other reasons why both artists should have developed as they did. They both came from the north of England at a time when industrialism was in its infancy, they both accepted commissions for portraits, and both wanted to be history painters. They were both attracted to what was then called “natural philosophy” and were both on easy terms with men like Priestley and Watt, Dr. Hunter, the Wedgwoods, the Darwins, patrons of a new kind, informed by a scientific optimism which we can no longer share.

When they made the journey to Italy, as both these painters did, it was in a spirit very different from that in which Joshua Reynolds made his pilgrimage to Raphael’s Stanze. Wright came back with color notes on the fires of Vesuvius, Stubbs says that he went only “to convince himself that nature was and is always superior to art.” And yet it is hard to suppose that they remained quite indifferent to the many things that Italy has to offer to the painter. They were both realists, their deep admiration for nature was entirely unaffected, and yet they combined in a singularly happy manner a very honest realism with an unmistakably classical grace and grandeur, a true elegance of feeling which, though perhaps innate, could only have been strengthened by a sojourn in Italy.

Mr. Doherty goes so far as to call Stubbs “the one true classical artist that England has produced.” Bold words, but there is truth enough in them so long as we know what we mean by “classical.” In this case I think we should have to insist upon the classical value of a firm and completely convincing outline. Stubbs never fails to describe a contour, his shapes are never imprecise, awkward, or ambiguous. We should also have to regard as classical something that may seem rather to belong to genre or to portraiture, that is to say the completely “modern,” almost casual look of all his sitters whether they be human or animal. Only in one theme, the Horse attacked by a Lion, does Stubbs seem to have referred to a classical prototype and then (to my mind) with wholly unnatural and wholly disastrous results. At other times he records his horses and hounds, keepers and stable lads, ladies and gentlemen in just those habitual exertions that seem completely “unposed.”

There is indeed something almost comic about this “classicist’s” devotion to the rowdy, eupeptic world of hunting and shooting, or the slap-happy, hazardous society of the “turf.” And yet he is a classicist. Although wonderfully “common” in a good sense of that word, he is never, in a bad sense, “vulgar.” The extended line or frieze of animals or of men, his favorite compositional device, governed as it is by the need to maintain an unstudied, an almost casual, air, is, at the same time, most strictly regulated by an infinitely delicate and masterly use of intervals. Basil Taylor has remarked upon Stubbs’s affection for the “golden section” and in general for a very effective and very subtle form of pictorial geometry. This though true falls short of the full truth because we have no words that will describe those compositional felicities of related but irregular shapes—forms indescribable in words but clearly harmonious in their disposition—for which “geometry” is too rough a term.


Stubbs’s “classicism” consists then in getting his facts right and then in presenting them with elegant lucidity. It is a kind of classicism which we may fairly call “scientific.” In the anatomies he is, in a more obvious way, scientific, while his classical tendency reveals him as a faithful follower of the academic tradition; the horse, it will be remembered, has a special place in the academic hierarchy, next to man.

The words “anatomy” and “academy” strike a dismal note in modern ears; and it must be allowed that of all the engines of official instruction in art—and they include the exercise in perspective, the cone, the sphere, and the cylinder all made of grimy plaster, the even grimier cast from the antique, and the “approved engravings after the best masters”—the anatomical lecture is the most completely discredited. No doubt in the fifteenth and even in the sixteenth century, when the painters were pioneers in the practice of anatomy, the study had a certain charm. But, despite the admonitions of Lo-mazzo and the programs of academic teaching, anatomy was the most neglected of all subjects in the schools; and even M. Ingres was content to do without it. The example of those who “Michelangelized” the model, carefully drawing in bones and tendons which they could not in fact see but knew “to be there,” achieving in the end those herculean bambini which are among the most ludicrous productions of mannerism, serves as a dreadful warning of what anatomy can lead to.

The modern art student, if he be prepared to look at the model at all, and the modern art teacher who is likely to hide the anatomical skeleton beneath a verbal disguise (“human morphology” used to be one of the more popular euphemisms) can no longer regard the model in that reverential spirit which allowed the sixteenth century quite seriously to believe that “the foot is nobler than the shoe.” They are likely to ask, as they survey a plump nude upon a plump sofa: “Why, if we are to consider and even to name this young person’s infrastructure, might we not equally well classify and investigate the springs and woodwork, the webbing and the foam rubber of that upon which she sits?” (Only they would frame the question differently.) And yet anatomy is still taught here and there, and perhaps there is a case for it, not indeed as a part of the academic curriculum, but as a means of sharpening an artist’s apprehension of nature (always supposing that this in its turn is desirable).

It is true that when we are drawing a figure against the light or one which is heavily draped anatomical knowledge may be practically worthless. But when we are working in clay, and indeed often constrained to provide our model with some kind of rudimentary skeleton, we may find that a knowledge of internal structure leads to a greater understanding of shape. There is a way of looking that belongs primarily to sculpture, but that may also be translated into terms of idea-tional space, which calls not simply for vision but for understanding. There are draftsmen who can work best when they know not merely how things look but how they are made.

Both these varieties of drawing arise from a sort of curiosity. But the impressionist is content to record experiences which, for all he cares, may remain entirely inexplicable, it being to him a matter of indifference whether the straggling dark mass in the right-hand corner of his picture be a bramble patch or the mane of a lion poised to spring, so long as he can render its tone and hue with perfect fidelity. The sculptor and all haptic artists, on the other hand, will remain unsatisfied unless they can, either in reality or in imagination, inform themselves not only of the shape and color but also of the weight and consistency, the function and the construction of what they observe. Such an artist is in fact much closer than is the “impressionist” to the scientific investigator. His curiosity goes further, he must handle, unpack, unscrew, and dissect that which he sees.


As with many artists we find both these tendencies in the work of Stubbs; but certainly for him the process of discovery was most important. It is perhaps significant that at an early stage in his career Stubbs devoted himself to an investigation of the fetus, or rather of the pelvic regions, the womb, the postures and delivery of the unborn child. It was a task difficult in itself and made more so by the passions of a prejudiced and ignorant public. To dissect the cadaver was, at that time, thought to be something almost monstrous. In this series of drawings we may fancy that Stubbs already displayed that cool dispassionate impersonal style which is so evident in his later work; but indeed it is hardly more than fancy, for the illustrations to Burton’s Midwifery were most vilely engraved and no drawings remain. Fifteen years later, in 1766, Stubbs began his great work upon the anatomy of the horse. On this occasion he made no mistake about the engraving; realizing that he alone could satisfy himself, he made himself a master of this difficult art and translated his own work with breath-taking skill. Nevertheless it is the forty-one original drawings which show him at his best and establish his fame as a great draftsman.

They are of necessity deliberate factual drawings in which nothing is half understood, nothing incompletely stated. There are no concessions to grace, no ornament or flourish. One may surmise that they were the work of an intensely excited man, but this surmise is not based upon the quality of Stubbs’s line, which is always sober and precise, but upon external evidence. We know that he was working under difficulties. He had to devise a method of slinging his carcasses into a natural position, he had to learn to use the scalpel with a surgeon’s care; as he worked his subjects became noisome and began to breed maggots and to decompose. But these arduous labors were revealing truths which had never before been recorded. One has only to compare his engravings with those of his predecessor, Ruini, to see how much he discovered. He was like an explorer mapping an almost unknown territory. Seldom has a great artistic enterprise been undertaken in so purely scientific a spirit.

Stubbs was an observer and not, it would seem, a speculator. It is true that A Comparative Anatomical Exposition of the Human body with that of a tiger and a common fowl, for which again he made some most beautiful drawings between 1804 and 1806, when he was a very old but active man, might have led him into a region in which the nineteenth century was to indulge in some of its most agonizing questionings. But there is no reason to think that Stubbs went beyond the tasks of a recorder. Indeed our knowledge of this last period of his anatomical work is very incomplete. On the whole we may say that his virtues, not only as a maker of anatomical drawings but as a painter, lay in his refusal to comment; his exquisite pictorial tact. It was a virtue that was not shared by his successors. James Ward, who learned a great deal from him, and Landseer, who owned the drawings for the Anatomy of the Horse, used their skill in drawing animals (and Landseer’s skill was prodigious) to make them actors in the kind of melodrama of which Stubbs himself was never guilty.

This volume is very welcome because it shows us an intimate side of Stubbs’s work and shows us also how fine a discipline he imposed upon his hand even in the slightest of his drawings. It is hard to think that this part of his oeuvre will ever need to be published again. The text is on the whole clear and businesslike, although it may be a little hard to say exactly what Mr. Doherty means when he says that the assistance of Mr. Ruari Mc-Lean has been “exceptional”; certainly Mr. McLean, who designed the book with Mr. Rosenthal, has done a magnificent job. But why, when so much else is admirable, has this volume been published without an index?

This Issue

October 30, 1975