The British elite were racing fanatics in the 18th century, and there was no greater honor for a victorious horse than having its portrait painted by George Stubbs. Like the later Edwin Henry Landseer and his dogs, Stubbs captured the individuality of the animals, a skill fostered by his understanding of the horse inside and out through his extensive time dissecting their large bodies.
Stubbs has only recently returned to fame through the attention of collectors, but what’s interesting about exploring his work is that almost every racehorse portrait also has incredible detail about its accomplishments. But which of Stubbs’s horses was truly the best? Here is a highly subjective ranking based on their victories, and their equine beauty as captured by Stubbs.
Stubbs painted Firetail in 1773, the rippling muscles of the bay horse beneath its reddish fur hinting at its burning speed. Firetail seems to have had a brief, albeit successful, career from 1773 to 34, although Judy Egerton’s book George Stubbs, Painter speaks more of the gambling debts of his owners, the Foley brothers: “Writing to Horace Mann on 11 August 1776, Horace Walpole asked: ‘Can you believe that Lord Foley’s two sons have borrowed money so extravagantly, that the interest they have contracted to pay, amounts to eighteen thousand pounds a year?'” Quel scandale!
Skyscraper, as depicted by Stubbs in the 1790s, has legs that stretch for furlongs. The thoroughbred descended from the equally long-legged Highflyer. It may seem odd for an 18th-century horse to be named for a tall building, but at that time a “skyscraper” would have been associated with a tall sail on a ship. Now, Stubbs’s depiction doesn’t have much in the way of landscape, and in fact seems like a rather bleak sprawl of isolation. However, Skyscraper did have a consistent five season career, including winning the prestigious King’s Plate.
Why is Stubbs so prized today? It has a lot to do with Paul Mellon, who founded the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA), and made his first British painting purchase with this portrait of Pumpkin. Mellon’s attention to Stubbs, as YCBA explains, “did much to rehabilitate” the late painter’s reputation. So Pumpkin gets points for that, but he was also quite the champion, winning 16 races including a close competition with fan favorite Denmark, beating the popular horse by half a neck.
Also at YCBA, is the 1762 painting of Lustre. Unlike Pumpkin, who serenely is craning for feed from a stable lad, there’s an unsettled agitation in the horse’s eye, and the curl of its lip. The chestnut horse was owned by Lord Bolingbroke, who, fitting to his name, was quite the gambler, and was painted after Lustre’s victory over Jolter owned by the Duke of Cumberland in a four-mile race in 1760.
When a petit horse won an especially wagered-on Newmarket race, attendee Lady Sarah Bunbury said that she’d seen “the sweetest horse run that ever was — his name is Gimcrack, he is delightful.” Stubbs’s painting of the small horse is especially interesting, as it actually shows Gimcrack twice, once in the race, and then at the stables. It’s also curious in that there’s no crowd pictured, just the hauntingly empty landscape that gives Gimrack’s work for his masters, and his meager rewards, a tone of melancholy. Gimcrack won 28 of his 36 races, and despite standing at 14 hands, was renowned for his stamina.
Long after Gimcrack’s sweet racing days were over, he had a posthumous triumph. In 2011, the 1765 Stubbs painting sold for a staggering £22.4 million ($29.2 million) at auction.
Beneath approaching clouds of a stormy sky, Otho the bay horse stands in the shadows of this 1768 Stubbs painting. Now at the Tate in London, it’s a moody vision, where the horse’s ears are pricked and alert, the jockey appearing delicate on his back compared to Otho’s sinewy flesh. The setting is actually Newmarket, where Otho had his most successful races, before retiring to life as a high-priced stud.
5: Molly Long-legs
Molly Long-legs makes Skyscraper look short, especially as captured in Stubbs’s 1761–62 painting, now at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. Her ears are pulled back, her tongue visible in her mouth, and her eye looks nervously away from the jockey, giving the whole scene a feeling of unease, especially with her saddle and tack strewn on the ground. The race seems to be over, possibly one of the two 200 guinea prizes she achieved at Newmarket, but Molly Long-legs remains unsettled. Stubbs’s knowledge of anatomy is especially visible here, where each muscle is defined beneath her coat. However, the late horse trainer Ginger McCain wrote in her label text for George Stubbs: A Celebration at the Walker that there may be a bit of exaggeration: “I wouldn’t buy a horse with legs as long as that. I know she was called Molly Long-legs but they must be what you call artistic license.”
Eclipse gets a high rank, although the Stubbs painting is not the most inspired, since the horse was one of the best, remaining undefeated in 18 races, 11 of which were King’s Plates. The red horse also sired 344 horse winners, so that an estimated 90% of today’s thoroughbreds have Eclipse in their lineage. His name referenced his own foaling during a solar eclipse. “Eclipse first, the rest nowhere,” went a famous 1769 wager, before the horse launched into his incredible top speed of 83 feet a second.
Named for the optimistic professor in Voltaire’s Candide that had just come out in 1759, Pangloss was an impressive racehorse until he broke his leg. The portrait at the Indianapolis Museum of Art by Stubbs captures Pangloss at his prime, who, per the back of the canvas, was nicknamed “Rufus.” Again, the anatomical knowledge of Stubbs is on view, as is his appreciation for the unease of the racing horse, who even while standing still never knows when he might be prodded into incredible motion again.
When Stubbs painted Hambletonian, he was 75 years old, with decades of sporting art behind him. When he was commissioned by the young Sir Henry Vane-Tempest to mark the horse’s triumph in a 3,000 guinea race, Stubbs represented the thoroughbred as a restless creature. Stretching eight feet high and 14 feet wide, the canvas, now on view at the National Trust, Mount Stewart in Northern Ireland, subtracts the massive crowd that attended the 1799 race, and reminds viewers of his painful victory. When Hambletonian took the lead over the horse Diamond in the final push, he was almost destroyed, and bleeding from the whip and spurs. Stubbs had to take Sir Henry to court to get his payment for the piece.
Of all Stubbs’s prolific horse paintings, the 1762 portrait of Whistlejacket is his most incredible. Against a neutral landscape, free of any jockeys or saddles, the horse rises on two legs, its eyes turning to the viewer. Now at the National Gallery in London, the painting remains powerful centuries after the horse’s victories are forgotten. Whistlejacket was most famous for a four-mile August 1759 race, in which he won 2,000 guineas, for which his owner the Marquis of Rockingham commissioned the painting.
According to one account, Stubbs was painting the horse while a stable boy led the chestnut stallion up and down when he suddenly “saw the horse staring at his own portrait and quivering with rage. He sprang forward to attack it, rearing, and lifting the boy off his legs.” Reportedly the Marquis was so pleased with the horse’s display of his famous temper that “he would not allow a single touch to be added, but framed and hung the painting without a background.” It’s not clear if this is actually what happened, but the final piece is the best demonstration of what makes Stubbs’s work endure, celebrating the horse as its own wild individual, despite the harnesses of man.