Stubbs: the Georgians' David Attenborough
The news is that two 1772 paintings by Stubbs – The Kongourou from New Holland and The Dingo – are to be sold from the collection at Parham Park, Sussex. If the export of these important works is to be prevented – not surprisingly Australia is a likely destination – it will come at an estimated cost of £5.5 million.
George Stubbs was renowned above all for his racehorse paintings, no less in his lifetime than now. But his unmatched ability, got through exhaustive study, to “capture” that animal led to his having many commissions for images of exotic species too, which were beginning to come into Britain for the first time through scientific and commercial exploration of the distant world. Moose, nylghau, zebra, Asian rhinoceros, yak, various monkeys, blackbuck, cavy, mouse lemur, lion, tiger, panther, cheetah and gyr falcon are among the species Stubbs was called upon to paint or draw from life.
In most cases the paintings were done for scientific purposes – perhaps to illustrate lectures (as by William Hunter at the Royal Society), or to provide collectors such as the Duke of Richmond with an accurate zoological record. Others were more populist in design, such as the magnificent Cheetah with Two Indian attendants and a Stag (in the Manchester Art Gallery), which details just how the Moguls in India used these big cats to “course” deer.
The two Parham Park canvases are unusual in that they were not done from life. They are direct spin-offs from one of the most celebrated of all journeys of discovery, Captain Cook’s first voyage of 1768-1771, during which sightings were made of the animals in question. However Stubbs’s paintings are not based on live observation. The dingo was put together from verbal descriptions by Joseph Banks, Cook’s scientific officer, and is not much like the real thing. The ‘kongourou’ – whose appearance and habits greatly perplexed the Europeans – was based on a kangaroo skin brought back in the Endeavour, which Stubbs sewed up and inflated with air to give himself some idea of what it looked like.
Stubbs’s kangaroo had a remarkably long afterlife, though it does look anatomically a little out of kilter (there is disagreement about the precise type of kangaroo it is and whether an adult or a juvenile). The print was an 18th century best-seller and was still being used to typify the species in wild-life books 75 years later, both in Europe and America.
There was a strong public appetite in the Georgian period to know more about exotic species and when Stubbs showed his paintings of them publicly, and published prints of them, they aroused huge interest and debate. In terms of his ability to portray and to popularize wild animals – to place them both visually and conceptually in the public’s eye – Stubbs’s project was very like that of a popular wildlife TV programme, from Zoo Quest in the 1950s to the BBC’s current series Africa. The comparison of Stubbs with Sir David Attenborough is therefore not a bad one.
I cannot think why there has never been an exhibition about this side of Stubbs’s work. Or a TV documentary, voiced (why not?) by Sir David himself.