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The Fall of Phaeton, Wedgwood plaque, blue and white Jasper, 1780, by George Stubbs (1724 - 1807)


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About the artwork

George Stubbs is possibly the most famous artist to have been born in Liverpool. He is also usually considered to have been one of the greatest of all British animal painters. Information about his early training is uncertain. It is thought that he initially learned to paint under the supervision of the Liverpool landscape artist, Hamlet Winstanley (1698-1756). Stubbs may also have taught himself to paint.

Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) was among the most innovative of 18th-century English potters. He produced and marketed high-quality ceramics for domestic use. He also made a variety of more expensive decorative pottery pieces. He often employed leading artists and sculptors to work on designs for his ware.

Throughout his life Stubbs displayed an inquisitive scientific temperament. He was particularly interested in the anatomical construction of animals, birds and humans. He did dissections to further his knowledge. He also tried out new surfaces upon which to do his painting. His illustrated book 'The Anatomy of the Horse ', published in 1766, gained him a Europe-wide reputation.

This plaque is so-called 'jasperware' -a type of stoneware. Many examples of jasperware can be seen in the Wedgwood room at the Lady Lever. The most usual colours for this very popular pottery were blue and white and green and white. The majority of the decorative figures on jasperware pieces are derived from Greek or Roman myth and legend.

The subject of this plaque is the well-known classical legend about Phaeton. He was the headstrong son of Helios, the god of the sun who each morning started his day-long journey across the sky carrying the sun in his chariot. Helios granted one wish to Phaeton. Phaeton asked to ride the chariot of the sun on his own. His father tried to dissuade him, knowing how difficult it was to manage the chariot's horses. The boy insisted. In the middle of his journey across the sky he lost control of the horses. He took the sun so near the earth that he risked destroying it. Zeus, king of the gods, struck Phaeton with a thunderbolt and killed him.

Stubbs's image shows Phaeton's chariot going out of control with four fiercely animated horses charging ahead. The disc of the sun is represented as the burning wheels of the chariot. Stubbs's clear understanding of the anatomy of the horse can be seen, for example, in the prominent veins and muscles of the foreground animal.

It may have been a shared experimental attitude that led Stubbs and Wedgwood to work together. In 1780 they produce three-dimensional clay decorative objects like this plaque. Wedgwood probably hoped that if they proved to be fashionable they might also prove to be profitable. Stubbs produced two three-dimensional reliefs in wax while he was staying at Wedgwood's family home at Etruria in Staffordshire between early August and mid-November 1780. From these wax reliefs Wedgwood then had moulds made.

Stubbs had made a print of this subject ten years earlier in 1770. He seems to have had no intention of producing a new design for Wedgwood. He was apparently prepared only to work from previous creations. Wedgwood's business partner, Nicholas Bentley, who lived in Liverpool, received letters from Wedgwood in which Stubbs's stubbornness is described along with his refusal to compromise on his subjects. Wedgwood would have preferred him to have done something that was slightly more marketable, a little less austerely classical, perhaps even a little bit prettier.

Wedgwood and Stubbs also worked together on the creation of pictures that were painted on clay rectangles using colours (made from powdered coloured glass) rather than oil paints. These big flat pieces of painted pottery were fired in a kiln to fuse the enamel powder to the surface. Some examples of this rare type of picture can be seen at the Lady Lever Art Gallery in the Wedgwood room. At first sight they looked just like ordinary oil paintings when in fact they are painted on clay.

Wedgwood advertised 'The Fall of Phaeton' and another Stubbs plaque in his catalogue for several years. The extreme rarity of these two plaques suggests that they did not sell well. Wedgwood thought that this may partly had been due to their high price of eight guineas each.