In painting, as in music and literature, artists whose work in old age is comparable to that of their youth are rare beasts: Titian, who traditionally if implausibly lived to be 99, was one; Goya, who died aged 82, was another. But of neither can it be claimed that they saved their greatest work for last. George Stubbs, on the other hand, painted the finest picture of a long and fecund career, and quite possibly the greatest equine portrait in the whole of art, at the age of 75, six years before his death in 1806.
‘Hambletonian, Rubbing Down’, which hangs in Mount Stewart House in Northern Ireland, will not, however, feature in the forthcoming exhibition of his work that opens at the National Gallery at the end of June. It will leave a yawning hole because this image, more than any other, shows just how far the artist — for so long fondly if dismissively categorised as ‘Mr Stubbs the horse painter’ — transcended the genre of sporting art.
The picture was commissioned by the 28-year-old Sir Henry Vane-Tempest to commemorate the victory of his horse Hambletonian over Joseph Cookson’s Diamond in a winner-takes-all wager of 3,000 guineas. The race between the two leading horses of the day took place at Newmarket on 25 March 1799 and attracted a huge crowd. The throng of racegoers was such that not only was every bed in Newmarket taken but those in Cambridge and in ‘every town and village within 15 miles’ as well. The punters laid some £30,000 in bets.
The race itself lasted for only eight minutes, and for most of the four-mile course the result hung in the balance; it was only in the final yards that Hambletonian inched into the lead to win by a short head.