Historical Portraits Picture Archive

The Earl of Westmorland’s Grey Hunter 1786

George Stubbs RA 1724 - 1806

The Earl of Westmorland’s Grey Hunter, George Stubbs RA
oil on mahogany panel
18th Century
20 ½ x 29 inches. 52 x 73.6 cm
Private Collection USA
We are grateful to Judy Egerton for confirming the attribution to George Stubbs

Since the seventeenth century, English aristocrats had supplemented portraits of themselves and their families with portraits of their horses and in instances their dogs. Earlier artists such as John Wooton and the Irish-born John Seymour had continued this tradition into the eighteenth century, elevating animal-painting to the level of portraiture and genre with portraits of distinguished horses and their more distinguished owners, battle scenes and hunting conversation pieces. Seldom in these paintings, however, are the equestrian subjects more than emblematic horses. It is not until the work of Stubbs that portraits of horses achieve plausibility.

Stubbs understood horses inside-out – literally - but the knowledge gained from his celebrated dissections alone would not explain the haunting effect of his painting. His rival and fellow Royal Academician Sawrey Gilpin knew the horse’s anatomy as well as he did, but Gilpin’s horses seldom ring true because he tries to invest them with personality. Stubbs lets painterly realism convey their presence, and varies the pitch of emotion by the harmonies and contrasts of the subject with its background.

In this portrait of an unnamed hunter belonging to the Earl of Westmoreland, the galloping horse is shown as a brilliant flash against the dark woodland. The legs are stretched out in a gallop that emphasises its freedom, the unrestraint with which it moves across the open field. At the same time the note of solemnity created by the dark background creates a sense of moment. We impute to the horse a lonely dignity which approaches the nobility which as a nation the English have traditionally attributed to the horse. The effect of this manipulation of subject and setting can be seen throughout Stubbs’s oeuvre. The stage-set cliffs of Creswell Craggs lend obvious drama to many paintings of the 1760s, but the emotional impact of works such as Bulls Fighting 1786 (Yale Centre for British Art, Paul Mellon Foundation) is greater for the simplicity of their composition and colouring. Of the deadly combat in Bulls Fighting, where the two animals lumber at each other with horns locked, set against a woodland like that behind Lord Westmorland’s hunter. Contemporary critics attacked the picture because it lacked the vicious contortions of Frans Snyders. The contemporary critic John Lawrence, however, recognised that it was ‘the justest and most natural representation … which is to be found anywhere on canvas, and which the painter had often seen in nature – his critics never.’1 Judy Egerton is correct to say that ‘The restrained setting – timeless woods and water – and the artist’s unemotional observation lend the composition a weight far more substantial than any savagery could.’2 In the same way, it is the restraint exercised throughout the present painting that gives it such a enduring emotional – and undeniably lyrical – power.

The early life of John Fane 10th Earl of Westmorland reads like a picaresque fiction of a late Georgian rake. In 1782 – four years before he commissioned Stubbs to paint the present painting – he had eloped with Anne, the daughter and eventual heiress of Robert Child, the rich banker for whom Robert Adam remodelled his great house at Osterley Park. Child pursued the couple on their flight through Preston, and went so far as to shoot one of their carriage horses in an attempt to stop them, but one of the Earl’s resourceful servants cut the traces on Child’s carriage and the couple reached Gretna Green unharmed. Westmorland’s later life was more sedate and devoted to politics. As an undergraduate at Cambridge he had become a friend of William Pitt, and in 1798 he was sworn of the Privy Council and appointed joint Postmaster General. In the following year he went to Dublin as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland where he served until 1794. On his return he was made Master of the Horse and then in 1798 Lord Privy Seal with a seat in cabinet, which he retained almost uninterruptedly until 1827. He refused office under the Duke of Wellington and withdrew from politics in disgust at the Reform Act of 1832. He retained his old energy, however, and the diarist Mrs Arbuthnot described him as ‘as active as any man of 25’ on his sixty-second birthday.’3 He died in Brighton in 1841 aged eighty-two.

1. John Lawrence A philosophical and practical treatise on horses and the moral duties of man towards the brute creation II 1798 pp.248 – 9 quoted in Judy Egerton George Stubbs RA (1724 – 1806) Tate Gallery 1984 p.171
2. Egerton 1984 loc. cit.
3. Journal of Mrs Arbuthnot, 1.61 quoted in Roland Thorne, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
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