George Stubbs visited Italy in 1754 and there gained a knowledge of Renaissance and antique art that enabled him to raise his own painting of animals and the English sporting scene to the level of the Grand Style. Indeed, pictures such as this, showing a dramatic episode from the life of animals were called 'animal history' by the Stubbs scholar, Basil Taylor. As Taylor has also shown, the basis of Stubbs's composition here is almost certainly a well known classical sculpture of a horse attacked by a lion, which in Stubbs's day was on public view in the courtyard of the Palazzo del Conservatori in Rome. Stubbs was so fascinated by the story of the horse and lion that he produced no less than seventeen works inspired by it, in various media, including engraving, a relief model in Wedgwood clay and this version in enamel on copper. Stubbs experimented with enamel as a means of picture making because he rightly considered it to be a more permanent medium than oil paint on canvas. But it also involves considerable technical difficulties and expense and Stubbs's output of enamels remained small. Those that survive, however, have great freshness and brilliance. This one is the earliest of Stubbs's known enamels and was exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1770 and sold to Lord Melbourne for 100 guineas.
Ozias Humphry, Stubbs's first biographer, describes how Stubbs made studies for another of the horse and lion series from a live lion kept by Lord Shelburne at his house on Hounslow Heath: 'Whilst he was executing these drawings many opportunities occurred of observing the disposition of this animal: of the manner in particular in which they watch and spring upon their prey ...'. He goes on to describe how the lion stiffened and then sprang at a man who approached its cage while Stubbs was drawing. As well as drawing live animals from close personal observation, Stubbs carried out extensive anatomical studies, making scientifically precise drawings of dissections of many types of animals. It was this knowledge of his subjects combined with his knowledge of Renaissance and Classical art, which put him so far above the other sporting and animal painters of his time. The Tate Gallery owns one other work from the horse and lion series [Tate Gallery T02058] and has another on long-term loan [subsequently purchased: Tate Gallery T06869]. These show different episodes in the encounter of the two beasts.
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.34