George Stubbs, the English artist who is best loved for his painting of horses, was born in Liverpool in 1724. He would become the finest painter of horses that ever lived. His father was a prosperous currier – a specialist in the leather processing industry. Stubbs helped his father in that trade until his father died when George was seventeen years of age. He then went on to serve a short term apprenticeship as a painter and engraver but didn’t like the work he was asked to perform. He carried on with his love for art and took a keen interest in anatomy which was to be one of the driving passions of his life. He was able to study this at close hand at the York County Hospital.
When he was thirty years of age he travelled to Italy. The purpose of this European journey, he told his friend and fellow artist, Oziah Humphrey, was “to convince himself that nature was and always is superior to art whether Greek or Roman and having renewed this conviction he immediately resolved upon returning home”. He did return to England and settled down in a rented farmhouse in a remote part of Lincolnshire with his common-law wife Mary Spencer and with her assistance set about dissecting dead horses to learn more about their anatomy. In 1766 he published a paper entitled The Anatomy of the Horse and the original drawings and etchings he made for this are now kept in the Royal Academy collection.
George Stubbs was recognised as a “Master” of horse painters and he received many commissions from several dukes and lords. His masterly depictions of hunters and racehorses commanded high prices. Stubbs soon became quite rich from the sale of his horse paintings and with the proceeds bought a house in Marylebone, an extremely fashionable part of London, where he lived until his death in 1806, a few weeks short of his eighty-second birthday.
My Daily Art Display today is not one of his many fine horse paintings but one of comparatively few subject pictures by the artist. The painting is entitled The Farmer’s Wife and the Raven, which he painted in 1782, and is based on a tale from John Gay’s Book of Fables. In the painting we see a farmer’s wife astride her old white horse on her way to the market. In the pannier baskets are her eggs which she intends to sell. Her poor old horse, Blind Ball, is startled by the squawking of a raven, which sits high up on the branch of a nearby tree, causing it to stumble and fall. The eggs fall out of the basket and lie broken, their yellow yokes can be seen clearly on the ground. This painting is a tale of greed. The large farmer’s wife did not care for the welfare of her old horse, her mind being set on the profits she was going to make from the sale of her eggs. English people loved horses and a painting illustrating the come-uppance of someone who did not treat their animal well was a very popular subject for artists of the time.
The way in which Stubbs has painted the stumbling horse is testament to his great ability as an artist and his knowledge of a horse’s anatomy. It is a perfect anatomical depiction which manages to capture the anguish of the horse in pain and its movement as it staggers to the ground. Look how he has captured the woman who is desperately trying to avoid being thrown over the head of the stumbling horse. Our eyes follow the story the artist has depicted. First our eyes are drawn to the fallen white horse which stands out vividly against a dark background. Our gaze moves up the horse’s withers to the unfortunate woman whose right arm is flung high like a rodeo rider on a bucking bronco. We see her look of horror as she fixes her eyes on the “over-sized” raven sitting on the branch of the nearby oak tree. The bird’s mouth is still open after letting out the squawk which has set the disaster in motion.
The painting has an inscription (in bold type below) taken from this fable:
Betwixt her swagging panniers’ load
A farmer’s wife to market rode,
And, jogging on, with thoughtful care
Summed up the profits of her ware;
When, starting from her silver dream,
Thus far and wide was heard her scream:
‘That raven on yon left-hand oak
(Curse on his ill-betiding croak)
Bodes me no good.’ No more she said,
When poor blind Ball, with stumbling tread,
Fell prone; o’erturned the pannier lay,
And her mashed eggs bestrewed the way.
She, sprawling in the yellow road,
Railed, swore and cursed: ‘Thou croaking toad,
A murrain take thy whoreson throat!
I knew misfortune in the note.’
‘Dame,’ quoth the raven, ‘spare your oaths,
Unclench your fist, and wipe your clothes.
But why on me those curses thrown?
Goody, the fault was all your own;
For had you laid this brittle ware,
On Dun, the old sure-footed mare,
Though all the ravens of the hundred,
With croaking had your tongue out-thundered,
Sure-footed Dun had kept his legs,
And you, good woman, saved your eggs.’