by Brooke Chilvers
It’s likely you have a greater inkling of British equine horse artist George Stubbs (1724–1806) than of his contemporary, Sawrey Gilpin (1733–1807), whose work is often restricted to rarely seen private collections that still elude the internet.
The two most important equine artists of their time are often compared. Today, Stubbs totally overshadows Gilpin, but back then, with Gilpin’s important patrons, it was the opposite. Nevertheless, both artists struggled against the perception that painting horses and dogs was inferior to every other subject—barely a step above landscape art.
Sawrey was born the seventh child (out of 16) of Captain John Bernard Gilpin, in the family manor home at Scaleby Castle, near the busy garrison town of Carlisle, about eight miles south of the Scottish border. Mary, Queen of Scots, was imprisoned there in 1578, and Carlisle was the site of the 1745 Jacobite Rising, which forced Mrs. Gilpin and her babes to flee in the dead of winter.
Captain Gilpin was that rarity, a soldier turned artist, and he ran his own drawing school in Carlisle. Among his first students were Sawrey and his elder brother, the celebrated watercolorist and picturesque travel writer, Reverend William Gilpin (1724–1804), who would, in his lifetime, earn more as an artist than Sawrey.
For his seven-year apprenticeship, Sawrey was sent at age 15 to maritime and landscape artist Samuel Scott (1702–1772) at his Covent Garden studio. Although Gilpin’s heart was in painting the market’s horses and carts, he remained with the “English Canaletto,” as his assistant, for an additional two years. Gilpin’s was a fortuitous bent, as hunting, racing, and portraits of fine-bred animals were all the fashion when he set out on his own in 1758, although to stay afloat he still taught drawing at the school where William was headmaster.
Sawrey married Elizabeth Broom in 1759, and they had six children, including their more famous son, the artist and landscape designer, William Sawrey Gilpin (1762–1843).
Gilpin’s survival as an artist was assured in the 1760s with his first royal patron, William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland (1721–1765), the youngest son of King George II, who’d retired from the battlefield, taking up horse racing and breeding instead. He was nicknamed “Butcher Cumberland,” for his slaughter of the Jacobites after the 1746 Battle of Culloden; ironically, Sawrey’s father had encountered his son’s devotee in the field, and disdained him.
Gilpin had already demonstrated his understanding of horses in his set of eight pencil and wash drawings for William’s 1759 manuscript, On the Character of Horses, distinguishing among the natures, facial expressions, and “ear talk” of Coach, Race, Hunter, and Cart horses. To “elevate” horse art by mixing it with literature, the horses in his Gulliver Addressing the Houyhnhnms (1769) understand the spoken word and express “human” surprise and alarm.
In his large watercolors, such as Horses in a Thunderstorm (1798),the animals are clearly communicating with each other, the bay horse consolingly touching his terrified companion, while protecting his back. In his landscapes, Gilpin’s animals respond to the beauty of nature around them, just as people do.
Working from the Duke’s studs at Newmarket and Windsor gave Gilpin every opportunity to develop his knowledge of horses. Although he placed the mares and foals in the landscapes of Windsor Forest and the Great Park where the Duke was Ranger, his portraits of winning thoroughbreds, such as King Herod, are still in the formalized Newmarket tradition of John Wootton (1686–1764) and Francis Sartorius (1734–1804), as were those for the Prince of Wales, the future King George IV.
After the Duke died, for 16 years Gilpin received the support and “festive hospitality” of the flamboyant “madcap” sportsman, Colonel Thomas Thornton of York (1757-1823). Credited with reviving the sport of falconry in England, Thornton ran several packs of hounds, and famously shot, fished, hawked, hunted, and wrote his way around the Highlands from a sloop named Falcon, one voyage accompanied by Gilpin and his son-in-law artist, George Garrard.
Gilpin and other artists spent weeks on end at their host’s Thornville Royal estate. Together with Scottish animal artist Philip Reinagle, they portrayed Thornton armed with a multiple-barreled volley gun. In addition to portraits of his patron’s winning racers, his prize pointer, Dash, and favorite hunting hound, Modish, Thornton commissioned a life-size The Death of the Fox in the style of Frans Snyders for the billiard room. To accurately paint the attacking dogs, several foxhounds were sacrificed and “fastened down” as models, which explains why several dogs look a bit “stuffed.” Remarkably, this huge painting has disappeared.
Critic Walter Shaw Sparrow writes that with The Death of the Fox, Gilpin broke from tradition and “achieved something real and new.” Stella Walker says it “suggested a new dimension in sporting art which involved the emotions of the spectator,” adding that Gilpin, although “minor and mundane… introduced zest and imaginative fervour into sporting art,” and understood equine temperaments and “vitality.”
In 1815, the debt-ridden Thornton escaped to France, settling in a dilapidated chateau near Paris, where he died after losing Thornville (which was then torn down) and his substantial art collection.
Gilpin’s last, and perhaps most important, patron was the anti-slavery politician and wealthy brewer, Samuel Whitbread, M.P., with whom the artist spent much of 1796 through 1802, after wife died.
The exchange of “specialties” between artists was common in those days, and Gilpin’s horses inhabit the landscapes of Irish artist George Barrett, and vice versa. Ditto with human figures of German-born portrait painter, Johann “John” Zoffany. Even J.M.W Turner credited Gilpin in two of his watercolors, including Windsor Park: with Horses by the Late Sawrey Gilpin, Esq., R.A.
It’s possible the many collaborations ultimately diminished Gilpin’s reputation. Sparrow writes, “When an artist has worked often with other painters it is difficult to form a correct estimate of his individuality.” Still, he exhibited at the Society of Artists for 20 years, and was named full Royal Academician (RA) in 1797—an achievement never attained by Stubbs, whose interest was more in equine anatomy than in equine emotion.
Sparrow doesn’t consider Gilpin an important master, but rather “a good influence running through a period of fifty years in English Art and Sport.” Not bad for a spare.
Brooke Chilvers regrets that neither of Gilpin’s equine “conversational pieces,” from his Gulliver series and owned by the Yale Center for British Art, is on display.