"Mask Aged 20"

This print by George Townly Stubbs (?1756-1815) reproduces a single-horse portrait by his father, George Stubbs, the painter of wild beasts and horses. Elements of George Townly's life are shrouded in mystery, for while it is assumed that he is Stubbs' son, no record of his birth has been found. This means both his parentage and his age are impossible to confirm. Knowing his date of birth is important, as George Townly started to produce highly accomplished prints apparently at a very young age. His first print, of a lion devouring a stag in its den, was highly praised when it was exhibited and published in 1770, which - if his birth date is correct – is an impressive feat for a boy of a mere 13 or 14 years.

The mezzotint featured here depicts Mask (more commonly spelled Marske), a racehorse who achieved considerable fame not for his own racing triumphs, but for siring one of the most celebrated animals in horseracing history. Foaled in 1750, Marske was acquired by William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, son of George II. He began racing in 1754, but initial success was soon followed by continued defeat and Marske was retired to the Duke's stud. In 1765 the Duke died and Marske, along with the Duke's other possessions, was put up for sale. He would have disappeared into obscurity had it not been for the acumen of a man called William Wildman, a grazier and meat salesman at London's Leadenhall Market. In 1766 Wildman bought the stallion from a farmer for half a guinea and set Marske up at his stud at Epsom. Three years later Marske's value soared above everyone's expectations. Wildman had also been at the Duke's dispersal sale and had bought one of Marske's offspring. This horse was called Eclipse, and he was to become the greatest racehorse of his day.

Aspects of Eclipse's behaviour are reminiscent of the peculiar quirks of eccentric aristocrats: it is said that his favourite companion was a singing parrot, and that he was only capable of being ridden by a single jockey (John Pratt – see a portrait of him riding another racehorse, Gimcrack, in this painting from the Fitzwilliam's collection: PD.7-1982). But his legendary reputation is entirely deserved: in races he far outdistanced almost all other horses and was undefeated when he retired after two seasons in 1770. At first Eclipse was not a successful sire, due to the fact that horse owners were reluctant to do business with Eclipse's new owner, an interesting character called Dennis O'Kelly (c.1728-1787), who was heavily financed by Charlotte Hayes, a notorious brothel keeper. However, due to the inbreeding of Thoroughbreds, the ancestry of a very high percentage of today's racehorses (perhaps as high as 95%) can be traced back to Eclipse through the male-line.

As Eclipse's reputation grew, so did interest in his sire, despite the fact that some doubted the truth of this claim. William Wildman defended the pedigree and commissioned Stubbs' painting and perhaps also a print which was published in 1771 (about five years before the one pictured above). George Townly Stubbs also scraped the earlier mezzotint, entitled Brown Horse Mask. In the margin of this first portrait of Marske is a pedigree going back four generations. The print was for sale when the horse was at stud, suggesting that Wildman hoped the additional publicity might bring more money his way. Reputation and fees demanded for stud are directly proportional: in three years Marske's became "the most popular stallion in England" and his fee rose 10-fold. Horse owners would have to pay 30 guineas to have their mares covered. Wildman eventually sold Marske for 1000 guineas to the 4th Earl of Abingdon, and his stud fee rose to 100 guineas. Marske died aged 29 in 1779.

A second plate was scraped by George Townly probably around 1776. The plate was then acquired by a printseller called John Harris, and this impression here is one published by him in 1789. It seems that Harris acquired a number of plates from George Townly, and issued impressions between 1789 and 1793. This mezzotint has been printed in colour, a trend which became popular in the 1780s and 90s. Usually, colour-printed impressions were twice the price of ones of a single colour.

A selection of colour-printed stipples and mezzotints from the reserve collection will be on display in Gallery 16 until mid September 2009.


Museum Number: P.5755-R

For further information about Stubbs' painting of John Pratt and Gimcrack, click here: http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/gallery/friends/exhibits/stubbs_gimcrack.html

For a print of the horse Dungannon, one of Eclipse's progeny, see P.4803-R

For a print of the horse Pumpkin, published by Edward Orme, who bought plates from auction in 1812 after the death John Harris, see P.26-1983

For etched plates from George Stubbs' The Anatomy of the Horse published in 1766, see P.36-1998 and P.38-1998

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