Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 906:
GEORGE STUBB'S ANATOMY

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 906.

Today, Leonardo's ghost inhabits an English painter. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

That greatest anatomist of his age, Leonardo da Vinci, dissected people and oxen to learn the machinery of life. But it was another animal that transfixed Leonardo -- the horse. Leonardo drew horses, snorting, pawing, and prancing. Sinister horses and horses at play. Leonardo was haunted by the horse.

Now meet George Stubbs, born in 1724. He did portraits, and he helped shape a new Gothic vision of nature. If you've seen his studies of lions attacking horses, you haven't forgotten them.

The son of a Liverpool tanner, Stubbs got his start in art as a child drawing left-over animal bones. At 21 he went to York to paint. He was soon teaching anatomy to medical students there. He also did 18 engravings of human fetuses for Dr. John Burton. Burton, one of the inventors of forceps, had been in and out of jail for supporting Scottish independence.

Stubbs developed a vile reputation for his cold, detached studies of the dead. When a doctor gave him the cadaver of a woman who'd died in childbirth, he carted her off to his garret studio. Still, his drawings of unborn children are expressive and compassionate.

And, reputation or no, commissions came. He did painting after painting of lords and ladies riding to hounds. The lords and ladies are forgettable -- the animals are not.

By now, Stubbs was dissecting horses. He invented techniques for handling their huge carcasses. He got hold of a dead tiger and dissected it as well. Then, in 1766, he published his magnificent treatise on the Anatomy of the Horse. In it, horses walk toward you, away from you, and past you -- each has one less layer of flesh than the last.

Stubbs X-rays their bodies with his pen and his brush. At last only the perfect skeleton remains, moving with the same dignity and grace as the living animal that once clothed it.

That was when he was 42. At 70 Stubbs began another project, more ambitious. He called it A Comparative Anatomical Exposition of the Human Body with that of a Tiger and a Common Fowl.

He studies a man, a leopard, and a hen -- standing, walking, and moving -- with flesh on and flesh removed by degrees. He shows the man walking on two legs like the hen and on all fours like the cat. Charles Darwin wouldn't publish his Origin of Species for another 40 years, but the seed had clearly been sown.

Stubbs was as fine a physiologist as was to be found, yet he called himself an historical painter. He was too like Leonardo. He was transfixed by the energy, force, and menace of the horse. First he dismantled horses with cool, accurate detachment. Then he rebuilt them into the stuff that dreams are made of.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Doherty, T., The Anatomical Works of George Stubbs, London: Secker & Warburg, 1974.

George Stubbs, 1724-1806. London: The Tate Gallery, 1984.

Morrison, V., The Art of George Stubbs. London: Quarto Publishing Co., 1989.

Taylor, B., Stubbs. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1971.

Egerton, J., George Stubbs: Anatomist and Animal Painter. London: The Tate Gallery, 1976.

Todd, R., Tracks in the Snow. London: The Grey Walls Press, 1962.

Grigson, G., Horse and Rider: Eight Centuries of Equestrian Paintings. New York: Thames and Hudson: Publishers, 1950.

... the glory of his nostrils is terrible.
He paweth in the valley, and rejoiceth in his strength;
he goeth to meet the armed men.
He mocketh at fear, and is not affrighted;
neither turneth he back from the sword ...
He swalloweth the ground with fierceness and rage ...

Job 39: 20-24

For Stubbs' 1770 painting, A Horse Frightened by a Lion go to the website, http://btr0xw.rz.uni-bayreuth.de/cjackson/s/p-stubbs3.htm


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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