Black Basalt plaque 'The Frightened Horse'
Stubbs is now considered to be the greatest British painter of horses, and his renowned ‘Anatomy of a Horse’ was published in 1766. Stubbs investigated the possibility of working with enamel colours on various media including copper, and by 1775 his search for a ceramic ‘support’ was brought to the attention of Wedgwood’s Ornamental Ware partner, Thomas Bentley.
Josiah was extremely enthusiastic about the proposal to produce ceramic tablets or plaques to be used as an artist’s canvas, but the reality was that the production of large-size plaques took several years to accomplish. Stubbs was obviously agitating Wedgwood to receive the plaques as soon as possible – causing Wedgwood to write to Bentley that Stubbs ‘shall be gratified, but large tablets are not the work of a day.’
The ceramic medium chosen for the production of the plaques was probably a low-fired version of the so-called terra cotta body, which was suitable for large size objects. A thin-light glaze was applied to the surface to seal it, and make it suitable for the application of enamel colours. A number of notable subjects are known on Wedgwood/Stubbs plaques – including a fine portrait of Richard Wedgwood, Josiah’s father-in-law. In part payment for the ceramic plaques produced by the factory, Josiah asked Stubbs to work on the famous family portrait, and also on modelling two bas-relief subjects – ‘The Frightened Horse’ and a companion piece, ‘The Fall of Phaeton’. The former subject was modelled at Stubbs’ own suggestion, from his own engraving of ‘The Lion and the Horse’. Although Josiah was not too pleased at the actual subject matter of a horse being stalked by a lion, he was greatly surprised at the mastery of the subject as produced by Stubbs, and his quick adaptation to the use of potters’ tools.
On 1st August 1780 clay tablets had been prepared for Stubbs to produce his initial model on, and by the 13th the subject of the ‘Frightened Horse’ had been chosen. Wedgwood wrote on that day – ‘…he [Stubbs] is now laying in the horse whilst I am writing a few letters this good Sunday morning.’ By the 21st Stubbs had completed the model, and Josiah was writing to Bentley promising a copy – ‘…very soon either in blue & white [jasper], or to save time in one colour.’ The ‘one colour’ referred to was black basalt.
The subject has proved to be enduringly popular and has appeared at regular intervals since the eighteenth century. This black basalt version dates to 1952.
Although George Stubbs was best known for his equestrian subjects, he was also an accomplished modeller of bas reliefs. In 1780 he modelled, from his own engraving of ‘The Lion and the Horse’ this relief plaque became known as ‘The Frightened Horse’. The scene has proved very popular, and has been re-created several times since the eighteenth century, usually in black basalt, though rare jasper examples are known.