George Stubbs, famous as the painter of racing stallions and grazing brood mares, was rather more than your average run-of-the-mill sporting artist. He spent his life intently studying animals both as zoological specimens and as objects of aesthetic and historical interest. He looked at them not only with scientific attention but with a remarkable tenderness, a love for the living reality of them, in all their unfathomable difference from human beings.
Animals were, of course, very familiar objects in eighteenth-century England. Stubbs was surrounded by horses, in the streets of Liverpool where he was born, in the fields of a still predominantly rural England, and on the race-courses patronised by the rich, who commissioned hm to paint them mounted on their own horses, sometimes with their houses in the background. One such gentleman was George Pigot, who had come home from India a wealthy man, having been Governor-General of Madras. He brought with him a large diamond and the first cheetah that we know of to have been seen in England.
With an eye to a peerage – which he eventually got, as Lord Pigot of Patshull in Ireland – he presented this handsome beast to the king, George III. The king gave it into the care of his brother, the Duke of Cumberland, who was Ranger of Windsor Forest and kept his own menagerie of exotic animals. He commissioned Stubbs to paint it together with the two Indian keepers who had accompanied it from its homeland. Stubbs paints cheetah and keepers together as a grand group, three figures in a ‘conversation’ that is lively, subtle and very beautiful. The quivering tension of the cheetah’s body as it reacts to the presence of a stag, which the keepers are inviting it to attack, is matched by the animated portraits of the two keepers themselves, painted with equal affectionate attention – ‘perhaps the finest rendering of Indians in British painting’, as one commentator has said.
Just as the gentry who figured in contemporary ‘conversation pieces’ were sometimes portrayed in imaginary interiors in fictive stately homes, so here Stubbs invents a landscape background without attempting to imagine anything authentically ‘Indian’. The scene may well be derived from the rocky landscape around Creswell Crags on the Yorkshire- Derbyshire border that appears in many of his paintings, and which he had discovered about the time of this work. And the stag is a curious amalgam of English red deer and Indian sambar: Stubbs had no access to an appropriate creature so invented one from what he knew and from the information he had been able to collect.
What’s not authentic at all is the statuesque stillness of the deer. Confronted at close quarters by a cheetah, being incited to the chase as Stubbs shows it here, with hood to cover its eyes and sash to restrain it, the potential quarry would long ago have fled. It was later painted out by an owner who objected to this inaccuracy in Stubbs’s depiction, though his original concept has now been reinstated. This is one of the noblest of all examples of ‘British sporting art’ and deserves to be seen as the artist intended.
A footnote: the Duke of Cumberland was inspired by the gift of the cheetah to stage a demonstration of its speed and grace by creating an arena in the park at Windsor, in which it was placed with an English deer that it was meant to attack and kill. The deer repulsed it three times, after which the cheetah disappeared into the woods and killed a fallow deer of its own choosing.
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