The son of a currier and leatherseller, George Stubbs appears to have had a natural talent for portraiture and had only a little formal instruction from the local artist Hamlet Winstanley, an assistant of Sir Godfrey Kneller. His early career as a provincial portrait painter took him to the towns of Leeds, Wigan,York and Hull. He had however a great scientific curiosity typical of many of the Renaissance masters and, like Leonardo, throughout his life made extensive studies of both human and animal anatomy.
His technical treatises extended from The Anatomy of the Horse, published 1766, to a work comparing the structure of the human body with that of a tiger and common fowl on which he was engaged until the time of his death. His great anatomical knowledge combined with precise draughtsmanlike skill in portraiture has earned him the accolade of being known arguably as "the greatest painter-scientist in the history of art". Such was his interest that he would portray a baboon, cheetah or rhinoceros with as much enthusiasm and sympathy as he would depict a horse or a dog.
When in York he knew enough of anatomy to enable him to teach it to medical students at the hospital, which in turn led to a commission in 1751 to illustrate a book on midwifery, for which he learnt enough about etching from a local engraver to enable him to etch the plates himself.
At the age of 30 he travelled to Rome to further his studies but of more immediate relevance to his work is the possibly apocryphal anecdote that on his way back, staying at Ceuta in Morocco, he saw a lion in the moonlight stalking and pouncing on a white Barbary horse. Weather true or not, haunted by this image, he was compelled to depict the various stages of encounter between the pursuer and quarry - the approach, the fear, the attack. The resulting series, a 'beauty and the beast' sublimation, had a dream-like romantic quality which uniquely conveyed the sensations of disquiet and menace but was conveyed with a certain detachment.
On his return to England in 1754, he embarked upon his study of the horse. The Jockey Club had been founded in 1750 and racing had revived as a sport. He logically reasoned therefore that a detailed work of reference on the horse's structure would be of great use to bloodstock breeders. Settling in a farmhouse in the Lincolnshire village of Horkstow with his common-law wife Mary Spencer and their son George Townly Stubbs, he commenced work on his famous series of precise anatomical drawings, supported by portrait commissions from Lady Nelthorpe. He then moved to London in search of a suitably skilled engraver and there quickly established a reputation as a painter of horses and wild animals.
His early patrons included the Duke of Richmond, the Marquess of Rockingham, Earl Spencer, Earl grosvenor and the Duke of Grafton. He first exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1762 and, by 1764, had moved to his home at 24 Somerset Street, Portman Square, where he was to remain for the remainder of his life (the site is now occupied by Selfridge's department store). Attached to it were a studio-laboratory, 28 x 21 ft with a lantern skylight, a coach-house and a four-horse stable for his equine models!
His portraits tended to delight his patrons, including the Marquis of Rockingham who owned Whistlejacket, the fiery stallion which attacked Stubbs during a portrait 'sitting' at Wentworth, causing him to defend himself and subdue the horse with only his mahl-stick.
In the same period he was sought out by several naturalists including the explorer Sir Joseph Banks, who voyaged with Captain Cook, and the researchers and surgeons William and John Hunter. Banks commissioned Stubbs to paint the first kangaroo brought to England. William Hunter requested portraits of a nylghau, the Indian antelope, and a moose; for John Hunter a baboon, Indian rhinoceros, macaque monkey and a yak. Some of the models, such as the kangaroo, were stuffed, but others were living - including the rhinoceros which he drew at Pidcock's Menagerie in Spring Gardens in 1772. In fact there were several locations for the study of wild animals from life, including John Hunter's own menagerie, the royal menagerie at the Tower of London and the menagerie at Windsor Great Park, created by the Duke of Cumberland, and where the artist could observe many animals including a lion, a tiger and a zebra brought from the Caoe of Good Hope as a present for the royal family.
For some time Stubbs had been experimenting with enamel paints fired onto copper plates and in the 1780's, wishing to work on a larger scale, consulted Josiah Wedgewood about the possibility of making large pottery plaques on which the enamel process could be used. He stayed with him at the Etruria works in 1780, using this process in portraits of Wedgewood and his family. There he was further influenced by Wedgewood ceramics which often contained classical themes and the 'phaeton' that often appears in his work (a form of light four-wheeled eighteenth-century carriage) recalled to him Phaeton the charioteer of Greek legend.
Elected Associate of the Royal Academy (ARA) in 1780, he becama a full member (RA) in 1781, but did not receive the diploma because he refused to comply with a rule made after his election that academicians should deposit a diploma picture. He complained that his works on enamel were badly hung, but still continued to exhibit there.
In his later years Stubbs cointinued a vigorous lifestyle, conserving his energy by a controlled diet and physical exercise. Indeed he is reputed to have drunk nothing but water for 40 years. He walked regularly and when almost 80, thought nothing of walking the 16 miles between Portman Square and Lord Clarendon's house in Hertfordshire while carrying his baggage, and reputedly walked 9 miles the day before hos death.
In the 1790's the Prince of Wales, as Colonel of the 10th Light Dragoons, commissioned a painting of members of his regiment, his only-known military subjects. His portraying of a mounted sergeant, a trumpeter, a sergeant-at-arms and a private presenting arms was considered remarkable in its clear-cut design and colour, entering well into the military spirit. Other royal commissions of this period include the spirited equestrian portrait of Laetitia, Lady Lade, who was described as being of scandalous reputation and notorious for her foul language. But she was also an accomplished horsewoman and society's disapproval of her did not deter her husband, Sir John Lade, from whom the Prince bought horses, from adding this portrait of her in riding dress on a rearing horse to his private collection.
Work on his ambitious sequel to the Anatomy of the Horse, A Comparative Anatomical Exposition of the Human Body with that of a Tiger and a Common Fowl, occupied him from 1795 until the day of his death, causing him some financial hardship. The majority of the 142 drawings were sold at Christies in 1827, eventually being discovered in the Library of Worcester, Massachusetts in 1957. The engravings he had completed were finally published in 1817.
Stubbs recorded much that was typical of his time. He conveys the essence of rural life in its 'golden age' - that of the great landowners whose mansions were the focal point of social life, sport and the arts - his pictures are considered as idyllic masterpieces. He was also a master of the art of depicting class distinction, although the servants of the great houses are portrayed with understanding and without condescension. No sportsman himself, his patrons came mainly from the sporting aristocracy, which led his work, until the twentieth century, to be categorised alongside that of the several sporting specialists of the turf and hunt, and in his day he never gained the celebrity of his compatriots Gainsborough, Reynolds and Hogarth. This is possibly due to his nature as a dedicated and simple man who pursued his own interests rather than those suggested by the society of the day. Only relatively recently has his work been rediscovered and given the credit it deserves.