Stubbs and the Moroccan Lion
Country Life, March 2000
Stubbs's horse-killing lions are a shock to the senses. They conjur up terrible memories, of the recent bouts of horse abuse or that endlessly disturbing scene of mass mutilation from the play Equus. The inspiration behind these savage canvasses has often been speculated upon. One school delights in the story of Stubbs actually witnessing a lion attacking a horse in Morocco, the other looks to more conventional inspiration from existing canvasess and sculpture. It is appropriate that someone intimate with the North African landscape should examine the case. For if, it is true, it could have intriguing ramifications for Stubbs. It would make him the first major artist to have painted in North Africa, a whole two generations before such ground breaking Romantics and Orientalists as David Roberts or Eugene Delacroix.
For all his undoubted status, George Stubbs is a curiously under-published artist. Try browsing through the bustling bookshops of our principal National Art Galleries. Unless you are lucky enough to find an old copy by Constance-Anne Parker you will come away with nothing more than a postcard. All too often Stubbs tends to be pidgeon holed as a Sporting Artist, a category that is neglected - relegated to the basement stairs, if not actively despised - by the art establishment.
George Stubbs (1724-1806) is the quintessential English painter. His fusion of pastoral elegance, equine grace and familial ease is like an icon of our collective aspirations. Nor does Stubbs allow the delicacy of his observations to obscure the essential restlessness of his English subjects. They are only calmed by some mechanical occupation or by the presence of animals. To this extent it is not until you admire a Stubbs canvas clean of all human forms, such as the Tate Gallery's "Mares and Foals in a Landscape", that you reach a truly sublime pastoral vision. This mood is at one with Swift's Gulliver's Travels , where the follies of mankind are contrasted with the Houyhnhnms, the perfect society established by a breed of rational horses.
For Stubbs, just like Swift, used the horse as the ultimate 18th-century image of refinement, elegance and grace. This is apparent even in the meticulous plates with which he illustrated his famous publication, The Anatomy of the Horse. Not only did he draw every line, but he personally bled, disemboweled and dissected the horses, meticulously stripping away each layer of flesh and injecting the empty arteries with wax. These anatomical drawings betray not a whiff of the putrid charnel house in which they were created. They are instead possessed with an unearthly classical grace.
It is all the more disturbing, therefore, that George Stubbs of all people should have become obsessed by the image of a lion attacking a horse. No other theme dominated his imagination with such tenacity, acting like some terrible haunting inversion to his elegiac pastoral scenes. For thirty years he was to tackle the subject in a ceaseless variety of media and settings. Hanging in the world's great public galleries and private collections are over sixteen versions of a lion stalking, attacking or devouring a terrified horse.
This theme becomes all the more curious when it is realised that Stubbs only ever painted from life. He was a famous autodidact, a brilliant, self-taught individualist whose precocious talent had emerged from the unpromising milieu of a Liverpool tannery, in the teeth of parental disapproval. Stubbs was unique for his day in turning his back on the great galleries of Old Masters and the collections of antique sculpture that were the principal source of inspiration for western artists. As a young painter aged 31, he had been persuaded that it was vital for his career to go to Rome. Convincing himself that nature was superior to art, even that of Greece or Rome, he returned home. According to his friend Ozias Humphry, "it does not appear that whilst he resided in Rome [in 1754] he ever copied one picture".
However on Stubbs' death the mystery of what had driven his obsession with the lion was revealed, in the May 1808 issue of The Sporting Magazine :
"Stubbs embarked for England, and during his passage he became aquainted with a gentleman, a native of Africa, whose tastes and pursuits in life were similar to his own. This gentleman had been in Rome, and was returning to his family: he was liberally educated, and spoke the English language with accuracy. His information made him a delightful companion to Stubbs, who had often expressed how much it would add to his gratification if he could behold a lion in its wild state. His friend gave him an invitation to the paternal mansion he was about to visit. The offer was accepted with pleasure, and Stubbs landed with his friend at the fortress of Ceuta."
Ceuta was a likely enough port of call for a Christian ship sailing from Italy to the Atlantic, for then, as now, it was held by Spain. It's fortress served as a Check-point Charlie, a place for the secure exchange of prisoners and ransoms. The other key location in the lucrative business of ransoming captives was Livorno (Leghorn to the English) where Stubbs first stayed in Italy. Negotiations over ransoms required fluent linguists and may provide an explanation as to why Stubbs's English-speaking Moroccan friend was in Italy. The year 1754 was certainly a good time to visit Morocco. The thirty-year succession war was over and the nation was briefly at peace with itself. The direction of affairs was already in the capable hands of crown prince Sidi Mohammed whose formal reign began in 1757. Stubbs personal habits would have fitted him for travel in Muslim Morocco. He drunk only water, was physically as strong as an ox (he could carry a dead horse up two flights of a staircase single-handedly) and was abstemious over his food.
The account continues, " They had not been ashore many days, when a circumstance occurred most favourable to the wishes of our painter. The town where his friend resided was surrounded by a lofty wall and moat. Nearly level with the wall a capacious platform extended, on which the inhabitants refreshed themselves with the breeze after sun-set. One evening, while Stubbs and his friend were viewing the delightful scenery...."
Clearly they had moved on from Spanish Ceuta to a neighbouring town. There are three possible Moroccan cities in which the event might have taken place. Tangier, Tetouan and Asilah, all protected by high walls and moat-like ditches, are all in the vicinity of Ceuta. Some extra credence must also be awarded to the story for placing the "paternal mansion' within a walled town. For unlike the gentry of Britain, who largely dwelt in the countryside, the literate upper class of Morocco were almost exclusively beldi, that is to say town dwellers. The account is also especially credible in its description of sunset watching from the battlements of a Moroccan town. This deeply ingrained social habit still provides a daily display of exuberant colour in all Moroccan cities.
The pace of the story then quickens "..which the brilliancy of the moon rendered more interesting, a lion was observed at some distance, directing his way, with a slow pace, towards a white Barbary horse, which appeared grazing not more than two hundred yards from the moat. The robe of night was perfectly clear, and the horizon serene. The lion did not make towards the horse by regular approach, but performed many curvatures, still drawing nearer towards the devoted animal, till the lion, by the shelter of a rocky situation, came suddenly upon his prey. The affrighted barb beheld his enemy, and, as if conscious of his fate, threw himself into an attitude highly interesting to the painter. The noble creature then appeared fascinated, and the lion, finding him within his power, sprang in a moment, like a cat, on the back of a defenceless horse, threw him down, and instantly tore out his bowels."
No one can deny the inherent drama of this description. This area of Morocco also has a reliable 19th century chronicle of lion sitings. Sir John Drummond Hay, long-serving consul at Tangier, observed lions in the mountains of the Western Rifs in 1839, F.H. Mellor shot one outside Tangier in 1846, while Sir Erasmus Darwin saw lion cubs for sale in the souk of Tetouan in 1808.
Beyond this, into the realms of positive proof, we cannot go. The author of this account, signed T.N., has never been identified. In a second instalment he claimed to have the confidence of Mary Spencer, Stubbs' common-law wife. Certainly there can have been no motive by which T.N. could have possibly gained from his contribution. Stubbs was himself a taciturn man who kept no journals and penned no memoirs. Neither of the other two sources on Stubbs' life mention the sighting of a lion in Morocco, though in fairness both of these sources are partial, anecdotal and far removed from serving as a biography. Aside from the source of his initial inspiration we know that Stubbs made sketches of captive lions in English menageries.
The alternative view point, that Stubbs took his inspiration from classical art, has been championed by Basil Taylor. In an article in the Burlington Magazine this art historian tentatively suggested that a restored antique marble statue that decorated a pond in the garden of Rome's Palazzo dei Conservatori, was "probably a seminal influence" on Stubbs. He also acknowledges the possibility of the trip to Morocco but decides to his own satisfaction "that if Stubbs did in fact visit North Africa the experience was not significant". It is a bold claim. In his article Basil Taylor also freely confesses that his theory is backed only by "circumstantial evidence" and that no "direct support for it can be discovered". No further evidence was to be produced though it is interesting that Basil Taylor's language would, nevertheless, become ever more decisive. He would later thunder that the lion was "undoubtedly derived from an antique marble" though even then he was careful enough to pop in a qualifying clause, "that Stubbs could have seen".
Is it possible that a man such as Stubbs who so relied on natural observation in his painting made one exception to this rule? Could his thirty year obsession with the subject be traced back to a cold antique statue? Or is there some truth to the story that Stubbs saw that furious vision of a lion, blood-red in tooth and claw, for himself in Morocco? The jury is still out on the case of art versus nature.
As we have seen, the encounter in Morocco was by no means impossible and the account holds many details which suggest, at the very least, knowledge of Morocco. Above all, the metaphor of the tale is instructive. The young English artist turns his back on the vaunted millenial culture of Italy and instead finds enduring inspiration from the wild mountainous hinterland of romantic Morocco. It is a fitting enough tale, whether fact or well constructed fantasy, with which to illustrate the self-taught genius of George Stubbs.
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by Barnaby Rogerson