George Stubbs and enamels

'Haycarting', George Stubbs

Those who did not have engraved gems and seals to fill their cabinets could buy sets of Roman Emperors or statesmen in pottery from Wedgwood or in glass-paste from his competitor James Tassie. 'The Fall of Phaeton', who in Greek legend was killed trying to drive the chariot of the Sun, was modelled in 1780 by the celebrated horse painter George Stubbs (1724-1806).

He modelled only one other subject for Wedgwood, 'The Frightened Horse'. A jasper tablet of this is in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. Wedgwood disapproved of Stubbs' choice of subjects, because they were based on engravings which the artist had already published. Stubbs however, was not used to modelling in relief and probably felt the need to use familiar images.

Stubbs was interested in enamel colours as a durable medium for painting, and by 1775 had already asked Wedgwood whether he could make large pottery plaques for this purpose. The potter probably responded to this challenge in the same spirit that he made special laboratory equipment on request for leading scientists. It can be regarded as a pure desire for progress in science and art, or as the most enlightened self-interest. The plaques had to be made of a special earthenware body to prevent them from warping in the heat of the kiln.

The gritty texture of this body made it necessary to apply a thin layer of glaze on one surface to ensure that it was smooth enough to paint on. The oval shape was probably chosen as less likely than a rectangle to show up any warping. Seventeen tablets painted by Stubbs are known to survive, the earliest dated 1778. They were not a critical or commercial success in their own time, but are now regarded as a triumph in both technical and artistic terms.

Enamel colours appear different before and after they are fired, and when this is borne in mind the delicacy of Stubbs' colouring is truly impressive. The Lady Lever collection has four examples, two of which are shown here.