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Transcript of 'Horse Frightened by a Lion' by George Stubbs podcast

Welcome to the Picture of the Month. The life of George Stubbs … I'm not going to be saying a great deal about the life of George Stubbs because I'll really be focussing on this painting [‘A Horse Frightened by a Lion’] and that painting [‘Horse Devoured by a Lion’] and this painting actually [‘Horse Attacked by a Lion’], because we've got three horses and lions for the price of one.

So I'm not going to be saying a great deal about the life of George Stubbs. There are going to be tours, I'm doing conducted tours of the gallery later on in the month and I'll have a lot more to say about George Stubbs's life. To begin with though the life of George Stubbs offers a real problem to the biographer in that practically nothing is known about his private life for certain. There's a recent biography by a man called Robin Blake which does a very good job but he, in his introduction, says absolutely everything has vanished, there are no diaries, there are no sketchbooks, there are no account books, there are no letters. So everything that a biographer would leap on with cries of joy and build up an account of George Stubbs's life with have gone.

Having said that there is one source of George Stubbs's life - it's a manuscript of about sixty odd pages by a friend of George Stubbs called Osias Humphrey. Osias Humphrey was a painter, a younger painter than Stubbs, and, in Stubbs's 73rd year, Osias Humphreys sat him down and essentially interviewed him over several conversations and wrote down everything that Stubbs told him about his life.

So what you have in this 64 page manuscript by Osias Humphreys is the authorised biography of George Stubbs; and Robin Blake, in his biography, every chapter (and he goes in for very short chapters, so a man with a short attention span like my own you can read a chapter of a couple of pages and then put it down or go to sleep).

So there are about 50 chapters, each chapter begins with a line from Osias Humphrey - 'in this year Mr Stubbs went to Warrington'. And then, with that little bit of information from Osias Humphrey, Robin Blake says we don't know for certain when he went to Warrington, we don't know where he stayed in Warrington, we know more or less when he left Warrington, as for the Mr Smith that he met in Warrington this could have been several Mr Smiths.

His entire biography is this masterpiece of speculation and I don't mean that as a criticism, I regard it as an admirable biography. It just shows that we don't know a great deal about George Stubbs.

Humphreys, however, in his manuscript tells us one thing - that in 1754 Stubbs went to Rome. He went to Rome in early 1754, he was back in Liverpool in August 1754, we know that because he was in time to inseminate his wife - because there was a child born nine months after August.

So he was definitely in Liverpool with his wife by August 1754. While he was in Rome we don't really know much of what he was doing and Osias Humphrey scorns his time in Rome. He says that Mr Stubbs went to Rome to convince himself that nature was greater than art and having convinced himself of that he came back home.

Now there is a story which is not in Osias Humphrey's account, therefore for that reason we can regard it with some slight suspicion but the jury is definitely out on this story which is the inspiration for this series of paintings of the lion and the horse.

The story is told in an article, in many ways an obituary article of 1808 in the Sporting Magazine. We don't know who wrote it but we assume it was written by somebody who knew Stubbs and might have got the story from Stubbs and this is how the story goes.

When he was coming back from Rome in 1754 - 'During his passage he became acquainted with a gentleman, a native of Africa whose tastes and pursuits in life were similar to his own. This gentleman had been to Rome and was returning to his family. He was liberally educated and spoke the English language with accuracy. His information made him a delightful companion to Stubbs who had often expressed how much it would add to his gratification if he could but behold the lion in its wild state or any other wild beast. His friend on one occasion during the voyage gave him an invitation to the paternal mansion he was about to visit. The offer was accepted with pleasure and Stubbs landed with his friend at the fortress of Ceueta. Ceueta is still there, it's on the coast just east of the Straits of Gibraltar on that little nipple of land - Morocco. There. And it's on the coast. So they land there and they had not been on shore many days when a circumstance occurred most favourable to the wishes of our painter - to see a lion.

The town where his friend resided was surrounded by a lofty wall and a moat. Nearly level with the wall a capacious platform extended on which the inhabitants occasionally refreshed themselves with the breeze after sunset. One evening while Stubbs and his friend were shooting the breeze on this elevated platform they were viewing the delightful scenery and a thousand beautiful objects from this elevation which the brilliancy of the moon rendered more interesting. They observed a lion. A lion was observed at some distance directing his way at a slow pace towards a white barberry horse which appeared grazing not more that 200 yards distant from the moat. Mr Stubbs was reminded of the gratification he had so often wished for. The orb of night was perfectly clear and the horizon serene. The lion did not make towards the horse by a regular approach but performed many curvatures, still drawing nearer towards the devoted animal till the lion by the shelter of a rocky situation came suddenly upon his prey. The affrighted horse beheld his enemy, and as if conscious of his fate threw himself into an attitude highly interesting to the painter. The noble creature then appeared fascinated and the lion finding him within his power sprang in a moment like a cat on the back of the defenceless horse, threw him down and instantly tore out his bowels.'

Now you can believe that story or not and as I say it is rather suspect because it's such a good story why didn't Stubbs tell it to Osias Humphrey? And it's such a good story that if Stubbs did tell it to Osias Humphrey Osias Humphrey would almost certainly have transcribed it. So we don't know, it might just have slipped Stubbs's mind for all we know. But that's it.

There is another source for Stubbs's fascination with the lion attacking the horse and that is a piece of sculpture that he would have seen in Rome and he would have seen a life-size statue in the courtyard of the Palazzo dei Conservatori and a guidebook to Rome of 1776 takes for granted that Stubbs had been inspired by the sculpture. The guidebook says that in the courtyard to the right of the Capitol Square, on emerging from the steps near the colossal heads of Domician and Commodus are some very fine remains of a lion devouring a horse - a great favourite of Michelangelo and from which an ingenious countryman of our own has made frequent studies of uncommon success - Stubbs it says in a footnote. Now what is called a free copy of this sculpture from the 18th century can be found in Room 5. They have it there in Room 5 right opposite this when it's in its proper place. Now whether Stubbs did in fact take that detour or whether he was just merely impressed by the statue of the lion and the horse in the Palazzo de Conservatori or indeed he could well have seen a cast of that sculpture or a copy in any great house in England when he came back we don't know. But the horse and the lion became a fascination for Stubbs and he painted it about 20 times, different variations. And the variations fall into four categories and they form a narrative. What you have is the lion stalking the horse and the horse being unaware of the lion's presence. You then have the horse becoming aware of the lion's presence and backing away in horror. The 3rd category is this one, the lion attacking the horse. The 4th category is this, the horse's legs collapsed and the lion beginning to devour his prey. So as you can see we've got variations two, three and four here in front of us.

And also, this oil from the Tate is in fact the only version of the lion and the horse which actually includes this collapsed state of the horse. And in fact the collapsed state of the horse is in fact closest to the piece of sculpture that you'll see in Room 5. Now, there is a theory that the lion and the horse series, there is a political message behind it. In 1762 that was about 8 years after Stubbs comes back from Rome, he painted for Lord Rockingham the first and largest picture of the horse being attacked by a lion. It was this version the horse being sprung upon by the lion. The horse in this first version is not a white horse at all it's more like this - it's a chestnut horse. Much bigger though, it was 8ft by 10. Now Lord Rockingham was a leader of the Whig party in the House of Lords. The Whigs and Lord Rockingham in particular were in bitter opposition to George III's favourite, his secretary of state, and virtual prime minister, a Scottish Lord called Lord Bute. Lord Bute had for coat of arms two supporters on either side of his coat of arms they were a horse and a stag. Now it's significant that when Lord Rockingham commissioned Stubbs to paint the Lion attacking the horse he also commissioned a companion piece which was the lion attacking a stag. They were both meant to hang together. They were both 8ft by 10. And anybody visiting Lord Rockingham's home and seeing this would have seen the lion of England bringing down and slaughtering the hated Lord Bute. Now there is another connection with Lord Rockingham, not a political one this time but in 1762 when Stubbs was painting his first version of the lion attacking the horse, he also painted for Lord Rockingham 'Whistlejacket.

I don't know if everyone is familiar with Whistlejacket it is a huge thing. For a few glorious months it was on loan to the Walker and it's a fantastic, again a chestnut horse similar to this. Whistlejacket was a thoroughbred and it's thought that the lion attacking a barberry stallion like this was intended to make a connection with Whistlejacket. It was as if Whistlejacket's Arabian ancestor was being attacked by a lion. So it's the sophisticated thoroughbred side by side with his frightened slaughtered ancestor.

Now, the other political interpretation that one can lay on this theme in Stubbs relates specifically to the white horse like this. Now, Stubbs from what little we know of his family background, Stubbs came from Jacobite stock. His forebears were very much on the Jacobite cause supporters of the old and the young pretender James Stuart and Charles Stuart. And they, the Jacobites, would have regarded the Hanoverian monarchy of George III as German usurpers of the English throne.

Now here's the significant thing the dynastic symbol of the Hanoverian monarchy, the House of Hanover, was the white stallion. And whenever you see a white stallion in 18th century cartoons. There’s a marvellous exhibition at the Tate Britain about the gothic nightmares and the 18th century and there's a marvellous Gillray cartoon of Pitt riding a white horse with a saddle with the crown englazened upon it. Now the white horse would have been identified as George III. If we take this into account, the lion frightening and the killing the white horse then becomes a Jacobite symbol - the lion representing England rising up and slaughtering and bringing down the German usurper from the throne.

If there is any truth in that then there is a fitting irony I suppose in the model that George Stubbs found for this white horse being frightened by a lion. Again we go to Humphrey and Humphrey says 'the white horse frightened by a lion was painted from one of the king's horses in the Royal Mews. So it's not only a symbol of the Hanoverian dynasty, it's also one of the king’s own horses. It was procured for Stubbs by the influence of the architect Mr James Payne. The expression of terror was produced repeatedly by pushing a yard brush on the ground towards him. Being a highly-strung thoroughbred horse, the idea of pushing a broom with that rustling sound would have terrified a highly-strung horse like this. So just to try to torment the animal and get it frightened, Stubbs had someone attack it with the broom occasionally.

So, aided by his anatomical skill this enabled him to give the sentiment of expression and apprehension to the animal which the picture represents. So what we are seeing here is evidence of horse abuse. Just for interest sake the lion according to Humphrey was studied by Stubbs from the menagerie owned by Lord Shelbourne at Hounslow Heath. The landscape background to this also in this version as well is a place called Creswell Crags - it's in Nottinghamshire and if you look in a guidebook - I consulted my Baedeker of Great Britain and Baedeker give Creswell Crags one star which is good. It puts it not quite up with St George's Hall which has one star but Creswell Crags is a beauty spot and it's described as being between 30 and 80 feet high and honeycombed with caves.

It's near Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire and these limestone cliffs were either side of the River Wellow and 20 miles significantly from Wentworth Woodhouse the home of Lord Rockingham. So while Stubbs is staying with Lord Rockingham painting his lions and his horses, he's making excursions there to paint the landscape. And he uses it again and again. He uses it here, he uses it there, he uses it in that little painting there - The horse and the hunter, the horse and the groom, that's got Creswell Crags in the background.

And, of course, the Creswell Crags was the wildest and most savage bit of landscape that was to hand for Stubbs. And the wildness of the landscape is supposed to be in keeping with the wildness of this scene of natural savagery. Now, we normally think of the 18th century as the age of enlightenment, the age of reason, the age of scientific experimentation. And Stubbs was very much a product of his age. He was not content just to paint horses he insisted on finding out how they worked. So he spent three years dissecting horses one after the other and drawing them and engraving them and produced the great work the anatomy of the horse. So he's very much an experimenter, he's in many ways as much a surgeon as he is a painter and as such he fits in with that enlightenment idea of the interdisciplinary artist and scientist. They had a hand in everything the men of the 18th century. But the 18th century there is a counter trend in the 18th century which arguably is an opposite and irrational trend to that of reason and enlightenment and that is the fascination with terror.

They called it the Sublime. And in 1759, just before Stubbs started painting his horse and lion sequence, Edmund Burke published a philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful. Burke believed that art can make us appreciate the beautiful; it can also make us appreciate the terrible.

Significantly, five years after the philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and the beautiful, Horace Walpole published the Castle of Otranto. The Castle of Otranto was the first gothic novel. Again, it's a novel which delights in terrifying the reader and the reader delights in being terrified.

And Horace Walpole would have regarded his Castle of Otranto as being about the sublime and the terrible. This is what Edmund Burke says in his definition of the sublime - '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. And that is one thing, possibly the most important thing that Stubbs is doing here. He is transferring on to canvas an image of the sublime. Arguably then the sublime carries on from the 18th century to the 19th century you have the gothic novel in the 18th century, you have the development of the horror story in the 19th century. In the 20th century of course you have the horror film. We go to a horror film to be frightened and to enjoy the experience of being frightened. It was exactly the same in the 18th century.

I started with a slightly spurious account of the genesis of this picture. I'd like to finish with a poem by Horace Walpole and Horace Walpole's poem is the nearest we come to a contemporary appreciation of this picture or not so much this picture but one of the horse frightened by a lion. And in the poem Horace Walpole, the author of the Castle of Otranta, the first gothic novel, he addresses the poem to the enlightenment scholar. And he says 'throw away your books and feel something for a change. Feel real life, feel real terror.'

The poem is entitled 'On seeing the celebrated startled horse painted by the inimitable Mr Stubbs' and this is the poem:

'And picture snatch the palm from life
How weak are words the passions to display
How artificial sounds are thrown away
When startled nature rushes through the eyes
In all the force of terror and surprise
Look there proud sage
Thy learned spleen repress
Look there convinced the extorted strewth confess
Convinced, transfixed, repress thy learned spleen
Is that an engine?
That a mere machine?
Did ever terror through the senses look
With more astonished force
Fling down thy book
Vain Man
Read nature there by reason taught
nature and reason are together fraught
in that sublime essay my blood runs back
my fibres tremble and my sinews slack
i feel his feelings, how he stands transfixed
how all his passions in his mean are mixed
how apprehension, horror, hatred, fear
in one expression are concentred there
how poised betwixt the love of life and dread
with yielding joints with wild distended head
with ears shot forward with stiff projected mane
that all the workings of his soul explain
he trembling stands and on the lion nigh with frighted visage and with fastened eye
he stares bereft unable to retire
the furious beast with fascinating fire
dissolves his faculties
he's rooted there
how elegant
how tender is his air
his beauteous frame in such convulsed distress
must all the anguish of his heart express
in terms pathetic we peruse his pain
and read his pang through each transparent vane.
through that stretched nostril see each feeling fly
and Garrick's self might study close that eye
thy pencil Stubbs no rival need to fear
not mimic art but life itself is here.'

Thank you