Summary

Stubbs was obsessed with the subject of a lion attacking a horse, making at least seventeen works on the theme, most of which were in oil on regularly-shaped canvas. In this enamel on copper piece, Stubbs cut off the corners to form an irregular octagon, thus tightening the composition. The result is a forceful depiction which is perhaps his most successful treatment of the theme. This is Stubbs's earliest known experiment in painting in enamel colours, and was the first time the technique - previously limited to decorative objects and miniature portraits - was used by an artist of Stubbs's stature. He may have approached the medium out of scientific curiosity, although his exact reasons are not known. Before producing this piece, Stubbs spent two years studying the chemical changes to colours under high temperatures, and a further three years improving the support upon which the painting would be made. He used a copper plate support for this work, but was dissatisfied with the size limitations, and for later enamels commissioned the Master Potter Josiah Wedgwood to produce special large ceramic tablets.

In preparation for the work, he made many studies of caged lions at the Tower of London and at Lord Shelbourne's menagerie on Hounslow Heath. Stubbs's interest in the subject is traditionally presumed to originate from a scene he reportedly witnessed in North Africa during his return by sea from Italy. This was largely disproven, however, with the reappearance of an oil painting Stubbs made of the subject, Horse Devoured by a Lion, in which the horse is pressed to the ground (Tate Gallery T02058). It differs from all other known versions of the work, but is strikingly similar to a Roman copy of a Greek sculpture group that Stubbs could have seen at the Palazzo dei Conservatori in Rome in 1754.

The innovative subject proved popular and influential. It allowed Stubbs to demonstrate his virtuosity as an animal and landscape painter, while enabling him, through his reference to a classical source, to elevate animal painting to history painting. The horse's noble submission to his inevitable fate suggests the heroic, moral overtones of stoical Roman virtue.

Also in the collection of the Tate Gallery is Horse Frightened by a Lion, ?exhibited 1763 (Tate Gallery T06869).

Further reading:
Basil Taylor, 'George Stubbs: "The Lion and Horse" Theme', Burlington Magazine, vol.107, no.743, Feb. 1965, pp.81-6
Bruce Tattersall, Stubbs & Wedgwood: Unique Alliance between Artist and Potter, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1974, pp.62-3, reproduced
Judy Egerton, George Stubbs 1724-1806, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery 1984, reprinted 1996, pp.90-99, reproduced p.96 in colour

Terry Riggs
December 1997