About the artwork
At first glance, it's not obvious that this work by Stubbs is any different from any of the other pictures in the Lady Lever Art Gallery. They look very much like oil paintings by the same artist would look. However, they are made of pottery and painted with glass, fused into the final form you see at a temperature around 700 degrees Centigrade. At that temperature an oil painting would be just a little heap of cinders.
The Liverpool-born artist Stubbs was deeply interested in the sciences. Best known as a horse painter, the illustrations in his book 'The Anatomy of the Horse' amazed the western world. He also followed the improving technology of the Industrial Revolution in search of a way of painting that would be more permanent than oil on canvas. He saw that enamels, which are mixtures of coloured glass, fired at high temperature, would last much better and keep their colour.
His difficulty was to find something to paint them on which would stand high temperatures and which he could get in large sheets. At first he tried copper plates but was not satisfied with the results. Next he approached the two best makers of large-scale ceramics to see whether they could help. Eleanor Coade made so-called 'artificial stone' at Lambeth in London, including tablets and other architectural features for buildings. She evidently refused, but Stubbs' other choice, Wedgwood, said yes.
Wedgwood was already making architectural tablets about two feet long with figures raised in relief. From the end of 1777 he began making tablets for Stubbs of a red earthenware body. They look like thick heavy red tiles. But this body would warp and crack in the kiln if the tiles were more than a couple of feet long. So Wedgwood set about developing a completely new ceramic body that would stand the stresses of the kiln even in really large pieces. To do this it had to be light and fairly open in texture, to enable the heat to get in and the gases to escape, but also gritty and tough, so that it would not bend in the heat. In 1779 he wrote to his partner, the Liverpool merchant Thomas Bentley:
"I wrote to you by post this morning, but wish to say a word or two concerning Mr Stubbs and his tablets. We shall be able now to make them with certainty and success of the size of the three in this invoice and I hope soon to say as far as thirty inches - perhaps ultimately up to 36 inches by 24, but that is at present in the offing and I would not mention to Mr Stubbs beyond 30 at present. If Mr Stubbs succeeds he will be followed by others to which he does not seem to have the least objection, but rather wishes for it; and if the oil painters too should use them they may become a considerable object."
Wedgwood evidently hoped that the amazing technical achievement in making and firing enamel paintings on this large scale would become famous, and that lots of artists would follow Stubbs. The problem was that, when hung among oil paintings at the Royal Academy, they blended in all too well. The Academy was sniffy about enamel painting because it was generally used for decorating snuffboxes and porcelain rather than being a fine art. So Stubbs' idea was a commercial failure.
Seventeen paintings by Stubbs on Wedgwood tablets are known to survive. Thirteen date from 1778 to 1783, then there is a gap until the last four, dated 1791, 1794 and 1795. 'Haymakers' and 'Haycarting' are 1794 and 1795. These two tablets, and a third one of 'Reapers' at the Yale Center for British Art in the USA, are the biggest Wedgwood ever made, over forty inches long.
We can trace when they were fired from the records at Wedgwood: between March 1783 and September 1784 he fired 28 tablets, of which 24 were forty-two inches long. The measurement was taken before the tablets were fired, and they shrank by between one and two inches in the kiln. But the loss rate was disastrous: of the 28, only four of the forty-two inch tablets survived. After that there are no more records of tablets being fired for Stubbs. Wedgwood evidently abandoned the experiment.
This means that Stubbs kept his largest tablets for ten years before he painted on them, and that he knew he would never get any more. Was he saving them up to make sure he used them for the work that he most wanted to be permanent? We don't know why he used them when he did. The interesting thing is that he used them to develop compositions from ten years earlier, the time when the tablets themselves were made. He removes some figures, enlarges others and tightens everything up. It is as though he was trying to make some sort of definitive, final statement of these subjects.
Stubbs was a very careful, deliberate, scientific sort of painter. The process of painting in enamels requires such an approach, but would drive most artists crazy. The colours have to be painted on and fired in turn, because different colours of enamel fuse at different temperatures. Those needing hotter temperatures have to be fired before those needing lower ones, otherwise the latter would be burnt and blackened. A tablet with many colours had to be fired lots of times.
Stubbs needed to take the tablet to a so-called 'muffle kiln' each time he needed to fire a colour - he lived in London at this time and there was a muffle kiln in the back of Wedgwood's showroom in Greek Street. We can imagine each precious tablet travelling to and fro many times through the streets of London before it was finished.