Hambletonian by George Stubbs at Mount Stewart
This painting from the collection at Mount Stewart, County Down shows Hambletonian, the greatest racehorse of his day, being rubbed down after his great victory at Newmarket on 25 March 1799.
A masterpiece of animal portraiture, this picture by George Stubbs combines anatomical precision with painterly expression.
Moments after victory
Hambletonian – the handsome, prize-winning racehorse – has just won a gruelling two-horse race on Newmarket Heath. He has won a fortune for his owner, Sir Henry Vane Tempest of Wynyard, Co Durham, and is being rubbed down by his stable hand and calmed by his trainer.
The cheering crowds are gone; the racecourse is empty. Diamond, the horse he raced against, is nowhere to be seen. Even Hambletonian’s owner is, one imagines, celebrating elsewhere. This painting is all about the horse.
The horse stands before us, gleaming with sweat and skittish from his race, the anatomy of his body and the tone of his muscles depicted in impressive detail. The picture is life-sized and impossible to approach without admiring the impressive physique of this sleek and powerful animal.
Master animal painter
George Stubbs (1724–1806) was probably the most accomplished animal painter of any generation. This work, painted right at the end of his career, is considered one of his great masterpieces. It was commissioned by Hambletonian's owner, Sir Henry Vane-Tempest (1771–1813), as a homage to the racehorse's remarkable ability.
The painting reflects Stubbs's deep understanding of the physicality of the racehorse. Hambletonian fills the front of the composition, so alive and present that we feel we could reach out and touch him. He may be exhausted after the race, ears flattened, nostrils flared as he sucks air into his straining lungs, but he is also triumphant, physically and visually dominating the racecourse.
The emotion of the scene is brought home by the two figures who gaze out at us, mutely sharing their pride in Hambletonian’s achievement and challenging us to understand the sacrifice he has made for our entertainment. The realism of the anatomy is tempered by Stubbs’s use of deliberate exaggeration: the stable lad’s apparently lengthened arm draws our attention to Hambletonian’s depth of shoulder – the racehorse’s power house – while the tenderness of his touch displays his fondness and respect for this magnificent animal.
On display, at the top of the stairs
A month after the race, Sir Henry Vane-Tempest married Anne Catherine, Countess of Antrim. The painting came to Mount Stewart through their great-great-granddaughter, Lady Mairi Bury, who was a passionate follower of racing and breeder of champion racehorses.
Meanwhile, Hambletonian retired to stud at Wynyard Park, County Durham, where a monument marks his burial site