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  • Writer's pictureRomina Rosso

George Stubbs: Whistlejacket


George Stubbs, Whistlejacket, 1762, National Gallery London

Every time that I visited the National Gallery in London, I was always been attracted to a painting that capture my attention for his huge dimensions (292 x 246 cm) and for its unusual composition and subject. This is the portrait of Whistlejacket.

Whistlejacket was a chestnut stallion, with flaxen-coloured mane and tail, and he had an excellent pedigree that could be traced back to one of the first three Arabian stallions that arrived in England.

The horse was born in 1749 at Belsay Castle in Northumberland, owned by of Sir William Middleton, 3rd Baronet, who named him after a contemporary cold remedy Whistlejacket containing gin and treacle.

Whistlejacket was a racehorse and even if he was beaten only four times in his racing career, he was not at the highest level of other contemporaries, but he is mentioned in Act IV of Oliver Goldsmith's classic comic play She Stoops to Conquer (1773) when an elopement is planned:

"I have got you a pair of horses that will fly like Whistlejacket".

The horse was bought by the second Marquess of Rockingham. He famously won a four-mile race at York in August 1759 with a premium of £ 2000. After the race he was notoriously temperamental and difficult to manage and for this reason he was then retired to stud.

Whistlejacket was portraited by George Stubble, a self-taught artist, with a “scientific eye” perhaps influenced by his love and study of anatomy. Born in Liverpool in 1724, the son of a currier or leather-dresser, he worked at his father's trade until the age of 15 or 16, at which point he told his father that he wished to become a painter.

He was apprentice to the engraver Hamlet Winstanley, who soon left when he came into conflict with the older artist and move to study as a self-taught in York.

He worked as a portrait painter, and studied human anatomy under the surgeon Charles Atkinson.

This experience let him to set up the illustrations for a textbook on midwifery by John Burton, Essay towards a Complete New System of Midwifery, published in 1751.

In 1754 Stubbs, as many Englishmen in the Grand Tour, visited Italy. Forty years later he told Ozias Humphry that his motive for going to Italy was, "to convince himself that nature was and is always superior to art whether Greek or Roman, and having renewed this conviction he immediately resolved upon returning home".

Greek sculpture, Lion attacking a horse, IV BC, Capitoline Museums, Rome

If the Italian voyage didn’t bewitch him in a stylistic point of view, he was for sure obsessed by a Greek sculpture of a a lion attacking a horse that he probably saw in Palazzo dei Conservatori in Rome in 1754, and now displayed in the Capitoline Museums.



In 1756 he rented a farmhouse in the village of Horkstow, Lincolnshire, and spent 18 months dissecting horses and painting them in numerous drawings that were published in the book The anatomy of the Horse.

Modern edition of The Anatomy of the Horse by George Stubbs

The book was really wanted by Stubbs to help other painters to create a realistic anatomy of the horses but when he took the book in London nobody wanted to publish it so Stubbs studied to engrave and published the book in 1766.

He moved to London in 1759 and received a lot of commission from the Duke of Richmond and other noblemen for portraits of horses and for conversation pieces, an informal group portrait popular in the eighteenth century, small in scale and showing people, often families, sometimes groups of friends, in domestic interior or garden settings.




George stubbs, The Milbanke and Melbourne Families, 1769, National Gallery, London, example of a conversation pieces

In 1762 he was invited by the second Marquess of Rockingham to spend some months at Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire. Rockingham was a passionate horse rider, a gambler, an art lover, a collector of sculpture and owner of one of the biggest stables with his 200 horses, including Whistlejacket.

Stubbs painted for Rockingham Mares and Foals with an unfigured Background and Joshua Cobb with Whistlejacket and two horses, both revolutionary pictures that break with convention in having plain backgrounds.

Geoge Stubbs, Mares and Foals with an unfigured Background, 1762, Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon
George Stubbs, Joshua Cobb with Whistlejacket and two horses,1762, private collection

In December of that year, he reived 80 guineas for the work Horse attacked by a lion, theme that obsessed him in at least in 17 paintings, and for a Horse Large as Life, undoubtedly the portrait of Whistlejacket.

George stubbs, horse attacked by a lion,1769, Tate Gallery, London

Stubbs painted several portraits of horses with or without people but no one had this huge dimension and the thing that was more shocking for the viewer at that time was the lack of a background. A lot of speculations came to understand if the work was finished or not.

In the composition of Whistejacket, probably painter and commissioner were agreed with the artistic choices as both lovers of sculpture and experts of Italian art, they wanted to give majesty and elegance to this kind of painting really loved in England.

Whistlejacket is a completed painting because in the painting it is possible to see the small shadows on the horse’s foot, technique that breaks the uniformity of the background, that Stubbs already used in other works for Rockingham.

The lack of the background makes Whistlejacket both an image of a living animal and a monument based upon classical sculpture. The painting can enter in the category of the paragone, as the competition between painting and sculpture.

An unusual work to have in the centre of the painting a horse as a hero. A story was rumoured that Rockingham had intended to commission an equestrian portrait of George III; Stubbs would paint the horse while two other notable portrait and landscape painters would fill in the king and the landscape respectively, but a change in the political situation probably changes the subject.

Whistlejacket was painting with great realism in which the different tone of browns is standing out in the neutral and light background.

Watching carefully the horse’s coat is possible to see that the brush strokes are not precise but loose as in an abstract painting.

The horse has his head turned towards the viewer and his eye is so realistic that it seems coming out from the canvas.

George Stubbs, Whistlejacket, 1762, National Gallery London


George Stubbs, Whistlejacket, detail




The posture of Whistlejacket, standing on his hind legs, it is a difficult stance called levade.

This is a trained stance in which the horse tries to hold a position 30 to 35 degrees from the ground. Achieving Levade takes great equilibrium and strength, especially in the back legs which carry most of the weight.

Stubbs captures both the tension and the energy expended.

Stubbs is interested in the inner being of Whistlejacket, his character, his self, and that is what he captures here: the incredible tension, energy and sensitivity in the way the horse rears, the electricity in the taut muscles, the look of something that might be terror in his face.

Whistlejacket is not a static portrait of a horse, he is full of energy, free from saddle or a bridle, he is majestic in his beauty.

According to a curious story when the portrait was nearly finished Stubbs move the painting from the canvas and placed it on the wall of the stable. Whistlejacket was accidentally led in front of it by a stable boy and reacted violently, treating it as a rival stallion, and lifting the boy holding him fully off the ground in his attempts to attack the painting. Stubbs moving away the horse with his palette and the painter stick, he got the highest tribute for his painting, the appreciation of an animal.

The portrait was bought in 1997 by the National Gallery for £11 million, after it was exhibited as a loan in Kenwood House and in the

Tate Gallery.

Stubbs was influential to many contemporary artists. Hans Haacke, Jeff Wall e Mark Wallinger were directly influenced by his works and Damien Hirst and Berlinde de Bruychere are in debts with his art.


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