It is thought that this painting may have been commissioned to celebrate the first victory at Newmarket of the renowned thoroughbred Gimcrack, mounted here by his victorious jockey John Pratt.
They are shown outside a rubbing-down house in Newmarket, where sweaty horses would be dried with straw after exercising on the heath that we see stretching out towards a distant clump of trees.
John Pratt once rode an incredible eleven races in a single day at Newmarket. But far more renowned and remembered even today is his mount Gimcrack, who, in the words of Lady Sarah Bunbury, was 'the sweetest little horse that ever was'.
Though small for a racehorse, Gimcrack was renowned for his stamina and endurance, and though Pratt is clearly in control here, holding the reins taut, Stubbs hints at the animal's great power in motion – his rear left hoof seems to tap the ground restlessly and we can see in the sheen of his coat, with its underlying muscles, the brilliant understanding of equine anatomy for which Stubbs is still celebrated.
Professor Twink Allen of the equine fertility unit in Newmarket explains his enthusiasm for this painting:
'This wonderful painting of Gimcrack by George Stubbs really takes my fancy for two reasons. Firstly we know George Stubbs to have been a very, very accurate painter of horses. He looked at the minute detail of all the horses he painted, so we can be confident that any horse he did paint was an accurate depiction of that horse, and he does it beautifully – and of course, Gimcrack was really, perhaps almost the first major stallion that came from the original crossing of the three foundation Arab stallions (the Byerly Turk, the Darley Arabian, and the Barb) with about fifty common farm mares that produced the forerunners of what we nowadays know as the thoroughbred horse, that wonderful equine Ferrari. And the thing about Gimcrack is that he was an incredible horse in what he did. He won 27 different plates and prizes in England between 1764 and 1771.
That's about an eight-year racing span. Then he carried on in France: he raced in 1776 against the clock and covered no less than twenty-two and a half miles in one hour. That's a tremendous feat of stamina, and if you look at the painting you can see why he was able to do that.
The front half of the horse to me is very Arabian: fine head, small head, dished nose, that thin U-neck, as we would call it today, typical of the showy, poncey sort of Arabian horse; whereas the hind half of him is enormous, the musculature of his hindquarters is huge, is really tremendous, and it shows and it gives the reason as to why that horse could have done this tremendous racing and done this timed racing like that.
So to me, I always look at Gimcrack as being the real foundation stallion of the thoroughbred that we know today that, as I say that Ferrari, that equine Ferrari that was created so cleverly by the old boys in those days in the 1700s by mixing the Arab horses with the common farm mares. It's a joy to behold.'
The transcription of the audio file for this stop was enabled by the AHRC funded crowd-sourcing platform MicroPasts. The below generously gave their time to transcribe the file.
Roger Wilmot, Terence Gould, Adi Levin, Michael Adams, Athena