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Horse Frightened by a Lion, by George Stubbs


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About the artwork

An apocryphal story has it that George Stubbs stopped off on his voyage home from Italy in 1754, and stayed in a castle at Ceuta on the Moroccan mainland opposite Gibraltar. One evening, walking the walls, he looked out across the moonlit desert and saw a lion stalking, bringing down, and devouring a wild horse. The scene was said to have haunted the painter’s imagination for the rest of his life…

A more likely source for Stubbs’s obsession with the subject, however, is to be found in a life-size piece of antique sculpture - 'Lion Attacking a Horse' - that he would have seen in the courtyard of the Palazzo dei Conservatori in Rome. There is an eighteenth century ‘free copy’ of this dramatic group in Room 5 of the Walker. 

Whatever the inspiration, Stubbs’s twenty or so treatments of the theme in various media over thirty years amounted to a repeated narrative comprising four distinct stages or episodes:
    A) The Lion stalks the Horse.
    B) The Horse becomes aware of the Lion and backs away in terror.
    C) The Lion springs onto the Horse’s back.
    D) The Horse collapses and the Lion begins to tear at its flesh.

The Walker’s picture illustrates episode B, while the exhibition 'George Stubbs - A Celebration' also includes versions of episodes C and D.

An mp3 download of Dr Paul O'Keeffe's gallery talk on George Stubbs's 'Horse Frightened by a Lion' is available online.

The conflict between two such wild, powerful and beautiful creatures was a spectacle that would have appealed to Eighteenth Century aesthetic sensibilities as an instance of the ‘Sublime’. In 1757 Edmund Burke published his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful:

'whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain or danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant with terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime: that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.'

The Sublime, according to Burke, was to be sought in a dark inhospitable landscape, and characterised by wildlife no less savage:

    '…it comes upon us in a gloomy forest and in the howling wilderness, in the form, of the lion, the tiger, the panther or rhinoceros.'

The landscape forming the backdrop to Stubbs’s picture was based on the topography of a rugged limestone gorge known as Creswell Crags in Nottinghamshire, a geological feature that appears behind a less traumatised horse - with groom and greyhound - elsewhere in the exhibition - 'George Stubbs - A Celebration'.

The picture has also been interpreted as a political allegory of the Jacobite cause. Stubbs family background was Jacobite, although it is not known how fervently he himself supported the exiled Young and Old Pretenders of the House of Stuart. Be that as it may, the allegorical significance of the scene would be as follows: the white stallion - dynastic symbol of the Electors of Hanover - represents the Hanoverian monarchy of George III; the lion represents England, about to bring down the German usurper of the Stuart’s rightful throne. Stubbs is said to have painted the white horse from one of the King’s animals in the Royal Mews. The expression of fear was achieved by repeatedly pushing a yard brush across the ground towards the highly strung creature.

An mp3 download of Dr Paul O'Keeffe's gallery talk on George Stubbs's 'Horse Frightened by a Lion' is available online.