There are those who misguidedly believe that they cannot possibly be interested in the work of Stubbs, England’s principal equestrian painter, simply because they are not interested in horses. Such people should be frogmarched to the National Gallery and forcibly persuaded to pay a visit to its forthcoming exhibition, “Stubbs and the Horse”. This is not merely because it promises to be one of the most enthralling shows of the year, but also because it should, for once and for all, put paid to the foolish misconception that Stubbs was no more than a gifted animalier in the service of the Georgian aristocracy – a mere animal painter, recording the appearance and the equine feats of those sleek thoroughbred horses ridden, raced and treasured by the milords and miladies of eighteenth century England. He was far more than that.

George Stubbs (1724-1806) was not only one of the greatest British painters to have lived, but the equal of any of his European contemporaries. A brilliant draughtsman, he was gifted with a control of line not seen in England since the time of Holbein. Technical excellence aside, he was a painter-philosopher and a student of science – a true man of the Enlightenment, whose work gave expression to numerous shifts, both great and subtle, in the very texture of European thought. Small wonder, then, that the versifier Peter Pindar should have written “’Tis said that nought so much the temper rubs / Of that ingenious artist, Mister Stubbs, / As calling him a horse painter …”

Because Stubbs wrote little during the course of his long life, his character and temperament remain something of a mystery. What can be said about him with certainty is that he was a slow developer and a largely self-taught man. Until he...

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