Hilary Mcgrady’s favourite painting
John Mcewen comments on Hambletonian, Rubbing Down
The director-general of the National Trust chooses a racing masterpiece by Stubbs
‘ When I was growing up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, real art was a rare thing. I loved art in all its forms as a child and I studied art history at school. Our teacher took us to the National Trust’s Mount Stewart and what I remember most vividly is Hambletonian, hanging atop the beautiful entrance staircase. I had seen it in my textbooks, but it was only when it was brought to life that I truly appreciated its depth and power. To this day, it remains one of my favourite paintings ’
The Tate’s 1984 Stubbs exhibition was curated by the late Judy egerton, a feisty and always lamented scholar, then assistant keeper of the British Collection. She opened her catalogue introduction with Josiah Wedgwood’s complaint ‘I can scarcely make anybody believe that he ever attempted a human figure’ and her chief aim was to show what ‘a perceptive observer of human beings’ Stubbs was.
A ‘master of the art of class distinction’, he was no moralist in hogarth’s tradition. Servants are portrayed without condescension: they ‘take pride in what they do, but they make no statements either of the Puritan ethic of work or of the Leveller tradition of equality’.
It was an attitude that reflected that horse racing was ‘perhaps the greatest force for democracy in Georgian england’. The catalogue cover was a detail of hambletonian’s groom and the trainer Thomas Fields.
This life-size masterpiece was painted when Stubbs was 75 for the Durham baronet Sir henry Vane-tempest. The Newmarket match race over four miles between the North’s hambletonian, St Leger winner, and the South’s Diamond, Newmarket champion, attracted ‘the greatest concourse ever seen’ at the home of horse racing.
hambletonian, a grandson of eclipse, won by half a neck. Another painting, uncompleted due to a dispute over payment for the first commission, would have shown the finish, with jockey Frank Buckle in Vane-tempest silks.
egerton disagreed with Basil Taylor, the pioneer Stubbs scholar, that his hero was, with Leonardo, ‘the greatestpainter scientist in the history of art’. She saw Stubbs’s famed study of equine anatomy and his scientific interest in pigments and print methods as a means to achieve greater reality and to help his work’s longevity.
Hilary Mcgrady is directorgeneral of the National Trust
Hambletonian, Rubbing Down, 1799–1800, by George Stubbs (1724–1806), 6ft 10½in by 12ft ½in, National Trust, Mount Stewart, Co Down