Tuesday, 15 January 2019

George Stubbs: So much depends upon a white fencepost

So much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white
               -William Carlos Williams XXII

George Stubbs has never exactly been a particularly fashionable artist. Even during his own lifetime his reputation declined, while it had always been (to his frustration) pretty much limited to ‘Stubbs the horse painter’ at the best of times. 

Part of the problem is his subject matter. Despite even the qualified levelling of generic hierarchies that began from the 19th century, pictures of sporting horses have always seemed something more to do with National Trust houses, Wedgewood bowls and so on, than to ‘art’- something to be hung next to a copper bed-pan rather than a Brancusi.

The combination of animal painting- still somewhat despised- and worse, gentrified sporting-animal painting, has left Stubbs lumped in (canonically and actually, in many collections) with endless pictures of dead game, stiff portraits of lords with rifles, pheasants and so on. 

Degas may have used horse racing as a major subject, but it’s seen more as an excuse for compositional experimentation- rhythm, motion, cropping, grouping, the jockey’s jackets and caps adding colour and punctuation- while Stubbs, apparently, offers none of this (even Jack Yeats’s great horse paintings are downplayed as having anything to with sport and racing as such).  

And to be fair, Stubbs isn’t always great. Sometimes he’s a little too mannered, or prosaic, or pedestrian, or at other times a little too exotic (his horses attacked by lions are a little too overwrought, too obviously anthropomorphic, illustrational, cartoony even). 

Such unevenness, along with his seemingly plain-spoken objectivity (which is not demonstrably ‘objective’ or deadpan enough, even in the jockey pictures) has meant that Stubbs has been left out of real discourse because apparently devoid of rich critical pickings – of interest mainly in so far as he’s representative of a certain milieu and a certain kind of image-making. Only in the very late 50’s-70’s would he gain any kind of serious reputation (beginning with an exhibition instigated by Basil Taylor in 1957 at Whitechapel) and even then, subsequent catalogues, studies and retrospectives have, however well researched, focussed on endless details of breeding, races won and lost, patrons, land-ownership, anatomy, the life of a stable boy, anecdote, and any number of historical details, while passing next to no sustained critical comment on which of them might be the better pictures and why (the Tate catalogue from 1984 even goes so far as to say that making a comparative judgement between the two great, almost identical yet quite different, pictures of Gimcrack and Turf would be ‘invidious’). As far as criticism’s concerned, Stubbs is a walk-on in his own movie, the paintings storyboards. 

Without such critical judgements and distinctions, and without the arguments to back them up, artists like Stubbs are doomed to exist in the limbo of either historical, esoteric obscurity or inflated, disproportionate and unsubstantiated claims of greatness- to do either (to puff him up or to talk around him) is to do him a disservice.  

 Critics who want to ‘rescue’ Stubbs also consistently point to his works outside of the horse and jockey format- arguing they show he wasn’t a ‘limited’ artist after all (assuming that commitment to a subject is necessarily a negative limitation).

Yet this is also unhelpful, as it is arguably the horse and rider/trainer pictures which are precisely the most arresting: the works in which pictorial concerns and subject fuse in ways reactive and vital (and not with the false vitality of the horse and lion paintings).

Within this group are a handful enough of great paintings, due attention to which should really be allowed to secure him a credible reputation.


Stubbs certainly didn’t invent the landscape-format horse/groom/jockey portrait, but he enlivened it beyond the comparatively schematic, inert pictures of people like Wotton and Seymour. 

This he did in two main ways. The first, and most remarked upon, was his unprecedented understanding of equine anatomy, gained through direct experience. Famously, Stubbs slaughtered and dissected real animals to produce his definitive work on the anatomy of the horse- his becalmed paintings (and thousands of notes and drawings) were the fruit of many hours up to his arms in skin and gore, bleeding the horse dry and suspending it from iron bars, peeling it back layer by layer (however inhumane this may seem from a contemporary perspective, it is practically respectful by comparison with the general maltreatment of horses in 18th century Britain).

The results of this grim labour were depictions of horses as distinct beings with individual characters, rendered through subtle aspects of body language and a sensitivity to peculiarities of posture and physicality – while his contemporaries relied mostly on quirks of colouring and distinctive markings to distinguish animal from animal.  

Much less remarked upon is the way in which Stubbs, in his best pictures, organizes horse, human and landscape within the rectangle, and what this in turn says about their interrelationships (and about pictures themselves). 

Arguably the most demonstrative picture in this respect is Turf, with Jockey Up, at Newmarket (1.) (1765): given due attention it becomes a kind of ‘key’ which unlocks details and compositional continuities in many of the other ‘better’ pictures.


Perhaps the first thing one might notice is Turf’s centrality. It’s a slightly ‘landscaped’ square, rather than the ‘vertical’ equine portraits of the previous century (van Dyck’s Charles the First etc.) or the straightforwardly horizontal horse pictures of Stubbs’ contemporaries (which compliment the structure of the horse). Instead it’s an objectively squared framing which acknowledges the form and balance of the horse and the racing field, but also the sense of elevation in the rider, the gravity of the bricked rubbing-down house, horse and rider’s relationship to ground and sky, etc. 

While most other horse pictures either focus on the horse/rider’s power or dynamism (in portrait-format), or the rectilinear harmony of the horse’s form (in landscape-format pictures of grooms or jockey’s standing on the ground holding the reins), with the horse and figure pretty much filling the space, Stubbs’ framing here pulls back, gives space: generating a sense of the Jockey’s elevated perspective, his situation within in the world (he emphatically sits above the ground in the picture, his boots prevented pictorially from meeting the grass).   

The painting’s centre of gravity is also the horse/jockey’s centre of gravity. Indeed, the horse-jockey is practically one figure, stressing the naturalness of the jockey’s position, as if his suspension there has pulled everything into alignment, into an ordered world, an inevitable world, even- with 18th century Englishman at the centre of it all. Yet Stubbs doesn’t merely exhibit this as bland conservatism: pulling things so strongly into such an order also hints as the impermanence of such synthetic constructions.  

Stubbs sets up the elements of the picture as an interlocking jigsaw-puzzle- the further implication of which is that, should a piece be removed, the totality might come tumbling down (all the king’s horses and all the king’s men). 

It’s also there in the colour. Strange off-primary harmonies- the pearly grey-blue sky, the yellow rubbing-down house (which picks up most of the other colours), the strong red bullseye around the saddle, which itself is a sampled swatch of the overall brickwork hue.

These are offset by the white marking on the horse’s foot as it enters the light, the jockey’s black cap, the pale grey knob on the fence post, mapping and pinning the three tonal extremes of the picture (two more pin the roof down).

Part of the very particular character of the painting is this notion of ‘harmony’- balance, stasis even- yet with a sense of motion, potential, tiny notes of instability, flickers of energy.

For all their composure, there is an upsweep to the best of Stubbs’ pictures- they crackle with charged ‘atmosphere’. If pictures are strong, stable rectangles with whooshy marks and shapes within, then in Stubbs’s best works there is a direct metaphor to be made between such qualities of control and wildness/wilfulness in the painting, and such qualities of control and wildness in the subject: within ‘horse and rider’ is a corollary of the painting itself, its particular negotiations of poise and vitality, strength and delicacy.

A telling detail is the leaning fence post at the extreme left of the frame. It marks the very limit of the picture, speaking of the painting as structure, containment, but also the horse’s controlled existence- defined by such limits and structures, allowed to gallop only within certain parameters, exercised within a confinement, within a certain 'field' of activity (and a field with certain traditions and affectations).

The little fence post is absent in Stubbs’ studies of the Newmarket surroundings (his only ‘pure’ landscapes, never meant for public exhibition)- and so we must conclude that it is there as a deliberate compositional device, contrary to the standard consensus that he was essentially an objective recorder and confirming him as an active organizer of images (even if painting of the time wouldn’t verbalize such things as the ‘frame’ in quite this manner, it’s still how the painting functions). 

It also finds metaphors between the strictly compartmentalised and cordoned-off society of the time and the notion of ‘expression’ within framed limits, within the comedy of manners, within the decorum of refined paintings/settings. In a way, the notions of breeding and refinement that supported horse racing were a microcosm of society at the time- just as such notions are also found in the microcosm of the painting. Stubbs perhaps draws a parallel between the horse and painting as end product- shaped by hours of work and training, meticulous preparation, and the work put in to disguise those hours of toil (certainly by depicting grooms, trainers, stable boys etc., rather than the race itself, Stubbs often acknowledges the hidden labour that goes into keeping such hierarchical structures in place, whether in the composition of picture or society.) He lets slip that it’s not all as free and easy, not so natural as it looks. 




Notions of control and composure are there in many pictures – in Ashton First Viscount Curzon With His Horse Maria (2.), the figure seems to be almost holding the tree, in a circular loop of stick-land-reins. In this and other pictures there is a play between the pictorial elements that Stubbs seems to be consciously or subconsciously marshalling- the shape of the glistening sheen on the horse and the light breaking through the clouds, walking through temperate English summer days with the threat of a storm, of supressed, elemental power; sometimes the clouds even follow the contours of the animal (A White Horse in a Paddock (3.)); or there are curious echoes and equivalences in pictures like Lustre Held by a Groom (4.), where there’s a definite tripartite of ribs-sunbeams-trees.

To master the horse/picture is to attempt to master one's condition in the world, or to begin to find/realize one’s place in it. It’s picture frame as paddock. 

In a way, the horse/picture represents a means of situating oneself within the volatile, shifting world- the horse/picture a medium through which to traverse it. Picture/horse is nature tamed, trained and reared (to an extent). The picture/horse is also a ‘vehicle’ for understanding (almost primally, physically, in ways that transcend language) and navigating one’s way through the world (see the way the horse seems to bear the burden of the overall melancholy in Otho, with John Larkin Up (5.), carrying the slightly lost looking rider through the encroaching dark. It’s very moving without being at all sentimental. Or even the extent to which the horse repeats the structure of the picture, often framing landscape and buildings between legs and torso, or the way in which stability and instability exist in equal proportion between picture and animal). 

The horse/picture shifts one's perspective- simultaneously grounded and embodied, in control, and yet elevated, disembodied, carried away- ultimately, alive.     


Again, I’m wouldn’t make any claims that Stubbs was intentionally commenting on his wielding of the elements, on his own ‘mastery’ or on the notion of painting’s ‘mastery’ generally- but I would argue that such reflexive, internal complimentaries of shapes and ideas are what set certain works apart, and that such picture/subject collisions partially account for why such works are more singularly arresting or absorbing; that how each element is placed within the rectangle is at least as important as his understanding of anatomy. And for all this framing/picturing complexity they are very much about standing in fields with horses, training or riding horses, out in the weather, down in the mud or up in the saddle.

In their sense of latent vitality, of suppressed power, is ultimately a sense of understatement: of things not quite fashionably romantic enough to have demanded attention over the years, but which worm their way into one’s consciousness. 

As much as ‘horse and rider are one’, horse and picture are one- and it is an art powerful partly because of this perfect dovetailing of controlled-cultivated painting/controlled-cultivated subject (animal, gentleman, society, sport, training, grooming, landscaping etc.).

Stubbs plays off the self-composure of man and beast, the dignity and power the horse imbues in the man, and this against the fresh weather, the bracing morning winds and blown clouds. In his control of the medium, of matter, composition, the elements, are pictures of a world at once movingly considered and understood, but also uneasy- as if things are a little too unsustainably clear, as if things can’t possibly remain so certain, ordered, as right as they are in the picture.


In a way Stubbs prefigures the aesthetics of Stanley Kubrick (his paintings were a direct influence on Barry Lyndon)- the same obsessiveness and fastidiousness with forensic detail and research, the apparently ‘cold’ objective framing, the sense of fate clicking into place, inevitability, and of primal energies lurking beneath the façade. The jockeys and stable hands live in an uneasily precarious position, potential victims of fate- one lost race too many and they’ll be back where they started, rags to riches to rags (It was in the reign of George II. that the above-named personages lived and quarrelled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.)


As I mentioned previously, Turf has a twin in Gimcrack with John Pratt Up on Newmarket Heath (6.).

Gimcrack is perhaps just slightly less compelling- in some ways- the drama more obvious in the handling of the clouds than in the black/white contrast of jacket and cap against sky in Turf, for example. 


The off-centre composition is still distinctive for the time, the essential emptiness of the left side of the picture (horse and rider poised as if considering the terrian of an uncertain future, the image petering out). But it’s hard to say which is a more compelling fence-post.

Is it Turf’s, at a slight angle, or the sheer end marker of the parallel post in Gimcrack? Needless to say that if they were switched around (as in the composite image below), then each painting would to some extent collapse: there would be too much forward motion in Gimcrack, while Turf would seem too statically ‘propped up’, too upright. Indeed, the post almost causes Gimcrack to lean back somewhat, while Turf is pulled forward by it. 

In fact, the whole picture pulls Gimcrack back: while, or because, the clouds move forward. It’s a very slightly more out-of-control picture than Turf, whose self-composure is almost total- thus rendering that picture’s slight upward gust all the more subtle and compelling.  

Turf also has more of a sense of Euclidian geometry: the triangle and rectangle of the building (with its play-set, building-block bricks), the triangle/rectangle of horse and rider, the triangular negative spaces left by the bridle and between the horse’s legs, the fence post with its small sphere...etc.

It’s a picture as a kind of sum- Grass + Sky + Horse + Jockey + Building.

As much as Stubbs is counting up what constitutes his subject, what the elements add up to, what makes a ‘horse and rider’, it’s hard not to think of him either more or less consciously probing and counting up what a ‘picture is, through multiplication, division, addition and subtraction. 

It makes sense within the explorative, surgical nature of his ‘research’- we don’t have his thoughts on painting as ‘art’, but surely his searching, analytic mind didn’t just cut open horses, but pictures as well- breaking them down to determine the particular workings of their musculature. It’s surely not too much of a stretch to imagine Stubbs didn’t take picture-making for granted any more than he took the general appearance of horses for granted, but applied the same deconstructive zeal to both endeavours.

Perhaps the impulse behind his elegantly detached, scientific drawings is also the impulse behind these seemingly repetitive explorations of the same basic pictorial elements in their refined, stark minimalism and miniscule shifts in weight and emphasis. Trying different ways to run a better race. Perhaps, after all, he should be discussed as an innovative anatomist of the picture as much as an eminent anatomist of the horse.


Again and again Stubbs comes back to the changeable landscape at Newmarket- reconfiguring its almost dream-like plain of low trees and buildings, in emptier of fuller frames, it’s subjects closer to or further from the viewer (pictures as different as the danced tango of legs in Hambletonian Rubbing Down (8.), with it’s splinters and broken triangles of negative space, and the fieze-like Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath with a Trainer, a Jockey and a Stable Lad (9.), in which race and post-race are conflated into one image); sometimes showing less or more of the pyramidal rubbing-down houses, sometimes playing with darkened doors and archways; other times drawing almost cubist paralles between the structure of horse/rider and the geometry of the various horse-boxes, platforms and huts (Lord Farnham's Chestnut Racehorse 'Conductor' at Newmarket, with Jockey up (7.)).




So much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

In many ways there is an affinity between William Carlos Williams’ red wheelbarrow and Stubbs’ methodical listing of pictorial elements (just as there is an affinity between Stubbs, who seems to anticipate some of the stark-hallucinatory objectivity of early imagist poetry, and Williams, a physician who wrote of 'no ideas but in things')- the almost meta-mathematical congruency of all things. 

In picture as in poem, form and meaning are inseparable- are, in fact, about this inseparability- just as each element itself exists in relation, and in a relation of support, to the other. So much depends upon a white fence post, stuck in wet grass, beside the brown horse; the jockey, up, and the yellow bricks...