This week I was in Palace House, the National Horse Racing Museum, in Newmarket, Suffolk. Newmarket is Horse Central and I was so happy to be there. But the reason I went this time was to see an exhibition about George Stubbs, especially as it focussed not on his paintings but on his drawings and his anatomical studies. It was a rare opportunity to see an original edition of his “Anatomy of the Horse”, an exhaustive and precise analysis of equine anatomy. Stubbs at age 32 rented a Lincolnshire farmhouse and spent two years dissecting several horses in the process of creating this masterwork.
He was a self-taught artist, and with a profound knowledge of his subject, he then went on to become the foremost equestrian and animal painter of his day. Many of his paintings are fairly conventional studies of celebrated horses in the genre of the time. Others are more imaginative. Perhaps the most famous nowadays is the huge painting of the stallion “Whistlejacket” (1762)which hangs conspicuously in the National Gallery, London. This horse looks distorted, with head too small and legs too long for his magnificient body . Maybe Stubbs was deliberately exaggerating the proportions for overall purpose of expressing the character and impact of the animal.
What was special about the Palace House exhibition was the opportunity to see not only the original edition of the Anatomy, but also his original working drawings and his studies of comparative anatomy. No doubt Stubbs was a frequent visitor to Newmarket, as his paintings show. I got a strong sense of a sensitive and enquiring presence in this exhibition. His perfectly finished paintings conceal the effort and study that preceded them. I always enjoy to see how an artist works.