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September 23, 2005

Why Christie Davies fled Stubbs and the Horse at the National Gallery

Posted by Christie Davies

Stubbs and the Horse
National Gallery, London
29th June - 25th September 2005
Open Daily 10am - 6pm (Wednesdays until 9pm)

This summer's blockbuster London exhibition has been Stubbs and the Horse at the National Gallery. Professor Christie Davies explains why he fled from it.

There are only two paintings of Stubbs' work worth seeing in the exhibition at the National Gallery - but it is worth going just for these two and also to gawp at the horsey punters who have wagered 8 on their first and last visit to the National Gallery.

The real gem of the exhibition is Stubbs' life-size portrait of Whistlejacket, 1762. The full tailed Whistlejacket, front legs in the air, head inclined towards us is a masterpiece in rich and varied shades of brown, rearing up against a background of neutral nothing. There are no people, no landscape, no saddle, no bridle just Whistlejacket. It evokes classical images and exceeds them. Stubbs achieves more in two dimensions than Phidias had in three. Not until Guernica 1937 was Whistlejacket outdistanced.

The rest of Stubbs' work is not of this quality. Most of it is so uninspired it could have been dashed off by Sir Alfred Munnings. What does it matter? One damned horse looks much like another and such differences as exist matter only to their owners and to the bookmakers. For an artist to treat the individual characteristics of horses with the same care he or she would give to a human being is blasphemous.

The other telling picture is Lady Lade, 1793, commanding her horse to rear while riding sidesaddle. She is in no danger of falling off. Lady Lade had learned her riding skills the hard way, first in a London brothel and later as the mistress of the highwayman John Rann. After he was hanged she married Sir John Lade, racing manager to the Prince of Wales. It was the Prince who commissioned Stubbs' portrait of Lady Lade horsed. Prinny also invented the phrase "to swear like Lady Lade". This was considered very witty for a Prince of Wales.

Sir John is only remembered today for Dr Samuel Johnson's poem, To Sir John Lade on his coming of age, a short song of congratulation:

Wealth, Sir John, was made to wander
Let it wander as it will;
See the jockey, see the pander
Bid them come and take their fill.
They did. The fortune acquired by Sir John's mother's husband was squandered by the man she passed off as his son. The pander provided him with Lady Letty and the jockeys took the rest. The world of horses is the world of vice. Without gambling who would care whether one horse can run faster than another. Ruin if you lose and dissipation if you win; horses are the very antithesis of the respectable virtues. Every disaster in our nation's history from Martin Wiener's English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, 1850-1980 to the use of cavalry at the Somme can be blamed on the horse. Stubbs' pictures date from a time when British society was being transformed by the energies of capitalists, entrepreneurs and engineers; they are a portrayal of an obsolete social order.

Lustre with a groom, 1761-2, "A grandson of the Godolphin Arabian, one of three exceptional Arab stallions from whom all modern thoroughbreds descend" is one more proof of Darwin's theory of evolution, since the losers all ended up in the knacker's yard for export to those little shops you see on the Continent called Carne Equina and Boucherie Chevaline. The price even the successful horses paid may be seen in Dungannon by Eclipse, 1793, a prize winner so fretful and twitched that it has to live with an Irish sheep of truly ovine calmness marked Dennis O'Kelly. No wonder the English aristocracy loved horses.

Below the aristocratic horse-owners came the despised estate workers, such as Lord Torrington's Bricklayers at Southill, Bedfordshire, 1767 whom Stubbs was instructed to make resemble "a Flemish subject", that is "peasants depicted comically by popular 17th century Flemish painters". Where the aristocrats stand tall and elegant watching their horses run, the squat bulge-headed bricklayers are as ugly and distorted as the Infanta Margerita's dwarf. Elsewhere in Stubbs' pictures, even smaller and hunched over their horses are jockeys with simian or ferret faces. Were they, like the horses, bred by putting the most determined of them out to stud when they retired from the track?

It was not surprising to find that those looking at the pictures in the Stubbs exhibition had come for the horses. Well reared girls even leaned forward over the display cases to peruse Stubbs' Study of the muscles (posterior) 1756-8. I looked at the skeletons and wondered where I had seen those teeth before. Their shoes were so sturdy they could have been made by a farrier. One or two had broken ankles encased in plaster, the hard white cast contrasting strangely with the faded blue of their jeans...

Curiously, their menfolk were much more expensively dressed in high waistline Trojan Horse hacking jackets from Schneider and Choudry's. Their legs were twilled in beige and fawn and Lovatt green. Between them hopped jockey sized men in check suits, their hair pulled tightly back from the face as if to end in a coleta.

I suddenly felt out of place and left to collect my crash helmet from the cloakroom.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, Transaction 2004.

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There were two other masterpieces in the same room as Whistlejacket, and if memory serves done for the Marquess of Rockingham. These are oblong canvasses each with a number of horses painted over a flat matte background (like Whistlejacket). There is a perhaps unintentionally Chinese aesthetic here that make them irresistable.

Posted by: s masty at September 24, 2005 08:52 AM
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