Today is the Sunday before Derby Day, so this week’s aptly equestrian picture is George Stubbs’s monumental portrait (twelve feet across by nearly seven feet high) of the thoroughbred Hambletonian being rubbed down after a race. It hangs at the National Trust property of Mount Stuart, in Northern Ireland.
“Mr Stubbs the Horse Painter” was seventy-five when Sir Henry Vane Tempest, 2nd Bart, of Wynyard Park in County Durham, commissioned him to paint the picture. The baronet was a young man of 28, and a very rich one to boot, having inherited a small estate from his father, the Reverend Sir Henry Vane, and a vast one from his uncle, John Tempest, who had lost his only son in a riding accident – the sole condition of the bequest being that the beneficiary add the name of Tempest to that of Vane. The newly double-barrelled milord bought a string of racehorses, the most successful of which was Hambletonian, sired by King Fergus, son of the great Eclipse, out of a dam by Highflyer. The colt never won the Derby itself, a mile and a half being too short a trip to bring out his best, but he did take the last of the season’s classics, the St Leger, in 1796. It was that success which persuaded Vane-Tempest to buy him. His new owner landed his biggest betting coup with Hambletonian three years later at Newmarket. In the spring of 1799 he and another wealthy racing man, Joseph Cookson, agreed to a match between their two best thoroughbreds. The stake was 3,000 guineas, a vast wager at the time, winner take all.
Hambletonian, ridden by Frank Buckle, was pitted against Cookson’s horse Diamond with Dennis Fitzpatrick in the saddle. The distance was to be four miles, over the nearly straight Beacon Course, at Newmarket (changes to the racecourse caused by, among other things, the diminished stamina of the modern flat-bred horse mean that this particular course is no longer in use). The race was run on 25 March 1799. Diamond was a proven performer at Newmarket, but Hambletonian went off the narrow favourite, at odds of 4-5. The Sporting Magazine reported that the match “drew together the greatest concourse of people that was ever seen at Newmarket. The company not only occupied every bed to be procured in that place, but Cambridge and every town and village within twelve and fifteen miles was also thronged with visitors”. Side-betting, according to the same publication, was “very deep in the morning”, with wagers totalling between 20,000 and 30,000 guineas being struck. The race was an extremely close contest. Hambletonian made the running until four furlongs out, when Diamond came to challenge him. The pair ran pell-mell towards the line. Although Hambletonian seemed to be tiring he rallied in the last few yards and “by an extraordinary stride or two, some say the very last stride, won the match by little more than half a neck”. The race had taken its toll. “Both horses were much cut with the whip, and severely goaded with the spur, but particularly Hambletonian; he was shockingly goaded.”
This famous victory must have earned Vane Tempest a very great deal of money indeed, to judge by the extraordinary size of the picture he commissioned from Stubbs to commemorate the event. For his part, the artist responded to the story of Hambletonian’s triumph with a composition of frieze-like, classical simplicity. The race-day crowds have been edited out. The scene is plainly Newmarket, but it has been universalised after a fashion, rendered by Stubbs as an elemental, flat landscape of heath and vaporous sky, with wisps of windblown cloud flying above, its few bare signs of human use having a ghostly and melancholic character. A white running rail can be made out in the middle distance, with a pair of brick-built racecourse buildings. To the left, Stubbs has included the so-called “Rubbing Down House”, where horses were taken after their exertions, to have their saddles removed and the sweat – in Hambletonian’s case, blood too – wiped from their flanks and quarters.
The subject of the picture is the aftermath of the race. The circumspect boy in tweed trousers and waistcoat has just rubbed Hambletonian down. The hard-faced man in the top hat, presumably the horse’s trainer, holds him gently by the bridle and reaches up to pet him. The horse still seems absorbed in the memory of the heat and confusion, the pain and straining of victory. He paws the ground uneasily and bares his teeth. To calm him, the young stablelad places his hand too on the horse’s back. Stubbs shows just his fingers, an abbreviation which makes the gesture all the more poignant, and meaningful. This man and boy love this horse and feel for his suffering. Remarkably, the artist paints them looking straight out of the picture. They seem sullen, almost truculent.
I wonder if Sir Henry Vane Tempest was disconcerted by the great masterpiece of Western art which was the ultimate fruit of his gambling triumph. I wonder if he felt guilty, when he looked into the eyes of those painted figures, about the pain inflicted on his game racehorse. Perhaps he might have preferred the artist to have shown Frank Buckle, in the Vane Tempest racing colours (lilac body, yellow sleeves and black cap), riding Hambletonian to victory. There is reason to suspect he was not entirely pleased with the result. The eighteenth-century painter and diarist Joseph Farington recorded that Stubbs had to take the baronet to court for payment, although the artist did get his fee of 300 guineas in the end. Brave Hambletonian was retired to a field in the grounds of Wynyard Park, where he was eventually buried under a great oak tree.