03 Jun, 2009

No high horse for George Stubbs

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

George Stubbs’s paintings Reapers and Haymakers don’t lord it over the rural poor – they celebrate them

The woman stands looking back you, hand on hip, from in front of a cart loaded with soft brown hay. Shiny-coated shire horses stand blinkered in the midday sun, which melts the vista of English fields into a dreamy haze that contrasts with the clarity of the strangely elegant farm labourers in the foreground. These country people go about their work as if they were modelling for Michelangelo: raking, hefting, reaching, the men in white shirts, the women in long dresses; they are graceful as athletes.

George Stubbs painted his rustic scene Haymakers in 1785. Its pendant Reapers – both pictures are in Tate Britain – depicts the labourers bundling sheaves in a landscape that’s even more ethereal in its glowing summer haze. A farm manager or landowner sits on his horse, towering above them. He looks down at a young woman who looks up at him.

There is a supposedly radical view of 18th-century landscape art that sees, in these haunting images of a lost agrarian world, an ideology of property. It goes back to John Berger‘s Ways of Seeing. But what do these two paintings really mean, politically?

The clue is surely that man on the horse in Reapers. The look he exchanges with the woman below him is full of significance. Would a landowner, looking at this painting, have sniggered and savoured the implication of droit de seigneur?

That makes no sense as an interpretation of a picture. No ruling class has ever seen itself in that way. People want fantasies about themselves in art, not graphic implications of the abuse of power. Look at it this way: is there a single work of 18th-century literature that celebrates aristocrats and their servants sexually exploiting the workforce? No. But there are many works, from Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Henry Fielding‘s Tom Jones to William Hogarth’s prints, that regard such behaviour as oppressive.

Stubbs admires these rural workers just as he admires horses – and in both cases he seems to prefer the patient servant to the cold-eyed master. He does not prettify the labourers in Reapers and Haymakers to deny the realities of rural poverty: he does it to make them look heroic. Although fully dressed, they pose like classical nudes. This is more likely to be an attempt to dignify them than insult them.

It’s a good idea, looking at art, to begin by loving it. Start from the premise that Stubbs is a great artist and you are more likely to discern the political implications of his paintings than if you take it for granted that he’s a heartless lackey of the aristocracy.

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