Do you think you know George Stubbs? You have probably seen his horses parading like proud supermodels around the drawing rooms of England’s grandest homes. This 18th-century painter, with a passion for anatomy and an eye for the racecourse, has claimed a place in our canon as the purveyor of polished equine portraits to the British aristocracy.

This, to an extent, is the Stubbs whom you are going to have the pleasure of meeting in the MK Gallery’s forthcoming exhibition. Several of the artist’s most-loved images will be travelling to Milton Keynes, the highlight being his crowd-pulling Whistlejacket, on rare loan from the National Gallery. This life-size portrait of an air-pawing stallion, its flaxen mane and tail aflow as it rises to the levade, prances like some classical statue come to life. Stubbs captures the beauty of this hot-blooded Arabian with such attentive skill that, according to legend, when Whistlejacket was led past the painting by a stable lad, the horse reared up to attack what it thought was a rival stallion, lifting its handler clean off his feet.

However, in the largest Stubbs survey for more than 30 years, curators intend to reveal less familiar facets of his work.

A painter of horseflesh may, on the face of it, seem like a safely traditional figure. But this down-to-earth, teetotal, laconic Liverpudlian, born in 1724, the son of a currier, fostered from childhood a peculiar fascination for anatomy. It was this that shaped his career. As a result, his immaculately detailed images are far more than just flattering reflections made to appeal to the vanities of high-born patrons. They are underpinned by a quirkiness that, arising from intense personal passions, speaks of a profound empathy with the animal kingdom.

An Artist-Scientist

Stubbs, says Anthony Spira, the director of the MK Gallery and co-curator of this exhibition, was an artist-scientist. “He was one of the most forensic, but also empathetic chroniclers of nature that we have ever known. As a result we are looking not just at pictures of animals, but at the position of humans within the natural world. These paintings are about our relationship with animals.” And so, he explains, they feel particularly relevant right now, at a time when we are reassessing our attitudes to the environment.

Sir Joshua Reynolds held sway over the 18th-century art world in which Stubbs forged his career. Reynolds was a firm advocate of classical principles. In his seminal Discourses he championed “history painting” — grand depictions of battles, Bible stories and mythological dramas — as the noblest genre. “Nature herself is not to be too closely copied,” he pronounced, because “a mere copier of nature can never produce anything great; can never raise or enlarge the conceptions or warm the heart of the spectator”.

Such classical precedents, however, were of little interest to Stubbs. And although (after periods in Liverpool, Wigan, Leeds, York and Wakefield) he embarked in 1754 on the artist’s then all-but-mandatory tour of Italy, it was only, he confided to a friend, “to convince himself that nature was and always is superior to art”.

Perhaps the best way to approach Stubbs, suggests Spira, is to view him as the product of his Enlightenment era and its belief in the importance of knowledge and the power of reason. As an Enlightenment thinker, he was prepared to question authority in his pursuit of truth. However, where other such thinkers worked in the realms of scientific experiment, of philosophical ideas and literary language, Stubbs believed firmly in the primacy of looking. Knowledge, he believed, could be pictorially expressed.

He was prepared to question authority in his pursuit of truth.

Returning from his trip to Italy, he embarked on the project that would lead to his magnum opus. Isolating himself in a Lincolnshire farmhouse for 18 months, he set about dissecting the carcasses of horses. It was a gruelling task, carried out amid gore, stench and maggots. The result was the great anatomical treatise The Anatomy of the Horse, which established its creator as the “Liverpudlian Leonardo” and rewrote our understanding of the biology of the horse.

Whistlejacket, by George Stubbs, circa 1762, oil on canvas.

More than half of Stubbs’s 40 anatomical drawings will go on display at the heart of the MK Gallery exhibition. Amid them will stand a skeleton on loan from the collection of the Royal Veterinary College. It belongs to Eclipse, among the most remarkable racehorses in history. This undefeated superstar was retired to stud in 1771. Ninety-five per cent of today’s thoroughbreds trace their descent to him. The remaining 5 per cent have him in their pedigrees. A Stubbs painting of the famed horse, as well as a rare preparatory study in which he kept a detailed record of its appearance, will also go on show. They offer a glimpse of Stubbs’s astonishingly rigorous approach to animal portraiture. All “done from nature”, as he proclaimed in the frontispiece of his Anatomy.

Primal Ferocity

This belief in the primacy of observation was fundamental to Stubbs. You find it as you enter this show. Having moved from Liverpool to York in about 1745 Stubbs was commissioned to illustrate a medical study of midwifery. He draws the human foetus, at full term, in assorted positions. A baby tumbles, twists and somersaults in its mother’s womb in a series of etchings (the original drawings are lost) so accurately observed that most assume Stubbs had access to a pregnant corpse. That he firmly declined to sign these images may be due less to his having been far from a practised engraver (they are not terribly proficient) and more because the cadaver he drew from had been illicitly acquired — perhaps even by grave-robbing. A contemporary who later referred to the artist’s “vile renown” may well have been alluding to this.

The spirit of curiosity that drove Stubbs to return so determinedly to fundamentals informs all his work. Beginning as a peripatetic portrait painter, he sculpted écorché heads in wax, modelling facial expressions depicting laughter or crying, pleasure or fright. The wax models are lost, but drawings done after them go on display. They may not be aesthetically important, admits Spira, but as documents they are amazing. Such physiognomic studies of emotion were not unique at that time — Charles Le Brun’s illustrated textbook of facial expressions proved a handy manual to many contemporaries — but Stubbs put such depictions to idiosyncratic use when he applied them to the animal world.

The cadaver he drew from had been illicitly acquired—perhaps even by grave-robbing.

His studies of human emotion will be displayed alongside his images of a lion attacking a horse. This is significant, explains Spira. Stubbs’s paintings of this subject — one to which he would return, compulsively, for more than 30 years — are his most striking works. They speak of primal ferocity; its emotional terror and its muscular force. To an accurate record of animal anatomy is added an atmosphere of quivering empathy. The animal world is imbued with the aura of Romantic sublimity. “I would describe these paintings,” says Spira, “almost as abstract studies of emotion. They speak of the profound feeling which Stubbs had for the animal kingdom.”

Stubbs’s empathy for animals leads him to understand each as an individual. He notes not just anatomical detail, but also specific physical traits and unique body language. His portrait of Lord Bolingbroke’s prizewinning bay mare Molly Longlegs may, on one level, be almost emblematic. She stands, stilled, in lean profile. But notice how Stubbs records that little white patch of fur where the saddle has pinched. Study his pictures of mares and foals; frieze-like paintings composed of particular horses, each drawn from life. The relationships between them are captured. These are herd creatures. They are fundamentally sociable. They speak to each other with the body language that Stubbs so tenderly observes.

Cheetah and Stag with Two Indians, by George Stubbs, circa 1765, oil on canvas.

“Stubbs may even have prioritised animals over humans,” says Spira. He takes the painting Hambletonian, Rubbing Down as an example. The owner wanted a glorious celebration of his animal’s victory, but Stubbs painted a creature in a state of nervous post-race exhaustion. Do we feel pity for an animal that has been run almost into the ground like this? The image is made poignant by its painter’s compassion.

This relationship between humans and animals can be discovered throughout Stubbs’s work. Horse, dog and man are woven into compositional harmony. A Turkish groom in his traditional dimije and turban looks as elegant as the arch-necked Arabian for which he cares. The artist observes the interdependency between humans and animals. This is most obvious in his pictures of horses and their owners, riders or grooms. Yet it goes further than that.

A Predecessor of Darwin’s

It would be 70 or so years before Charles Darwin would publish On the Origin of Species. However, Stubbs was a friend of Darwin’s uncle. And the sort of ideas that would lead to the theory of evolution were already in the air. Carl Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy, for instance, was working on his hierarchical system of classification. To be actually human, he proposed, Homo sapiens had to recognise itself as a cog in the world’s wider mechanism, rather than the driving force.

Against this intellectual backdrop, Stubbs painted pictures of monkeys, meant presumably to explore debates about the relationships between primates. He also produced extraordinary comparative anatomies of tiger, man and fowl. The big cat is shown balancing on its hind legs like a person. A human skeleton scurries along on all fours. A flayed man and a chicken stride along side by side. Stubbs allegedly wanted to expand his biological comparisons, to incorporate the vegetable world (the carrot and potato were apparently considered). His investigations, however, were never extended that far — perhaps because this was his last big project, and on the day he died he was voicing his regret at not having finished it. Still, this astonishing series counts (along with The Anatomy of the Horse) as one of the most remarkable academic achievements in the whole of British art.

More than that, Stubbs’s lifelong attempt to bridge the divide between animal and human resonates particularly strongly in the present day. Among the most popular works on display in the MK show will be the portraits of exotic creatures: a crimson sashed cheetah being loosed by its Indian handlers; a young moose posed beside the fossilised antlers of an extinct giant elk; delicate pencil sketches of lemurs; a pair of frolicking leopards; the zebra that, given as a gift to Queen Charlotte, provoked bawdy jokes about going to see the Queen’s ass.

His attempt to bridge the divide between animal and human resonates in the present day.

“For Stubbs,” writes Spira in the catalogue that accompanies the show, “the glory of nature lay in its variety and multifarious detail: art that was faithful to this could be as great as any history painting.” Stubbs was there, waiting to paint this exotic menagerie of creatures as they arrived for the first time in our country, trophies of great voyages of exploration, heralds of a dawning age of empire. However, they find a fresh relevance in our own times. Our biodiversity is shrinking. We live in an era of extinction. Stubbs’s images of rhinos and tigers, his celebrations of their sublime wonder, their wild beauty, their elemental power, take on a new poignancy in our environmentally depleted age. “They capture a sense of the huge urgency that there is now for us all to look at how precious and marvellous the animal kingdom is,” Spira says.

An exhibition that opens with Stubbs’s studies of childbirth will draw to a sombre close with a picture of death. In one of the artist’s last and most arresting works he paints Freeman, a gamekeeper, hunched over a wounded hind that slumps at his feet. He tugs up the head by one ear as he prepares to slit her throat. The spectator stares, waiting for the death of the animal. The eye of the deer stares desperately back. Stubbs demands our compassion for the animal kingdom. It will surely be hard to leave this show without hearing his message.