His kingdom was the horse, and Stubbs has lately reigned supreme. But the National show makes him look like a runner-up, says Waldemar Januszczak
It was the publication, in 1971, of a taste-changing masterwork by Basil Taylor that moved Stubbs to the summit of a larger pedestal and declared him to be a giant. Taylor, whose sensibilities were as country-house as his name, championed an artist whose portrayal of the horse was in tune with a key assortment of national characteristics. It wasn’t just Stubbs that Taylor rediscovered, but a Hay Wain-load of native preferences: modesty, outdoorsiness, a passion for animals, a suspicion of flash, a pride in insularity. It is clear now that this taste for Stubbs was a product of the same jingoistic appetites that were soon to lead to the Thatcher years. Underlying this fantastical national adventure was the embedded hope that small could be big; that little nations could make large waves; that a horse painter could be a genius.
So, what was he really? Giant? Pygmy? Or in-betweenie? The first thing to note about the National Gallery’s eagerly awaited return to the topic is that it has a silly title. Stubbs and the Horse is a strikingly unnecessary bit of branding. Stubbs and the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker might have surprised us, or Stubbs and the Gnu. But to alight on the only theme there is in Stubbs, then to make an issue of it, is as unhelpful as Gainsborough and the Portrait might be, or Constable and the Landscape.
The opening display is unconvincing, too, and signals a wobbly exhibition route ahead. Before coming down to London from up north, in 1758, Stubbs laboured for two grim winters on the creation of a book of equine anatomy that has gained a quasi-mythical status in the Stubbs field. The stories of him hanging rotting horse carcasses from the roof of his studio in Hull for week after week, while he stripped away the muscles and probed the skeleton, perfecting his knowledge of the inner horse, have become the cornerstone of the Stubbs myth. They paint him with the lustre of the scientist-artist, if not quite in the Leonardo da Vinci league, then cut at least from a decent English version of the same cloth.
I have seen Stubbs’s anatomical drawings on many occasions, and have never failed to be thrilled by them. Until now. Seeing them here in one long, encircling parade at the agenda-setting moment of the show succeeds in pointing up various awkwardnesses and uncertainties in Stubbs’s hand. Sure, the horse dissections offer proof that he was determined, obsessive, thorough. But not that he was a fluent or natural draughtsman. The mountains of innards have recurrent difficulty configuring themselves into a graceful final shape.
Of course, it is invidious to compare Stubbs with Leonardo, but if we really are in the business of reaching National Gallery-sized international conclusions about the ultimate value of a British talent, then it needs to be admitted that the startling combination of anatomical precision and proportional perfection that Leonardo displays in his scientific drawings is always beyond Stubbs. For someone whose reputation rests famously and squarely on his command of the horse, it is baffling to witness how often he gets a proportion wrong, or ends up a degree out.
I nevertheless liked the self-portrait that gazes down so modestly on the ring of horse anatomies. Painted in 1781, nearer the end of Stubbs’s career than its beginning, it shows a portly and balding plebeian with the sort of bulbous demeanour you expect of a family butcher. If you came across this face swaying on a sign in a village high street, you would enter the premises it advertised with complete trust. I imagine Mr Kipling has a face of this type. It proves immediately that among the effective forces driving our fondness for Stubbs is that notorious British love of the underdog. Unfortunately, at the dagger-sharp summit of art, where cut and thrust are needed, rather than prod and pat, where arrogance helps and confidence works, this is not the portrait of a true contender. Stubbs has had unlikely difficulty fitting his right arm into an oval composition.
The biceps is cramped, the forearm too long. The face is fine, the body stunted. A command of overall structure is clearly missing. You would want this painter for an uncle, no question, but surely not for your genius.
The show’s central gallery has as its focus the National’s own Whistlejacket, and — Hi ho, Silver — this rearing, life-sized stallion sets your pulse a-racing, as he always must.
Rippling thoroughbred flesh on this scale will inevitably impress us with its horsepower. But having genuflected faithfully before Whistlejacket every time I have encountered him in the past in the National Gallery’s 18th-century displays, I was alerted on this occasion to his faults. As Stubbs battles with an unusually grand format, Whistlejacket’s hind legs have been squashed into extreme shortness. And the wide-eyed projection of psychic unrest in the horse’s grimace would look excessive on the face of a little girl being chased by monsters in a manga comic. Identifying with the enslavement of an 18th-century steed trapped on the country-house circuit, imagining the horse’s plight to chime with your own, is not a disqualification in itself. It is the ladling on of these sentiments in such steamy heaps that upsets Whistlejacket’s sense of tragedy and pushes him into caricature.
The exhibition is unconvincing, as well, in its overall plan. Chronology has been dispensed with. I presume that the show tries instead to follow some underlying thematic plot, but that journey is uncommonly difficult to follow. Horse pictures from the 1760s mix merrily with those from the 1790s. A poetic Lady Lade, from 1793, sporting a dress of gorgeous floating blue that seems to lift both her and her mount off the ground, shares her section with prosaic friezes of chatting grooms produced 30 years earlier. The show’s end is simultaneously a beginning, as it contains the first and the last of Stubbs’s madcap paintings of lions attacking horses; while at the journey’s centre, Whistlejacket, that Hamlet of the horse world, is ringed by a selection of nuzzling mares and foals, fishing furiously for your maternal instinct as their macho stallion frets and sweats.
The four-legged madonnas and children are painted, like Whistlejacket, against a plain grey background that dramatises their presence fabulously. This revolutionary pictorial manoeuvre has boosted Stubbs’s reputation significantly, because its originality seems striking. But Whistlejacket was originally due to have had George III on his back, painted by another artist, as well as a landscape behind him, before a change in political allegiance in the real world left him riderless. Today’s freestanding equine hero is a happy accident. There’s nothing wrong with that: art thrives on accident. But the impressive sparseness that frames Whistlejacket and his mares would have been even more impressive had it been intentional.
All this nibbles away at the Stubbs reputation and seems to diminish it. It cannot make him negligible, but it does encourage you to notice unnaturally tall grooms leaning against unnaturally small rides in front of unnatural stretches of landscape that are certainly not England, nor anywhere else you recognise. And whatever the theme is that the show is seeking to follow has led to a shortage of those thrillingly distinct fusions of horse and rider that Stubbs excelled in.
Turf with Jockey Up, a Newmarket view from 1766, makes instantly clear what is missing. This remarkable painting of a black thoroughbred trudging across a low and desolate wasteland, a skeletal jockey on its back, never fails to startle me with its morose minimalism. Stubbs has given the unnamed jockey a doomed air, as if the upcoming gallop might be his last. This is the unexpected surrealism that Taylor rightly detected in Stubbs and it lifts him back onto the bigger pedestal whenever it appears — which, in the current selection, is not often enough.
So, giant? No. Pygmy? No. In-betweenie? Of course.