Lot 22
  • 22

George Stubbs, A.R.A.

4,000,000 - 6,000,000 GBP
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  • George Stubbs, A.R.A.
  • 'Tygers at Play'
  • oil on canvas


Presumably commissioned or purchased by George Brodrick, 4th Viscount Midleton (1754–1836);

Thence by descent to his son George Alan Brodrick, 5th Viscount Midleton (1806–1848);

By inheritance to his cousin, Charles Brodrick, 6th Viscount Midleton (1791–1863);

By inheritance to his brother, William John Brodrick, 7th Viscount Midleton (1798–1870), Dean of Exeter and Chaplain to Queen Victoria;

By descent to his son, William Brodrick, 8th Viscount Midleton (1830–1907);

By descent to his son, William St John Fremantle Brodrick, 9th Viscount Midleton and 1st Earl of Midleton (1856–1942);

By descent to his son, George Brodrick, 2nd Earl of Midleton (1888–1979);

With Oscar & Peter Johnson, London, from whom acquired by the present owners in 1962.


Probably London, Royal Academy, 1776, no. 293 (as Tygers at Play);

London, Oscar & Peter Johnson Gallery, Pictures and Drawings from Yorkshire Houses, 1963, no. 15;

London, Tate Gallery, George Stubbs 1724–1806, 17 October 1984 – 6 January 1985, no. 78;

New Haven, Yale Centre for British Art, George Stubbs 1724–1806, 13 February – 7 April 1985, no. 78;

Leeds, City Art Gallery, Whistlejacket & Scrub: Large as Life; The Great Horse Paintings of Stubbs, 12 September – 9 November 2008, unnumbered.  


Sir W. Gilbey, Animal Painters of England, vol. II, London 1900, p. 205;

B. Taylor, The Prints of George Stubbs, London 1969, p. 24;

B. Taylor, Stubbs, London 1971, p. 208, no. 39, reproduced pl. 39 (as ‘Leopards playing in a rocky landscape’);

C. A. Parker, Mr Stubbs the Horse Painter, London 1971, p. 198;

L. Parris, George Stubbs A.R.A., ‘Leopards at Play’ and ‘The Spanish Pointer’, London 1974, pp. 811, reproduced p. 9;

C. Lennox-Boyd, R. Dixon and T. Clayton, George Stubbs. The Complete Engraved Works, London 1989, pp. 173–74;

J. Egerton, ed., George Stubbs 17241806, exhibition catalogue, London 1984, p. 113, cat. no. 78, reproduced in colour;

J. Egerton, George Stubbs, Painter. Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London 2007, pp. 30809, no. 122, reproduced in colour;

K. Harker (ed.), Whistlejacket & Scrub: Large as Life, exhibition catalogue, Leeds 2008, pp. 10, 18, & 40, reproduced in colour p. 18;

P. Johnson, Heart in Art. A Life in Paintings, London 2010, reproduced in colour p. 14.


The following condition report is provided by Sarah Walden, who is an external specialist and not an employee of Sotheby's. This painting has a comparatively recent lining and stretcher, perhaps from the early middle of the twentieth century. The fine even texture of the surface is perfectly secure and undisturbed by any past damage. The exceptionally pure, intact quality of the painting throughout suggests that it had a calm, stable early history with scarcely any intervention perhaps until the cleaning and restoration presumably with the lining mentioned above. The subtle transitions in the landscape, paling as it recedes into the distance, are beautifully preserved, increasing the contrast with the strength of tone of the cubs themselves, which remain in extraordinarily perfect condition down to the slightest whisker. Under ultra violet light a single, quite small, recent retouching of any consequence can be seen in the shadow on the ground just to the left of the cubs. Elsewhere there is only a little surface scratch in the mid left background and a tiny surface touch or two at upper left. Along the base edge there may be old retouching in a few places. The old varnish has been thinned, with some uneven earlier varnish also visible in places under ultra violet. The fine brushwork remains exceptionally well preserved however almost throughout, even in the delicate darker detail of the foreground and the palm tree, as well as in the fragile tracery of the mountains against the sky. Just in the upper right corner of the sky the light ground can be seen emerging unevenly through a slightly thinner film of blue paint. It is rare to find a painting so beautifully preserved. The Frame The following report is based on information supplied by Paul Mitchell, to whom we are grateful for his assistance. The painting is held in its original English Etruscan neoclassical frame, probably designed by Sir William Chambers, circa 1775. The frame, with its feather moulding, beading, frieze of alternating anthemia & palmettes, and bound facses at the sight edge, is identical to the frame on StubbsÂ’s Mares and foals on a river bank, painted circa 1763-65 (Tate Gallery, London), which also belonged for the Midleton family at Peper Harow, in Surrey, and was probably commissioned by the 4th ViscountÂ’s father, George Brodrick, 3rd Viscount Midleton. The 3rd Viscount had commissioned Sir William Chambers to build a new Palladian villa for him at Peper Harow in 1765, but died five months after approving the plans for the house. The 4th Viscount came of age in 1775, and the interior of the house may not have been completed until this date. Presumably the 4th Viscount had both paintings framed alike after he bought Tygers at Play, and possibly other paintings in the collection at Peper Harow may have received similar frames. A similar arrangement of mouldings, particularly the use of anthemia for the principal decoration, as well as at the corners, can be seen in a series of drawings by Chambers, and it seems almost certain that he must have been responsible for the design. An illustrated report on the frame provided by Paul Mitchell Ltd is available upon request.
"This lot is offered for sale subject to Sotheby's Conditions of Business, which are available on request and printed in Sotheby's sale catalogues. The independent reports contained in this document are provided for prospective bidders' information only and without warranty by Sotheby's or the Seller."

Catalogue Note


This sensational picture is one of the great works of eighteenth century English animal painting. Indeed, in many ways, it is one of the great lost works from any age in British Art. Lost, for although it was one of the artist’s most celebrated works during his lifetime, and has been known through innumerable prints (which are taken from a later version of the composition, see fig.2), it has only been exhibited four times since it was painted. Having spent the whole of the nineteenth century virtually unseen, it was exhibited only twice in the twentieth, once in a small dealer’s exhibition, shortly after it had been bought by the present owners, in 1963; and again when it featured in the major retrospective of Stubbs’s work at the Tate Gallery in London, and the Yale Centre for British Art in New Haven. It then again lay dormant for over another twenty years until 2008, when it appeared in a small exhibition in Leeds, focused on Stubbs’s depiction of horses. As well as being largely hidden from public view for so long, the painting has been in only two private collections since it was acquired from the artist by the 4th Viscount Midleton, who’s family had been prominent patrons of Stubbs early in his career. It remained in the possession of the Midleton family, passing from generation to generation, until it was sold by the 2nd Earl of Midleton, who never had any children, in 1962, and acquired by the present owners; thereby transferring discreetly from one English aristocratic collection to another. This seclusion in which the picture has been carefully cherished accounts for its spectacularly well preserved condition; so rare anyway in paintings of this date but particularly remarkable for a work by this artist, and only serves to heighten the painting's allure.

The painting depicts two leopard cubs frolicking in a spacious and exotic landscape of the artists's imagination. The topography and vegetation is evocative of the creatures' natural habitat, conjuring visions of the African bush or the Indian jungle, with thick vegetation, dense palm fronds and craggy rocks. The background is dominated by a towering rocky prominence, which gives weight and drama to the scene, before receding to distant mountains and untold distant plains, which melt into the soft hues of warm sunlight. The effect of the whole is to imbue the picture with an emotive power which contemporaries would have deemed sublime, at once arousing emotions of desire and romance, as well as an awe and fear appropriate to the wild and ferocious nature of the leopards themselves. Despite the playfulness of these cubs contemporaries were all too aware of the potential ferocity of these animals, and it was precisely this frisson of danger which made Stubbs’s paintings of wild animals so appealing. Highly detailed and intimately observed this painting is a tour-de-force of anatomical observation and painterly skill in rendering the soft texture of the animal’s fur, and the intricate patina of their coats. It is observed with all the underlying knowledge Stubbs had acquired over a decade of studious dissection and anatomical study. Rarely, if ever, do works of this quality, importance and rarity appear on the open market for auction. The emergence of this picture for sale presents an exciting, once in a generation opportunity to acquire one of the masterpieces of eighteenth century British painting.      

Stubbs’s paintings of exotic animals are among his most original and innovative works. They have always been hugely popular with both critics and the public alike, and have long been highly sought after by collectors. In 1807, during the two day sale of the contents of Stubbs’s studio held by Peter Cox following the artist’s death, the highest price of the sale was for lot 92, one of the three versions of Stubbs’s Portrait of the Royal Tiger, which sold for the astronomical sum of 350 guineas. Of the other portraits of exotic animals in the sale, lot 88, his Portrait of the celebrated Zebra (Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven), fetched 132 guineas, lot 95, Lion devouring a Stag (Duke of Rutland, Belvoir Castle), sold for 210 guineas, and lot 80, Lion and Lioness in a Rocky Cavern, made 101 guineas. By comparison the 16 portraits of horses painted for the Turf review series, which were also left in the artist’s studio at his death, sold for an average of just 28 guineas, with the exception of the portrait of Gnawpost, a celebrate grandson of the Godolphin Arabian, which made 155 guineas.

Today demand for the enduring appeal of Stubbs’s exotic animal portraits remains as high as it was during the artist’s lifetime. Combined with the extreme rarity of these pictures, this has meant that in modern times, whenever they have come on the market they have consistently set new records for the artist’s work at auction, and pushed the boundaries of Stubbs’s place in the market. This is particularly true of his paintings of big cats. On 18 March 1970 the sale in these rooms of George Stubbs’s celebrated Portrait of a Hunting Tyger; A Cheetah and a Stag with two Indian handlers (Manchester Art Gallery, see fig. 3) for £220,000 was an undoubted watershed not only for Stubbs prices, but for British art in general. Not only was it the world record for a painting by Stubbs at auction, but it was the highest price ever paid for a work by any British artist to date. Like Tygers at Play, the picture combined an impeccable provenance and a sophisticated composition with exceptional condition, and created an astonishing level of interest from around the world. Twenty five years later, on 8 June 1995, Stubbs’s Portrait of the Royal Tiger (see fig. 5), the same picture that had set the record at Stubbs’s studio sale in 1807, was sold from the collection of the Portman family for £3.2 million, again setting a world record for the artist, and one that would not be exceeded until 2010, with the sale of Macclesfield Mares and Foals for £10.1 million at Sotheby’s.   

Stubbs’s ‘Tygers at Play’

The seemingly incorrect title, Tygers at Play, was the name given to this painting by Stubbs himself when he exhibited the picture at the Royal Academy in 1776. It was also the title used by the artist in the lettering that accompanied his engraving of the subject, published in 1780. Broadly speaking, before about 1750 the term tiger was used as a generic classification to define any striped or spotted member of the cat family. In effect it could be used to describe any large feline that was not a lion. By Stubbs’s day, however, following the precepts of the Compte de Buffon and with the rapid increase in global exploration, natural historians and zoologists had come a long way in classifying the natural world and the animals within it.1 His contemporaries could certainly have distinguished between the tiger, the leopard, the panther and the cheetah, each of which Stubbs painted with accurate precision, though he referred to them all as ‘tygers’. This nomenclature seems curiously old fashioned given the artist’s studious and observant depiction of what are quite clearly leopards, and his pains which he was gone to accurately depict their distinctive rosette, or broken moon shaped spots, which are painted with such delicacy. The title is all the more puzzling for having been applied by an artist with such strong links to the scientific community, a man who was not only friends with two of the leading  anatomists of their generation, William and John Hunter, but had himself studied anatomy for almost a decade, and continued to practise it on a regular basis. Though the question is at present unanswerable, Stubbs’s use of the title perhaps reflects a contemporary ambiguity, or unresolved debate among natural historian as to the applicable boundaries of the word ‘tigers’, and serves to remind the viewer of the rarity and mystique that still surrounded these animals. If they remain exotic to our eyes, in a post Attenborough era, how exotic and exciting must they have appeared to an eighteenth century audience. One can only imagine the sensation this picture must have caused upon its exhibition, and the ambiguity of its title certainly did nothing to prevent it becoming one of the artist’s most popular subjects.  

What is certainly not old fashioned about the picture, indeed it is positively revolutionary, is Stubbs’s treatment of the animals themselves. Deeply embedded in the eighteenth century mind was the concept that animals could be classified into two distinct groups; they were either ‘wild’ or they were ‘tame’. This idea, as old as Aristotle, stemmed from a principally religious, rather than scientific view of the world, and returned to the Judaeo-Christian account of the creation and man’s fall from grace. Intimately related to ideas of human destiny, it was believed that, since the fall, the animal kingdom had experienced a separation. A division according to their natural service or hostility to man, which determined the nature and boundaries of the physical spaces that they were permitted to occupy. Whereas some animals, those that were ‘tame’, had been taken under the protection of man and were permitted to live alongside him, those that were hostile were condemned to find a precarious refuge in the desert places, and their resulting ‘wildness’ was not a natural condition, but a state of rebellion against the divinely conferred dominion of man which had condemned them to exile.2 In paradise man and beast had lived in harmony, and sixteenth and seventeenth century paintings by artist’s such as Rubens and Jan Bruegel often depict this sense of relaxed co-habitation (see fig. 4). Man’s expulsion from the garden, however, had created a state of war in nature, and the lions, tigers, wolves, hyenas and bears which had once gambolled harmlessly in Eden were destined to become Man’s enemy, part of God’s curse on disobedient humanity.3

Thus the ferocious behaviour of wild animals was explained as a sort of derangement, a moral divide drawn between the calm, dutiful behaviour of domestic animals and what John Wesley called the 'variously distorted' passions of wild predators.4 Gaining the status of outcasts and bandits they were thought to thrive only in inhospitable strongholds, far from the 'civilising' influence of man, like Satan and his rebel angels in Hell. As late as 1793 the naturalist Thomas Pennant (1726–1798) wrote in his History of Quadrupeds that the 'rage' of lions was 'tremendous, being inflamed by the influence of a burning sun, on a most arid soil... They live in perpetual fever, a sort of madness fatal to every animal they met with', whilst William Smellie (1740–1795), writing in 1790, defined the tiger as 'perhaps the only animal who's ferocity is unconquerable', often being compelled to 'devour his own young, and tear their mother to pieces'. 5 Such damning characteristics were reinforced in numerous popular histories, and painted depictions of wild animals from the seventeen and early eighteenth centuries. Look for example at the compacted fury of Rubens's lion hunts, where man and beast are depicted in a state of perpetual a combat, or the work of Frans Snyders which portrayed the deranged madness of wild animals. Yet Stubbs's cats are beautiful and serene. They frolic and romp innocently like domestic kittens, their expressions suggesting an almost human smile. They are at peace with their environment; their exquisitely mottled coats melting into the textures of the undergrowth and foliage, uniting them to the landscape through the play of texture and tone. Far from being outcasts from the civilised dominion of man, driven to the limits of the habitable world, they are masters of their own primitive paradise, a pristine creation free from man's intrusion. Indeed their playful rolling seems almost to echo that of the frolicking tiger and leopard in Jan Bruegel's painting of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Royal Collection, London), painted in 1615 and reproduced in engravings (see fig. 4). As Sir Edwin Landseer recognised, Stubbs, who was profoundly interested in the character of the big cats and who's pictures were based upon studies from the living animals, portrayed the 'gentler emotions' of these predators and sought to depict them in a state appropriate to their true nature. Breathtakingly lifelike, the cats themselves are brought close to the picture plane and convey to the viewer the experience of an intimate encounter with actual wild animals, in their own environment. They are wholly different from the stereotype of ravenous monsters which the eighteenth century had inherited and must have struck contemporaries as something entirely new.

Stubbs's revolutionary depictions of wild animals reflected a growing awareness of the natural world among his contemporaries in the late eighteenth century. European expansion and exploration was increasingly pushing the limits of mankind's understanding and knowledge of nature, and with the discovery of new lands new species were constantly being uncovered, studied, codified, and brought back to Europe. Explorers such as Cook and de Bongainville noticed that on islands where humans had never been the animals were frequently perfectly tame and free from the ferocious habits prescribed to them, as if Eden had been restored. Britain was at the centre of this maritime exploration, and with the ever increasing influx of rare and exotic species came a growing fascination with such animals. In 1766 Captain Cook’s pioneering expedition to the South Pacific, and his subsequent discovery of Australia in 1770, brought back to England numerous species which were previously unknown to Europeans, and men like Warren Hasting brought wild beasts and exotic specimens from Indian, the Middle East and Africa. In this exquisitely detailed and beautifully rendered painting Stubbs captures the contemporary taste for exoticism, and opens a window on a world enthralled by the unknown.    

Almost certainly Stubbs’s leopards are based on real animals, cats that he would have seen and made preliminary chalk studies of from life. Although no direct studies for this painting are known, under the items listed in the section entitled ‘Drawings, Drawing Books, Studies from Nature, Sketches, &c’ in the artist’s studio sale in 1807, lot 27 was described as ‘One Book with 34 tigers in black chalk’, whilst the following lot was listed as ‘One book with 7 Cats, in black Chalk…’. Like the majority of the drawings, studies and sketchbooks offered in Stubbs’s studio sale, these have now all disappeared.6 However, from the studies that do survive and with the artist’s training as an anatomist, it would seem implausible that he would not have afforded himself of the opportunity presented by London’s many public menageries, as well as those private collections available to him, to study these beautiful creatures first hand. Indeed Stubbs’s interest in wild and exotic animals was fuelled by, and is partly a reflection of, the growing number of menageries in London, and the powerful allure which they held in the public imagination.    

London’s Menageries

Exotic animals were not a new thing in Britain. Since the reign of King John wild animals had been kept for the entertainment and curiosity of the Royal Court, and the first record of a menagerie at the Tower of London dates to 1210. Until the mid-eighteenth century the Royal Menagerie at the Tower of London was still the main site in England for the display of foreign animals, particularly large carnivores, and access to these animals was therefore necessarily limited to a small elite. As the century wore on, however, the Royal menagerie began to be rivalled by an increasing number of institutions, both private and public, which stocked exotic animals for the enjoyment of a much broader section of society.

Outside of the Royal collection, the rise of public menageries in England and the mass import of exotic animals from around the world to Britain, finds cultural roots in the collecting habits of the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic.7 In the mid-1600s Dutch influence in the East Indies, primarily in the hands of the Dutch United East Indies Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie), transformed Amsterdam into the entrepôt of Europe for all manner of exotic commodities; from tea, coffee, spices, tobacco and textiles, to wild animals. In the 1670s William III and Mary II established a menagerie at their Het Loo residence near Apeldoorn, where the court artist Melchior d’Hondecoeter painted waterfowl, pheasants, parrots, monkeys and pelicans roaming the formal gardens of the estate. Although initially, as in early eighteenth-century England, exotic animals in seventeenth century Holland tended to populate the gardens and houses of the aristocratic and mercantile elite, in 1675 Jan Westerhof opened a restaurant with a difference on the Kloveniersburgwal in Amsterdam. The Menagerie Blauw Jan, as it was called, enabling his customers to view, and also to purchase, exotic animals whilst they sampled delicacies from around the world. Other proprietors were quick to follow and within a few years a number of other menageries were operating in the city, such as Casal & Ekhorsts Menagerie, or Die Witte Olifant (The White Elephant), a menagerie established by Bartel Verhagen in 1681.8 These institutions were the first permanent, public exhibitions of exotic animals in Europe, and often had touring menageries that sent animals to fairs, taverns and coffee houses in nearby cities and neighbouring countries. Indeed animals from the Blauw Jan were exhibited in London during the late seventeenth century and early 1700s, and as other Dutch exhibitors started to recognise the potential market in Britain they began to send animals over with increasing regularity.

What were already strong cultural ties between Holland and Britain in the seventeenth century, based on commerce, politics, war and religion, as well as personal dynastic bonds, were strengthened in 1688 with the Glorious Revolution which brought William III, Stadtholder of the United Provinces, and his wife Mary II, daughter of James II, to the throne of England. In the following decades this increased Anglo-Dutch exchange led to the development of more permanent sites for the trade and exhibition of exotic animals in Britain. As further cultural and economic integration shifted the dominance of world trade, London eventually replaced Amsterdam as the trade capital of Europe. With increasing volume of commodities from the both the West and East Indies flowed into London, the number of exotic animals in the capital grew dramatically as well, and from the 1690s to the 1730s coffee houses and taverns began to increasingly display exotic animals in an effort to attract customers.

However it was not until the 1750s, just at the time Stubbs was arriving in London, that animal merchants in London began to develop dedicated premises from which to exhibit and sell their exotic merchandise. The territorial gains and economic expansion made by Britain during the Seven Years War (1756–63), acquired at the expense of the French, resulted in a huge increase in shipping between Asia and England, and the British East India Company grew substantially. In the early 1700s the company had transported an average of 200,000 lbs of cargo per annum to England. By the late 1750s this had risen to over 3 million lbs per annum, and the volume of shipping entering the Port of London increased fourfold during the eighteenth century. Together with Britain’s dominance of the sea and her maritime expansion, this new economic prosperity resulted in a huge increase in both the volume and variety of exotic animals entering the capital, and a surge in popularity and public fascination with these animals.   

Public menageries flourished in London in the latter decades of the eighteenth century, and into the early nineteenth century. From the 1760s a distinct geography of animal exhibitions and commerce emerged centred on Piccadilly, the Strand and St. James’s. Early institutions ranged in size from the smaller merchants such as Edmond’s Menagerie on Piccadilly, which stocked mainly song birds and small mammals from North America, to establishments with a larger repertoire of animals such as the City Menagerie, which houses monkeys, tigers, opossums and camels. On 24 December 1766 an article in the Public Adviser advertised a merchant dealing from the aptly named ‘Noah’s Ark’, offering a wolf, buffalo, crocodile, several camels and a huge variety of parrots and other caged birds. In 1763 Joshua Brookes established the first of three menageries called the Original Menagerie at Gray’s Inn Gate, Holburn. By 1765 he had open a second premises on the New Road at Tottenham Court, offering a diverse selection of species such as antelope, lions, monkeys, vultures and porcupines. In 1777 he opened a third premises on Haymarket called Brookes’ Menagerie, run by Mary Cross, the widow of his former business partner John Cross, who himself had managed a menagerie on St. James’s. Possibly the most famous menagerie in London however was that established by Gilbert Pidcock at the Exeter Exchange (popularly known as the Exeter ‘Change), which was established in about 1773 on the north side of the Strand, on the site of old Exeter House. Originally the wintering quarters for a travelling show (see fig. 6) Pidcock’s menagerie displayed a wide variety of large animals for the price of a two shilling ticket, or two shillings and six pence at feeding time, and was the first institution in the capital to really rival the royal menagerie at the Tower of London. In 1812 the animals at the Exeter 'Change included a Bengal tiger, a hyena, a lion, a jaguar, a slot a camel, monkeys, a hippopotamus, a rhinoceros, an elephant, an ostrich, a cassowary, a pelican, emews, cranes, an eagle, cockatoos, elks, kangaroos and antelope. In his diary entry for 14 November 1813, Lord Byron recorded a visit he had recently made to Pidcocks, commenting: ‘Two nights ago I saw the tigers sup at Exeter 'Change. Except Veli Pacha’s lion in the Morea, who followed the Arab keeper like a dog, - the fondness of the hyaena for her keeper amused me most. Such a conversazione! – There was a ‘hippopotamus’ like Lord Liverpool in the face; and the ‘Ursine Sloth’ hath the very voice and manner of my valet – but the tiger talked too much. The elephant took and gave me my money again – took off my hat – opened a door – trunked a whip – and behaved so well, that I wish he was my butler. The handsomest animal on earth is one of the panthers; but the poor antelopes were dead. I should hate to see one here: the sight of the camel made me pine again for Asia Minor.’9

Stubbs was a regular visitor to Pidcock's menagerie, and documentary evidence survives to show that he studied a number of animals there for pictures he exhibited at the Society of Artists and the Academy, as well as for private commissions. On one occasion, in a rather wonderful tale which survives from contemporary anecdote, Stubbs was interrupted in the middle of his dinner, at about 10pm in the evening, by a message that one of the tigers at Pidcock's had died, and its carcass could be bought 'for a song'. Abandoning his meal 'his coat was hurried on, and he flew towards the well-known place and presently entered the den where the dead animal lay extended; this was a precious moment; three guineas were given the attendant, and the body was instantly conveyed to the painter's habitation, where in the place set apart for his muscular pursuits, Mr. S[Stubbs] spent the rest of the night carbonading the once tremendous tyrant of the jungle'.10 The Exeter 'Change remained an important source of inspiration and study for artists well into the nineteenth century. It would later be frequented by a younger generation of artists, inspired by Stubbs's example and the allure of his pictures, such as Edwin Landseer and Jacque Laurent Agasse, whose Two Leopards playing in the Exeter 'Change Menagerie, of 1808, sold for a colossal £3.85 million at auction in 1988 (fig. 7).  

As well as the many public menageries that were being established in London in the 1760s and 1770s, Stubbs would have had access to a number of private collections of exotic animals, belonging to his wealth patrons and contacts in the scientific world. George Spencer, 4th Duke of Marlborough kept a private menagerie at Blenheim, which included a tigress presented to the Duke by Lord Clive, Governor of Bengal, and which Stubbs painted circa 1767–68 (The Duke of Marlborough, Blenheim Palace). So too did the King’s brother, the Duke of Cumberland, in Windsor Great Park, which included the Cheetah painted by Stubbs circa 1765, which had been brought to England by Sir George Pigot and presented to the George III. Possibly Stubbs’s most important patrons in this field however were the two leading surgeons and anatomists of the century, Dr John Hunter and his elder brother Dr William Hunter. Both men were great collectors of natural history specimens and kept extensive museums of anatomical, pathological and biological specimens. John Hunter also maintained a large private menagerie attached to his house at Earl Court, just outside London, where he kept a varied collection of wild animals, including leopards. In the 1760s, whilst Stubbs was Treasurer of the Society of Artists, Hunter was invited to give a series of lectures on anatomy to the Society, whilst his elder brother, William, was appointed Professor of Anatomy at the newly created Royal Academy when it was opened in 1769, of which Stubbs would later be an Associate Academician. William Hunter’s collection was bequeathed to Glasgow University on his death and forms the basis of the Hunterian Museum, opened in 1807, whilst that of his brother John was acquired by the government in 1799 and forms the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, in London. Both men were close associates of Stubbs, and important patrons who commissioned many portraits of animals in their collections, including the artist’s famous painting of an Indian Rhinoceros (circa 1790/91, Hunterian Museum, Royal college of Surgeons), and his portrait of The Kongouro from New Holland (fig. 8), which recently acquired by the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. The Hunters admired Stubbs for his exacting eye and ability to accurately depict the natural form of new and exotic species, in much the same way that the members of the Jockey Club had admired the accuracy with which he depicted their racehorses in the early 1760s. Their patronage would result in many of the artist’s most exciting and seminal works.

George Stubbs: Animal Painter

George Stubbs’s position as the greatest animal painter of the eighteenth century was confirmed in 1766 with his publication of The Anatomy of the Horse, a project he had worked on for most of the previous decade. Born in Liverpool in 1724, the son of a currier, Stubbs had first studied anatomy at York County Hospital in 1744, under the distinguished surgeon Dr Charles Atkinson. Later, at Horkstow, in Lincolnshire, he had spent the two years between 1756 and 1758 engaged in studying and dissecting horses in preparation for the publication his great magnum opus, a work the likes of which had not been seen in Europe since Carlo Ruini’s Dell’Anatomia et dell’Infirmita del Cavallo of 1598. This unprecedented work cast Stubbs at the forefront of both science and art in his understanding and knowledge of equine anatomy and propelled him into the limelight as the leading authority on the depiction of the horse. However it also gave Stubbs the training and ability to dissect and study many other animals over the course of his career, and his knowledge and understanding of the physical make up of mammals of all kinds was unparalleled by any artist of his generation. Arriving in London in the early 1760s he quickly caught the attention of a close knit group of noblemen and members of the Jockey Club, including Lord Rockingham, Lord Grosvenor, and the Dukes of Grafton and Portland, whose patronage would dominate Stubbs’s work for the next ten years. His inclusion in Étienne Falconet’s 1769 list of the twelve most reputed artists in London, however, is testament to the broader reputation he had achieved by the end of his first decade in the capital. With a secure base of patronage and the acclaim of fellow artists, by the late 1760s and into the 1770s Stubbs’s confidence was riding high, and not wanting to be pigeon holed with the label ‘horse painter’ he appears to have purposefully expanded the range of his subject matter in order to showcase the breadth of his talent.    

The first of Stubbs’s painting to depict wild animals was his Lion attacking a Horse, commissioned by the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham as early as 1762 (Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven). Demonstrating the interest of both artist and patron in antique sculpture, which Stubbs had encountered on his visit to Rome in 1754, and rooted in the classical tradition of animal combats, this picture was the first in a series of paintings involving encounters between lions and horses which dealt with traditional concepts of the sublime. Simultaneously evoking emotions of terror and pity these works proved particularly attractive to print publishers, who were quick to recognise the market potential for such subjects, and prompted further ideas for paintings of wild animals. By 1763 only one of the four pictures Stubbs exhibited at the Society of Artists was a portrait of a horse. The three others consisted of two lion and horse combats, and the portrait of a Zebra belonging to Queen Charlotte, previously referred to, which had been installed in a paddock at St. James’s for the general entertainment of the populace. Much like this painting of two leopard cubs, Stubbs’s portrait of the Queen’s Zebra appears not to have been a commission, but was painted to satisfy the artists own curiosity about the animal; and from this time on his art in this vein becomes increasingly characterised by images of wild animals in their natural state.   

The Provenance

Documentary evidence does not exist to confirm the exact date of this painting, or the circumstances of its commission or purchase. However it has always been believed to have been the picture exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1776, and was either purchased from the exhibition, or commissioned by George Brodrick, 4th Viscount Midleton (1754–1836) (fig. 9). Midleton’s father, the 3rd Viscount Midleton, had been an early patron of Stubbs, having commissioned or bought the artist’s painting of Mares and Foals on a River Bank (Tate Gallery, London) in 1765 for the new villa he had commissioned Sir William Chambers to build for him at Peper Harow, in Surrey (fig. 10). The estate had originally been bought in 1713 by the 3rd Earl’s grandfather, Alan Broderick (1656–1728), Lord Chancellor of Ireland, who was created Viscount Midleton of Co. Cork in 1717. Chambers’s plans for the house were approved in March 1765, however the 3rd Viscount died in August of that year and the house was not completed until his son came of age in 1775. The 3rd Viscount also commissioned Stubbs’s Greyhound attacking a Stag (Philadelphia Museum of Art), painted circa 1762, as well as a third painting by Stubbs which is now unidentified. All three pictures hung in the house and were probably the pictures ‘painted on purpose’ by Stubbs to hang in the Dining Room.11 The 4th Viscount clearly had a taste for the exotic, appropriate to his purchase of this painting. Of the two marble chimney pieces designed for the Dining Room and Drawing Room by Chambers, carved by his principal sculptor Joseph Wilton, the latter is described as ‘feneer’d with verd-Antique and inlaid flutings of do., the Tablet of Bacchus and Tyger’.12 Tygers at Play descended in the family at Peper Harow to William St John Freemantle Brodrick, 9th Viscount Midleton (1856–1942), a Conservative politician who was created Earl of Midleton in 1920. It was then inherited by his son, the 2nd Earl who, despite marrying three times, including to the actress Rene Ray (1911–1993), died without issue and sold the picture in 1962. The painting was bought directly by the present owners, in whose collection it has remained until the present day. It has therefore been in only two collections since the day it was painted, and has never appeared on the open market for sale.  

The Condition
By Sarah Walden

This painting has a comparatively recent lining and stretcher, perhaps from the early middle of the twentieth century. The fine even texture of the surface is perfectly secure and undisturbed by any past damage. The exceptionally pure, intact quality of the painting throughout suggests that it had a calm, stable early history with scarcely any intervention perhaps until the cleaning and restoration presumably with the lining mentioned above. The subtle transitions in the landscape, paling as it recedes into the distance, are beautifully preserved, increasing the contrast with the strength of tone of the cubs themselves, which remain in extraordinarily perfect condition down to the slightest whisker. Under ultra violet light a single, quite small, recent retouching of any consequence can be seen in the shadow on the ground just to the left of the cubs. Elsewhere there is only a little surface scratch in the mid left background and a tiny surface touch or two at upper left. Along the base edge there may be old retouching in a few places. The old varnish has been thinned, with some uneven earlier varnish also visible in places under ultra violet. The fine brushwork remains exceptionally well preserved however almost throughout, even in the delicate darker detail of the foreground and the palm tree, as well as in the fragile tracery of the mountains against the sky. Just in the upper right corner of the sky the light ground can be seen emerging unevenly through a slightly thinner film of blue paint. It is rare to find a painting so beautifully preserved.

1. See J. Roger, Buffon, A Life in Natural History, Ithaca and London 1997.

2. D. Donald, Picturing Animals in Britain 1750–1850, New Haven and London 2007, p, 160.

3. D. Donald, Ibid, p. 160.

4. D. Donald, Ibid, p. 160.

5. D. Donald, Ibid, p. 162.

6. J. Egerton, George Stubbs, Painter. Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London 2007, p. 308.

7. See C. Plumb, Exotic Animals in Eighteenth Century Britain, unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Manchester, 2010.

8. C. Plumb, Ibid.

9. T. Moore, Life, Letters and Journals of Lord Byron, London 1839, pp. 199–200.

10. Quoted in R.D. Atlick, The Shows of London, Cambridge, Mass., 1978, p. 39.

11. C. Hussey, English Country Houses. Mid Georgian 1760-1800, London 1955, p. 114.

12. C. Hussey, ibid., p. 114.