George Stubbs: “all done from Nature”
12 October 2019 – 26 January 2020
MK Gallery, Milton Keynes, UK
George Stubbs (1724-1806), perhaps best known for iconic portraits of horses (Whistlejacket, National Gallery) also made a lasting impact on the study of anatomy and the natural world. An upcoming exhibition at the MK Gallery will bring together more than 40 paintings and 40 prints and drawings to illustrate Stubbs’ position as one of the great figures depicting animal species across the world.
A self-taught draughtsman, painter and printmaker, Stubbs’s reputation was established through the striking compositions that he brought to breeding, racing and hunting, and a sense of curiosity and empathy that transcended his extraordinary technical ability in numerous commissioned works for the English gentry.
The exhibition includes Stubbs groundbreaking, forensic drawings of horses produced during an intense 18-month period of dissection and classification. In 1766, after five years of preparing anatomical studies based on first-hand examination of horse cadavers, Stubbs published his Anatomy of the Horse. For the first time, these studies will be displayed alongside an actual skeleton of a horse, in this case, that of Eclipse (1764-1789) – the legendary 18th-century thoroughbred and progenitor of over 90% of subsequent racehorses – as well as the several paintings of Eclipse by Stubbs.
While known for his equestrian art, Stubbs was an avid student of anatomy and the exhibit highlights the studies, both human and animal, that led the artists towards his last great endeavor, A Comparative Anatomical Exposition of the Structure of the Human Body with that of a Tiger and a Common Fowl (unfinished before his death in 1806). Stubbs had begun his training as the child of a Liverpool tanner, drawing left-over animal bones, before pursuing painting at York and finding a niche in anatomical engravings for medical students and practitioners, like Dr. John Burton’s midwifery textbook. With his reputation established by his anatomical work on horses, the subsequent comparative anatomical sketches, methodically arranged, earned a subscription from the Royal Academy of Arts in 1802. Stubbs’ work belongs to the work of comparative anatomists exploring the similarities and boundaries of species long before the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859.
The exhibition is co-curated by Martin Postle (Deputy Director for Collections & Publications at the Paul Mellon Centre), Paul Bonaventura and Anthony Spira. There will be a one-day conference, organized with the Paul Mellon Centre on 17 January 2020 in MK Gallery’s Sky Room, on subjects including anatomical studies, horse racing and breeding, empire and portraiture. A version of the exhibit will also tour to the Mauritshuis in The Hague.
For all of use who cannot make it to the exhibit in person, check out the extensive collection of George Stubbs holdings viewable online at the Yale Center for British Art!
References for Further Reading:
A fully illustrated 200-page catalogue will be published by Paul Holberton with new texts by Nicholas Clee, Martin Myrone, Martin Postle, Roger Robinson, Jenny Uglow and Alison Wright.
Doherty, T., The Anatomical Works of George Stubbs, London: Secker & Warburg, 1974.
Egerton, J., George Stubbs: Anatomist and Animal Painter. London: The Tate Gallery, 1976.