A Study in Power and Beauty
In the third of a series of posts about horses in art, I look at one of the most famous paintings of all. The first two posts, Copenhagen and Marengo appeared on Victoria Hinshaw's blog and Téa Cooper’s blog (links below). I will post them here nearer to 18 June and the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.
Whistlejacket 1762 was painted by George Stubbs and hangs in the National Gallery. An oil on canvas, it measures an enormous 115 x 97 inches (9’7” x 8’1”, 292 x 246 cm). Thus it is almost life-sized.
|Whistlejacket by George Stubbs, courtesy of Wikipedia|
George Stubbs is probably the finest equestrian artist of the Georgian age, if not all time. Certainly, no other of his era matched his understanding of a horse’s anatomy and physiology. Born in 1724, the son of a currier, he began his artistic life as a portrait painter, but having had a fascination for the subject since childhood, studied human anatomy at York County hospital. In 1758, he rented a farm in Lincolnshire and spent several months studying the physiology of horses through the simple expedient of dissecting carcasses. He also suspended them in different poses in order to draw them. This dedicated work resulted in The Anatomy of the Horse, published in 1766.
Stubbs accepted an invitation from Charles Watson Wentworth, the 2nd Marquis of Rockingham, to visit his estate at Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire. He stayed some considerable time at Wentworth House and produced several paintings. Indeed, Whistlejacket himself features in a frieze-like work on a similar neutral background, entitled Whistlejacket with the Head Groom Mr. Cobb and the Two Other Principal Stallions in the Wentworth Stud, the Godolphin Hunter and the Godolphin Colt.
Bred at Belsay Castle, Northumberland by Sir William Middleton, Whistlejacket was a Thoroughbred and as such, entered in that Almanac of the Turf, The General Stud Book. He was foaled in 1749, to a Sweepstakes Mare (this means the mare was an unnamed daughter of Sweepstakes). The mare’s entry in the GSB reads as follows:
Foaled in 1736, her dam by the Hampton Court Ch. [Chestnut] Arabian—Makeless—Brimmer—Place's White Turk—Dodsworth—Layton Barb Mare*
f by Hutton's Spot (dam of Mayduke)
1749 ch. c. Whistlejacket, by Mogul ....... Sir W. Middleton
*In his Turf Register, William Pick names her as ‘Mr. Layton’s Violet Barb Mare, which was a brood mare in Lord D’Arcy’s Stud’.
Through his dam, therefore, Whistlejacket’s bloodlines trace back to the Royal Stud and the famous ‘royal mares’ imported by Charles II. His sire Mogul was by the Godolphin Arabian, one of the three founding sires of the Thoroughbred breed. The modern phrase ‘bred in the purple’ was never more applicable and that hallowed pedigree shows in George Stubbs’ glorious painting.
Named for a cold remedy of the time – made from gin and treacle – Whistlejacket had a successful career on the racecourse, losing only four times, according to William Pick. He raced from the age of three, winning consistently in the North of England at such meetings as Morpeth, Newcastle, Stockton, York and Lincoln, whilst receiving some narrow defeats in the south. His first defeat was to Mr. Curzon’s Jason, in the King’s Plate at Newmarket in 1755, but he was revenged the following year. After losing a close finish to Spectator, a horse belonging to the Duke of Ancaster, in Newmarket’s Jockey Club Plate in 1756, he was sold to Lord Rockingham. His most famous victory came against a strong field over four miles, at York in 1759, when, carrying an equal weight of nine stone with his adversary, he beat Mr. Turner’s Brutus to claim the 2000 guineas prize. It was his final outing and, noted William Pick, ‘…a remarkable fine race; being strongly contested the whole four miles, and won by a length only. Whistlejacket was rode by John Singleton, and Brutus by Thomas Jackson, who both displayed their utmost skill in riding…’ Whistlejacket was retired to stud, where it appears he was not particularly successful, yet because of this portrait, he is probably better known to the general populace than either his sire or grandsire.
It is a popular belief that Whistlejacket was chosen to be portrayed in such a fashion because he was a beautiful example of the so-called Eastern or Oriental horse, viz. the Arabian or Barb. The Marquis of Rockingham loved to collect fine art and statuary; he was well travelled and extremely rich. It is often stated that the portrait was intended to be of King George III, with Stubbs painting the horse, the foremost portrait artist painting the King and the foremost landscape artist painting the background. It is said that this picture was to be a companion to the one of King George II commissioned by the Marquis’ father. Whether or not this was Rockingham’s intention, we will never know, but if so, it could well be, that on seeing the emergence of his horse from the skilful brush of George Stubbs, Rockingham changed his mind. It has also been suggested, that being a Whig and in opposition to the throne, Rockingham had political reasons for the change of heart – or even that he was making an uncomplimentary political statement… that Whistlejacket, depicted free of all restraint, and therefore the complete opposite of the normal, subservient role shown by the horse in portraits of the time, was an allegory for the Whig liberalistic viewpoint against the Hanoverian rule. Indeed, it is possible the story of the King’s portrait may well have originated with Horace Walpole.
While travelling in Yorkshire, he visited Wentworth Woodhouse in August 1772 and wrote:
‘Many pictures of horses by Stubbs, well done. One large as life, fine, no ground done; it was to have had a figure of George III until Lord Rockingham went into opposition.’
However that might be, the painting and its subject have become icons. On the National Gallery web site, one can buy fridge magnets, posters and all manner of other items emblazoned with this fabulous image. Whistlejacket is shown as a perfect example of the Arabian breed. A rich chestnut with flaxen mane and tail, believed by many to be the colour of the first feral horses in Arabia, he has the classic ‘dished’ face, his head refined with dainty ears and wide nostrils, the better for inhaling at speed. His neck is arched with the powerful muscles of the stallion and beautifully set on to his body; his back is short, for strength and his hindquarters are shapely and strong. His forequarters are upraised in the classic pesade or levade (the latter not known in Stubbs’ time, since it was introduced at the start of the twentieth century), demonstrating his long, sloping shoulder (necessary for a smooth gait and therefore ride). He has a deep, broad chest; clean, hard legs and short gaskins (the part of the hind leg above the right-angled joint), which are essential for speed and endurance.
Whistlejacket is depicted as a wild, free spirit, in an age when horses were merely a tool to magnify the heroic qualities and skill of the rider – often with harsh bits and an iron hand to create the illusion. It was this anomaly which led to the belief that the painting was unfinished, but the neat shadows from his hind feet rather suggest this to be wrong. There is a glint in his eye and an air of majesty which, captured so cleverly by Stubbs, infers only the most accomplished horseman would be able to ride this horse. He had a quick temper to match his fiery-coloured coat and the story goes that he tried to attack his portrait one day when George Stubbs leaned it against the stable wall to view it at a distance. Horses do not normally ‘see’ two-dimensional objects; that Whistlejacket recognized the image of himself as another stallion reveals not only his intelligence, but also his supreme confidence. He was in his prime and knew himself superior to other beings.
It is a portrait which captures the imagination. The observer can revel in the sheer beauty of a horse in its natural state, free and unfettered, with mane and tail flowing loose and untrimmed; the power and grace exhibited without the usual (for the time) trappings of subservience. Whistlejacket is permitted to show his personality – which he does with abundance. The fact that there is no background makes it clear Stubbs and/or the Marquis of Rockingham intended for him to be admired. It is obvious to an informed eye that he is not wild – his gleaming, velvety soft coat and silky tail are the result of being stabled and hours of grooming – and of course a horse’s usefulness to man would be nothing were he not tamed and docile, yet all horsemen revere that element of unpredictability. It is what makes horses so special – that they will willingly allow us to serve them.
Links to Copenhagen and Marengo