Hi­lary Mc­grady’s favourite paint­ing

John Mcewen com­ments on Ham­ble­to­nian, Rub­bing Down

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

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

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