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Reflections on portraiture

This is my last Trumbology before, in a little more than a week from now, I pass to my successor Karen Quinlan the precious baton of the Directorship of the National Portrait Gallery, after five supremely happy and rewarding years in the saddle (at the wheel, on the bridge?—take your pick). I have been looking back over the full run of 56 (with extras) and find to my astonishment that they cover the following more or less portraity topics, and a few that don’t really warrant a mention.

One of the chief aims of George Stubbs, 1724–1806, the late Judy Egerton’s great 198485 exhibition at the Tate Gallery was to provide an eloquent rebuttal to Josiah Wedgwood’s famous remark of 1780: “Nobody suspects Mr Stubs [sic] of painting anything but horses & lions, or dogs & tigers.” Yet in his lifetime, the horse was of course as much a problem for Stubbs’s reputation as it was the cornerstone of his artistic practice. He did much to make it so. Though Stubbs was the Vesalius of the horse, and painted some of the greatest equine portraits that exist, within the institutional framework of the London art world he was stuck with the label of “horse painter,” and tried in vain to shed it. His work as an anatomist was at times a problem too, though it brought him into contact with the Hunters, William and John. It was probably Stubbs’s work on midwifery in York around 1751 that caused Sir Thomas Frankland to describe Stubbs in a letter to Sir Joseph Banks as a portrait painter in York “formerly of vile renown.”

Dr Helen Nugent AO, Chairman, National Portrait Gallery at the opening of 20/20: Celebrating twenty years with twenty new portrait commissions.

Books seldom make me angry but this one did. At first, I was powerfully struck by the uncanny parallels that existed between the Mellons of Pittsburgh and the Thyssens of the Ruhr through the same period, essentially the last quarter of the nineteenth century.