George Stubbs and the Wide Creation

Extract from : George Stubbs and the Wide Creation 

My life of George Stubbs was published in 2005. Stubbs was the great 18th century painter of animals, people and landscape but, for his first 15 years as an artist, he laboured to establish himself as a portrait painter to the gentry and bourgeoisie of the north of England. By 1758 he was determined to re-launch his career, and travelled to London armed with a bundle of anatomical sketches that he had made while dissecting horses in a remote Lincolnshire farmhouse. His prospects were about to change very rapidly: within a couple of years he would establish himself as the most sought after painter of sporting scenes to the aristocracy. This is chapter 27, my introduction to the London that he found when he first arrived there. Thinking about it now, it is interesting that I chose to paint such a long word-picture of the city in this particular book. Stubbs lived in London for the rest of his life, but his art is far removed from the bustling chaotic life of the city. It exists in a different dimension entirely – green, unpolluted, unhurried and with everything in proportion. 

 On his journey from Edinburgh to London in 1762, James Boswell breasted Highgate Hill, drank in the panorama of the city and, in a heady rush of optimism, “repeated Cato’s soliloquy on the immortality of the soul, and my soul bounded forth to a certain prospect of happy futurity”.[i] George Stubbs, four years earlier, is unlikely to have rhapsodized in quite this style at his own first sight of the capital from the Great North Road. But the thirty-five-year-old had every reason to make a confident approach to London, and to look forward to a happy futurity.

For fifteen years he had applied himself to self-education in drawing and painting, and in scientific method. He had gained favour with wealthy patrons and taken instruction where he found it, not only in arts and science but in fencing, French and dancing. He rejected what he could not use but made fast progress on many fronts. If fame had so far eluded him, he could plausibly account for this. Perhaps the early liaison with his children’s mother had been a hindrance, or his association with Jacobites and Catholics. Perhaps his own necessary self-certainty (or pig-headedness) had made him enemies as well as friends. Perhaps he had simply not been ready to be embraced by success. Now he had made himself ready. And yet the exposure to London’s vibrant, if uniquely smokey, atmosphere was a challenge not every man successfully faced.

For Boswell, London was “the great field of genius and exertion, where talents of every kind have the fullest scope and the highest encouragement”.[ii] At the end of the reign of the old king, George II (who died in 1760), the metropolis was certainly a phenomenon of this kind. It was the hub of all that was busy, current and fashionable, and an almighty hubbub of opinion and argument, wagers and duels, cant and rant. For Dr Johnson, “It is not in the showy evolutions of buildings, but in the multiplicity of human habitations which are crowded together, that the wonderful immensity of London consists”.[iii] It is the crowding together that impressed him, for this made the city seethe with human interactions, the like of which had never been seen before. Londoners were always out and about, on pleasure or business (which for many were the same thing), and their continual shuttling and social ricochet wove a vast daily internet of news and debate from Mile End Green to Tyburn Turnpike.

It is not surprising that Samuel Johnson loved the interactive aspect of London above all else. If the Great Cham of Literature stood for anything, it was the value of reading and the charm of conversation. The city was a ferment of both activities.[iv] The web of rapidly disseminated information, gathered by its more than 600,000 inhabitants from print and ear, and passed on by hand and mouth, drew on material in books, newspapers and handbills; in the printseller’s window, the public lecture, the lawyer’s plea, the sermon and the seditious street-corner speech; in the handwritten letter, the shorthand note, the tea-party gossip and the passing chat. Scandal and tittle-tattle were ubiquitous, but public news and the exchange of ideas also absorbed and excited people. Newspapers brought court news, parliamentary debates, dispatches from the capitals of Europe, ships in and out of Rotherhithe and Wapping, ships lost, battles won, treasure found, bankruptcies, crimes, hangings, house-fires and lottery results. At the same time London was so full of scientific clubs and literary discourse that Johnson was to claim that “there is more learning and science within the circumference of ten miles from where we now sit, than in all the rest of the kingdom”. This he thought represented the true “happiness of London”.[v]

But a vast gap yawned between literate citizens on the one hand (which included tradesmen as well as gentlemen) and the mass of poor and disenfranchised – the mob – on the other. For very many the struggle to survive was intense and unremitting. In 1763 a prospective purchaser, visiting a supposedly empty house in Stonecutter Street, found on the first floor the bodies of three young women. They were the remains of basket-carriers in the Fleet Market who, overtaken by sickness and unable to work, had starved silently to death. On the floor above he came upon two more squatters, barely alive. There was no adequate safety net for such cases. Here, as we have already seen in Liverpool, poor relief was in the hands of the parishes, but it was reserved for those legally settled within the parish boundaries. In a city swelled by constant immigration, and by thousands of unregistered births, many homeless Londoners had to fend for themselves.

Suicide, riot, violence, vice, crime and callousness were parts of life. In the Bridewell house of correction, the flogging of prostitutes was public entertainment and, at Bedlam, the insane were gawped at like zoo animals. In the absence of an official police force (the idea was thought to smack too much of foreign absolutism) the filthy coop of Newgate Gaol was kept full by a corrupt system of bounty hunting and self-appointed thief-takers.[vi] The gaol was generally awash with gin, which was the cheapest way to oblivion (“drunk for a penny, dead drink for tuppence”). Criminal justice in general was arbitrary and bore down with massive disproportion on the poor. There were over two hundred capital offences on the statute book but lesser punishments could be equally fatal: offenders committed to the pillory were regularly stoned to death by the mob.

Sporadic mob action was always an important factor in public life. As the late Derek Jarrett pointed out, rioting was not normally aimed against inequality or perceived social injustice. The mob was largely conservative, acting on its prejudices against “innovators and interlopers” who threatened or abused what were perceived as ancient English liberties.[vii] Daniel Chater, who informed against a group of unemployed weavers-turned-smugglers, was seized by the mob and hung by his arms from a beam half-way down a dry well. When found to be still alive two days later he was thrown to the bottom and pelted with rocks until he died.[viii] On the other hand, when justice finally caught up with Mrs Brownrigg, a workhouse supervisor who beat and starved her inmates to death for years, the mob turned out in force to see her hang. As the cart rattled the condemned woman and her coffin towards Tyburn, the noose already looped around her neck, the mob danced behind yelling to the accompanying clergyman to pray for her eternal damnation. When she was finally strung up and tipped off the cart, the cheer could be heard at Charing Cross.

The insolvency laws were savage. London in 1759 had twenty thousand prisoners whose only crime was that they could not pay their way. If they could find the means they lived with a bailiff in a so-called sponging house, where lawyers and creditors, and not least the bailiffs themselves, bled them completely dry. Then they were consigned to debtors’ prison, the Fleet or the Marshalsea, where food was not provided (or not without charge) and the inmates, if they had no friends to help them, were reduced to reaching their hands out through the barred unglazed windows, in hope of bread or pennies from the street.

And yet society and economic life continued, and prosperity for the majority increased. That rising curve of comfort tickled the consciences of some, and the first effective philanthropists such as Jonah Hanway and Captain Thomas Coram appeared to beat a (still fairly muffled) drum against poverty and exploitation. But the temper of the times was against being told what to do: there was no systematic duty to be charitable such as the Victorians felt. Rather sympathy and conscience working case-by-case was what enabled good to come through when it did. That note of individual action, of self-mastery, which was seen as the only counterbalance to the evil of the mob, resounds through the age. Again Dr Johnson is its voice.

"Nothing can be great which is not right. Nothing which Reason condemns can be suitable to the Dignity of the human Mind. To permit ourselves to be driven by external Motives from the Way which our own Heart approves, to give Way to any Thing but Conviction, to suffer the Opinion of others to overrule our Choice, or overpower our Resolves, is to submit tamely to the lowest and most ignominious Slavery, and the Resign the Right of directing our own Lives."[ix]

This desire to direct his own life was what brought Stubbs to London in 1758, and it is the spring of all his actions hereafter. For him, as for artists in general, the late 1750s were propitious. Their profession was still labouring under the whimsical sway of private patronage. But, as we shall see in the next chapter, their personal position, and economic prospects, were about to change radically, and very much for the better.


© Robin Blake, 2005


George Stubbs and the Wide Creation: People, Places and Animals in the Life of George Stubbs is published by Pimlico Books.


[i] Boswell, 1950, pp. 43-44]

[ii] Boswell, 1831, volume I p. 70.

[iii] [reference to follow]

[iv] Boswell perfectly understood the centrality of conversation when he wrote, of his Life of Johnson, “his conversation alone, or what led to it, or was interwoven with it, is the business of this work” (Boswell, 1831, volume II p. 229). It was William Smollett in a letter of 1759 to John Wilkes, who called Johnson “the Great Cham of Literature”.

[v] Boswell, 1831, volume II p. 77.

[vi] The first halting steps towards a police force were taken by the Fielding brothers, magistrates at Bow Street court. Henry Fielding, the novelist, had obtained secret service money in 1749 to establish the small band of Bow Street Runners, which proved highly successful in reducing the number of local felonies.

[vii] Jarrett, 1974, p. 14. This was not just a London thing, as we have already seen in the Leeds Turnpike Riots, see p. 00 above.

[viii] Jarrett, 1974, p.48-9.

[ix] Johnson, 1950, p. 258. The passage is from The Rambler no. 185.

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