Eclipse’s skeleton to join Whistlejacket for rare Stubbs show

Whistlejacket, by George Stubbs,  was painted in about 1762 and was about a life-sized portrayal of the Marquess of Rockingham's racehorse.
Whistlejacket, by George Stubbs,  was painted in about 1762 and was about a life-sized portrayal of the Marquess of Rockingham’s racehorse.

The skeleton of famed 18th century racehorse Eclipse is to accompany a major exhibition of the work of equine artist George Stubbs in Britain later this year.

George Stubbs: ‘all done from Nature’ will also feature the massive Whistlejacket painting, on loan from the National Gallery. The Whistlejacket painting is nearly 3m by 2.5m, and was painted in 1762.

It will be the first significant overview of Stubbs’s work in Britain for more than 30 years and brings together 100 paintings, drawings and publications including pieces that have never been seen in public.

Whistlejacket is among pieces borrowed under a scheme in association with national fundraising charity Art Fund and the Garfield Weston Foundation to enable smaller museums to host famous artworks.

The MK Gallery in Milton Keynes, which has recently been upgraded, will host the exhibition. Architects had to redesign the gallery’s £11 million extension to accommodate Whistlejacket and the painting’s packing crate.

Eclipse's skeleton at the Royal Veterinary College.
Eclipse’s skeleton at the Royal Veterinary College. © Royal Veterinary College

Stubbs is recognised as one of the most original artists of the 18th century. His wide-ranging subjects included portraits, conversation pieces and pictures of exotic and domestic animals — horses included — and his obsession with scientific exactitude has drawn a comparison with the work of Leonardo da Vinci.

A major theme of the exhibition is anatomy. The show includes forensic drawings by Stubbs of humans, tigers and hens, as well as horses, at different stages of ‘undressing’. This greatest coming together of art and science in British art will be set alongside the skeleton of the legendary racehorse Eclipse whom Stubbs depicted on several occasions.

The skeleton is being loaned to the exhibition by the Royal Veterinary College.

Eclipse was retired from racing in 1770 unbeaten and stood at stud until he died in 1789, at the age of 25.

Veterinary expertise was needed to understand the cause of Eclipse’s death and the secret of his racing success. The only qualified vet in the country at the time was Frenchman Charles Benoit Vial de St Bel, who was gaining support for his plan to establish a vet school. A London committee was set up to establish such an enterprise, whose members included Granville Penn, grandson of William Penn.

Eclipse, from a painting by George Stubbs.
Famous English racehorse Eclipse, from a painting by George Stubbs.

The Veterinary College, London, was built in the parish of St Pancras in 1791, on the current site of The RVC’s Camden Campus and in January 1792, four students began a three-year course intended to cover all aspects of the veterinary art.

The Stubbs exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with major contributions from Alison Wright, Jenny Uglow, Martin Myrone, Martin Postle and Nicholas Clee as well as new and existing poetry by Roger Robinson.

A version of the show will tour to the Mauritshuis in The Hague where it will be the first exhibition on the artist in The Netherlands.

The exhibition will run from October 12, 2019 to January 26, 2020.

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