In Plate I, the hunters load their guns before dawn as their dogs watch alertly. As the sun rises in Plate II, they follow the dogs who “Snuff the Air” for the scent of prey, passing a cottage with a thatched roof. Plate III shows the moment after the dogs have led the hunters to a hidden flock of birds. Sensing their presence, the birds attempt to fly away and one of the hunters shoots. Plate IV portrays the successful hunters at the end of the day, one about to add a hare to the day’s catch of birds and animals piled at the foot of a large oak tree. The theme of hunter and prey enacting a life-and-death drama was one of Stubbs’ recurring themes, which he also depicted in scenes of animals attacking other animals.
An inscription beneath each title states that they were engraved after original paintings in the collection of the publisher, Thomas Bradford, and gives the date of issue — they were each issued separately between 1769 and 1771. The author of the verses is unknown; that the hunters are portrayed as ordinary townsfolk and not privileged landowners makes both the paintings and the poem unusual for that era (Egerton). The first scene was painted by Stubbs and purchased by Bradford after being exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1767. Bradford then commissioned the next three paintings in order to have images to publish a set of four prints to be sold by subscription (Lennox-Boyd). The original paintings were all exhibited at the Society of Artists over the next few years; today they are in the collection of the Yale Center for British Art, a gift of Paul Mellon. The engravings are not identical to the paintings, possibly because some details were difficult to translate into engraving (Lennox-Boyd). Bradford died or retired around 1774, and the copperplates were sold. The images remained popular and firms such as Sayer & Bennett, Laurie & Whittle, Thomas Gosden, Boydell and Boydell’s successors continued to reprint and sell the engravings well into the 19th century.
George Stubbs (1724-1806) was one of the greatest sporting artists of Georgian England. He combined science and art by painting animals with anatomical precision. After a visit to Rome and a period of residence in Liverpool, he returned to England in 1760. He also drew horses based on dissections, and in 1766 published a monumental series of engravings, Anatomy of the Horse, which cemented his reputation as a master of the subject. His vast body of work includes paintings of the prize horses of England of the late 18th century, often with their proud owners or trainers. He also painted hunting scenes, and wild animals such as lions and tigers, including some with lions stalking horses. Stubbs served as president of the Society of Artists in 1773 and though he had his quarrels with the Royal Academy, he exhibited there periodically and was elected as an Associate in 1780. Many of his paintings are in the world’s major museums, with a large number represented in the Yale Center for British Art (Paul Mellon Collection). Some of the greatest engravers and printers of the day were engaged to render Stubbs’ animal pictures as prints, including William Woollett (1735-1785), and Stubbs’ son, the printmaker George Townly Stubbs (1756-1815) (sometimes spelled “Townley”).
William Woollett was an engraver working in London, highly regarded for his landscape engravings and one of the first English engravers to become well known in Continental Europe. A pupil of John Tinney, he studied at St. Martin’s Lane Academy. His earliest engravings were topographical plates published by Tinney from around 1755 to 1757. He worked for the prominent publisher John Boydell from 1760. He exhibited at the Society of Artists from 1760 to 1777, and became a member in 1766, also serving as secretary for several years. From 1775 to 1785, Woollett served as Historical Engraver to the King. Woollett was also friends with the eminent painter George Stubbs, translating many of his paintings into engravings, including The Spanish Pointer, probably the most popular Stubbs dog print at the time. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.
The verses transcribed are as follows:
Soon as the grey ey’d Morn’s uncertain Light,
Forsakes dull Morpheus and the Shades of Night;
So! the keen Sportsmen rise from Beds of Down,
And quit th’Environs of the Smoaky Town;
Whate’er the Pleasures of the coming Day,
Secure of Health they Jocund walk away;
The well taught Dogs wait but their Voice to run,
Veining each Master charge the Murdering Gun.
A gentle Gale that blows along the Land
The Game betrays; the Dogs they Draw, they stand:
Search all the Objects that afford delight,
There’s none like this can please the Fowlers sight;
Softly they Step expecting instant Sport,
The Covey springs to find some safe resort;
Like Lightning flys the Shot, one falls to th’Ground,
The rest well mark’d again are to be found.
Inscriptions below images, lower margins: “Geo. Stubbs pinx’t. William Woollett Sculp’t. Engraved after an Original Picture in the Possession of Mr. Bradford. Published by Thos. Bradford, No. 132 Fleet Street, London; as the Act directs…” respectively with the dates “Ist Aug’t. 1769” [Plate Ist], “30th Aug’t. 1770” [Plate IId.], “30th Sep. 1770” [Plate IIId.], and “25th Oct’r. 1771” [Plate IV].
Egerton, Judy. George Stubbs, Painter: Catalogue Raisonné. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007. Items 83-86. pp. 248, 250-255. Online at Google Books: http://books.google.com/books?id=mFrO5o2X2EcC&pg=PA254 (31 December 2012).
Fagan, Louis.; A Catalogue Raisonne of the Engraved Works of William Woollett. London: The Fine Art Society, Ltd., 1885. Items XVIII-XXV. pp. 11-12. Online at Google Books: http://books.google.com/books?id=pTIEAAAAYAAJ (3 June 2009).
Lennox-Boyd, Christopher, et al. George Stubbs: The Complete Engraved Works. London: Stipple Publishing Limited, 1989. Items 11-14. pp. 91-100.
Maxted, Ian. The London book trades 1775-1800: a preliminary checklist of members. Exeter Working Papers in British Book Trade History. 2001. http://bookhistory.blogspot.com/2007/01/london-1775-1800-w-z.html (3 June 2009).
Williamson, George C., ed. Bryan’s Dictionary of Painters and Engravers. London: G. Bell and Sons: 1930. Vol. 5, pp. 139-140 (Stubbs).