The boy is deceptively the man. Some men are born already old, as they say. But in some men, who look fully grown when they are small, the boy they really were for a time is not extinguished by manhood. Rather than the child being the father of the man, the grown man remains a boy. The boy’s sway grows as youth and then maturity appear. The boy thrives. The larger the body he inhabits, the more that adult experience accumulates around him, the more that this man commands respect and power, then the more the secret boy consumes, discards, acquires only what he wants for his own purposes and needs to ensure the man’s veneer. The boy lives on inside the man. This man is innocent, inventive, dogged. He gets his own way.
Such a man, such a boy was George Stubbs, Horse Painter. He weighed thirteen pounds at birth. By the age of two years, when he was an indefatigable walker and could concentrate for long hours on any task he considered profitable to himself, he was already physically formed into the man he would shortly appear to be. Large and weighty face shaped into a mask of sensual porcine features, bland eyes that seemed to see too much, arms too strong for his size. He was agreeable and obedient, up to a point.
By the age of seven he was at work in his father’s tannery in Hull, England, was leader of a group of boys adept at capturing cats and dogs for dissection and was already so accomplished a draftsman that his father rightly feared that his favorite son George would not live out his life as an accomplished tanner and the proprietor of the family enterprise. When dissecting cats and mongrels the painter-to-be was not avid, cruel, aimless as were many of the other boys, but was methodical, intent, paring away the wretched creatures until the bones gleamed and the various small organs stirred in him the longing to inspect much larger ones. A local surgeon gave him a set of human bones to draw. The raw skins he helped to turn into finished leather in the tannery always brought to his mind the carcasses and living animals they had once covered. He preferred the raw skins to the actual animals slaughtered for the sake of leather, and preferred the still wet skins to the gloves and coats and saddles and massive harnesses they became. The smells of the tannery which seeped up into the family rooms and made his mother faint and his siblings hold their noses, inured him to the noxious fumes he was to live and work amidst in years soon to come.
It appeared that he could not improve his drawing, he had learned all he could about the tanning trade. Still he was patient and remained in his father’s prosperous works until at last Stubbs Senior died, willing the tannery not to his favorite son but to his wife. George Stubbs, taken to be a grown man by most, was sixteen years old. He left Hull, attached himself as pupil-helper to a painter in the north, quarreled with that mediocre portraitist and returned to Hull where, supported by his mother, he taught himself the skills of applying paint to canvas. Satisfied with himself but nagged by a need he associated with the sick and dying, he left his mother and found employment in the St. Bartholomew Hospital at York. He served the dying, handled corpses, attended lectures in anatomy and became the intimate of the most vivid of lecturers in those drafty halls, the eminent young surgeon Charles Atkinson. The two were similar in age and the slight, good-humored Atkinson knew at once that in his pouting heavy-set companion he had found a man as determined as himself to expose the secret machinery of the human body and to delight in the internal organs no matter their degree of putrefaction.
As soon as Stubbs met Atkinson the others appeared: Mary Spencer, who one afternoon with mop and pail in a corridor of the hospital raised her head and showed Stubbs an expression he could not deny; Lord and Lady Nelthorpe—John and Sophia—who lived near York in Colwick Hall in Barton and, though even younger than Stubbs and Atkinson, were already the parents of a son whose visage was a perfect likeness of Stubbs’s own; Dr. William Smellie, chief of surgery at St. Bartholomew. Plain but devoted Mary Spencer, a sweet woman of erotic candor that contrasted surprisingly with her otherwise self-effacing manner, soon after their meeting became Stubbs’s common-law wife for the rest of his days. John Nelthorpe the child, a spoiled boy whom Lady Nelthorpe entertained each day as if he were a man or she herself were a child, broke his arm and leg in a fall from his pony and it was Atkinson who repaired the thankless boy and introduced his friend George Stubbs to the mother. Before the week was out Lady Nelthorpe became Stubbs’s first patron, commissioning him to paint her son’s portrait at Colwick Hall, with promises of more work to come. Dr. Smellie, a little man capable of the most vulgar language and the greatest rages ever known in the hospital in York, and whose wife had just borne him a son in her middle years—a son who survived—was obsessed with preparing a study of midwifery which would be the first such book to appear Smellie had taken an interest in Stubbs when Atkinson had introduced the two. Smellie could make no progress on his midwifery project without the anatomization of a woman who had died before her infant could be born, and without an artist to draw and then engrave the plates showing the dissected womb containing its lifeless child. Smellie without good reason to do so decided that Stubbs could both find and dissect the subject and prepare the plates.
One late afternoon when the last of the students had left the hall Atkinson, still glistening with the sweat of his brilliance, stayed on; signaling his friend Stubbs to do the same. It was cold, Stubbs remained where he was, bundled in heavy coat and frayed sweater hunched over the long narrow bench carved with the initials and crude designs of former students. Charles joined him, sat atop the bench on which the students on either side of Stubbs had been resting their heads in sleep—even a lecturer like Atkinson could not hold the attention of all. Charles’s stained white coat hung open, its skirts swung down, his shirt was wet, but obviously he did not feel the cold.
In an animated furtive voice Charles told his friend that he had news. George waited. Charles waited as well for effect. Then Charles told George that an old farmer’s young wife had died and was still above ground only sixteen miles away. George remained impassive. Charles became more excited and spoke in tones hardly more than at whisper. The point, Charles said, was that this dead woman had been in her eighth month of pregnancy George’s lips formed what Charles considered to be an endearing pout. The woman, George said, would soon be buried and furthermore Lady Nelthorpe had already commissioned him to paint her son. George waited. Charles smiled. Do both, he told his friend. George was silent, forcing his agitated friend to be explicit. Charles said that George must anatomize the woman and paint the boy; it was a whispered exclamation. George opened his heavy lips, then shut them. Then George said that Lady Nelthorpe had already invited him to stay at Colwick Hall. Then, as if clapping George on the shoulder, Charles said that the farm where the young woman lay was. Sixteen miles from York but only two from Barton. Farm and manor house were situated in the same small circle of earth and air. George had only to persuade Lady Nelthorpe that he could not accept her hospitality since for the sake of science he must spend his nights in York, but from York to Barton was an easy ride. The cadaver of the old farmer’s wife could easily be bought, especially if they rented the farm itself and sent the desperate man to recuperate in York. For two weeks George and Mary Spencer would live on the farm while George painted the portrait of the young Lord Nelthorpe in the daylight hours and dissected the cadaver of the pregnant woman in the dark nights.
George considered the plan. Slowly the forces of his determination gathered. He agreed. The future of his art was guaranteed. There with the prospect of exploring the rare body of the woman before him—the most fortunate of opportunities since at the time the procuring of any cadaver other than that of the criminal was a vile and unlawful act—he was already forming his notions of a monumental study of the horse.
Lady Nelthorpe did not believe George Stubbs when he presented his plan, thinking that he must have discovered some young married woman in York, perhaps one he had been asked to sketch by her dull-witted husband. But she smiled, pleased at the thought of her new-found portraitist setting aside his brushes and palette for the arms of a rosy wife who had piqued his taste, and said she understood and that Colwick Hall was ready and waiting if he should change his mind. They set the dates for her son’s sittings.
Colwick Hall by day the farm by nights. Atkinson supplied the medical provender and in a carriage with drawn shades brought to the Dyer farm everything that Stubbs would need: rubber sheets, rubber gloves and apron, rubber tubing, dusty bottles of the indispensable carbolic acid, along with the flat wooden cases containing a full array of the knives and scissors and clamps that shone in the light. He left in high spirits and apprehension, glancing once over his shoulder at the long low cottage with its gray stone walls and a roof that had already lost a dismayingly large portion of its sodden thatch.
Stubbs and Mary Spencer decided not to remove Mary Dyer—they did not speak of the irony of her name—from the bed where she had conceived and died in the farmer’s crude sleeping chamber at the far end of the cottage. Winter was just giving way to spring, they hoped for continuing cold days and heavy frosts at night. They shuttered every window; hung an extra blanket over the closed door to the room where Mary Dyer lay built only the smallest fires in the charred and darkened kitchen and took the little sleep they allowed themselves in what was no more than an empty storage space with a stone floor But this room of sorts was at the opposite end of the cottage from Mary Dyer.
The few animals remaining on the farm withdrew as far as they could into the fallow lands beyond the cottage, Stubbs’s own horse—a sturdy good-tempered cob with a docked tail—tried repeatedly to escape from the barn. Even returning birds suddenly changed course and veered around the Dyer farm, vanished from sight. There was not a fresh breeze to be felt. As usual since they had arrived, Mary Spencer scrubbed Stubbs’s naked tallow-like flesh from top to bottom just at sunrise. The water from the bucket burned her hands, she shivered, she lathered the impassive man with the cake of yellow soap, swung the bucket. She did not complain as she had not complained for all the hours she had stood beside him already in the light of candles clustered unnaturally around the bed and room, just as she did not complain when not long after, her ordeal worsened. She assisted him, wondering how many women who wanted to bear children could stand by and watch and listen and obey her husband while, as slowly as a yellow slug chewing a leaf, he anatomized Mary Dyer. Her only concession was, each night, to wrap a long strip of linen around her nose and mouth. Stubbs worked with uncovered face and even bare hands, ignoring the rubber gloves which she coveted but would not even suggest that she wear. Once when she asked him timorously if he did not find it hard to breathe, he merely raised himself slightly from his stooped position, stared at her slowly with his honey-colored eyes and shook his head. The tiers of candles gleamed, the broad slope of his forehead, which she especially loved, was dry and shone in the light. When he returned to his methodical cutting and clamping she was again unable to avert her eyes and looked down at the mass of bright colors, wet and shifting as the flames of the candles stirred.
For half the night they stood over the body for the other half he made sketches, then at the wooden table where Mary Dyer had served her husband his meals, he sat hunched over the drawings that would become the plates in Dr. Smellie’s Midwifery Book. Finally with two hours left until sunrise, she begged him to sleep and together they retired to their storeroom and makeshift bed of straw and stiff blankets.
She marveled that he did not shiver or look the least bit weary when the shards of red light shattered on the horizon and she washed him down lust as, she once thought with a silent giggle, he washed down his horse. But Stubbs was no animal, not with his big soft delicate fingers and the mind and courage and perseverance to do what he was doing to Mary Dyer.
No matter whether the new day was gray or bright, moist in a thaw or thinly virginal in one of the last powderings of snow; and no matter whether Stubbs had managed two hours or three of sleep, he always set off for Colwick Hall with the same vigor, hardly to be detected, that he brought to the time when he could again take up the knife or pencil in the Dyer cottage. Once mounted on his dark cob Jeffrey Stubbs saw that the Dyer cottage was only a dismal place to leave as quickly as possible, and when the day was over at Colwick Hall the Dyer cottage was again inviting though it looked abandoned when he arrived back at dusk. Colwick Hall stood in its park, a long low handsome building of brick, and it was the promised hospitality of the place that at first kept him on his guard in the midst of pleasure.
He worked in a small parlor warmed and lit by a coal fire and made openly feminine by walls and ceiling covered in a cloth like velvet tinted a rich green sweetened with yellow. The velvet drapes matched walls and ceiling. The fire glowed, fresh roses from the greenhouse adorned the mantel in a white vase. His easel was inevitably in place, brushes and tubes of paint and palette laid out and waiting. The single chair near the small fireplace was not for the odd-shaped little boy but his mother.
The child refused to remain in the pretty parlor alone with Stubbs, which necessitated the mother Furthermore, the young Lord Nelthorpe could not stand still unless he stood beside his seated mother—Sophia—and kept a hand on her shoulder Stubbs and Sophia deceived the boy into thinking that this oil painting would portray the two of them, mother and son. Whereas Stubbs and Lady Nelthorpe had agreed from the start that Stubbs would paint her out of the portrait once it was completed and the boy had lost interest. The outcome of the ruse would be in fact a rage that took a month to heal, followed by the boy’s total indifference to a painting which, he said, in no way looked like himself.
Day by careful day Stubbs worked at his easel, creating the splendid boy on canvas while the true posing was done by the mother. The more time Stubbs spent painting her child the clearer it became that Sophia was his true subject or wanted to be, and that her actual wish was to remain alone in the portrait, her son and not herself obliterated by the heavy polished hand holding the brush.
The boy fretted, the mother did not move. Yet it was the boy who demanded silence, perhaps to listen for his heavyset father riding out with the hounds, and more than once told his mother sharply that she must not speak. The boy was seven, the mother twenty-four.
Stubbs turned the curl of the lips to agreeableness and made the little top-heavy body proportionate by lengthening the legs. He thinned the hair, made the face less weighty tightened the calves and added shadows so that the boy’s shape and age were of a diminutive man’s. The clothes of the young Lord Nelthorpe had been chosen for the sitting by the mother, and chosen so well, reflected Stubbs, that on certain days it seemed that she was the secret artist and he merely her draftsman. The living figures before him were positioned so that the boy’s right hand was resting on his mother’s shoulder while her right forearm rested on the gilt arm of the chair with her slender hand pointing downwards. The boy’s right knee was bent, his left arm bent at the elbow; his little hand casually propped on his hip and his weight supported by his left side. He might have been a small patrician posing with his hand on the head of a whippet against a background of dark late-summer clouds—except that Stubbs was faithfully using the green of the parlor, the warmth of the coals, the spring light. And there were no whippets at Colwick Hall.
Lady Nelthorpe asked if he were doing justice to her son. The child rebuked his mother. Stubbs reassured Lady Nelthorpe, who he knew was confident enough of his abilities. She smiled. She asked him if he ever took such delight in his work that he wanted to touch the fresh paint with his fingers. Did he ever wish to smear the canvas merely to feel the wet strokes he himself had applied? The boy stamped his foot, Stubbs turned and looked at her while his hand and fingers continued their magical moving apparently without need of his eyes. Lady Nelthorpe declared that as a girl she had been tutored in watercoloring and regretted that she had had no talent. Stubbs answered, though he rarely spoke at Colwick Hall, saying that at times it was better to be the artist’s subject than the artist. The young Lord Nelthorpe left the room. Lady Nelthorpe said she had angered him. They heard Lord Nelthorpe the father riding into the stableyard with his Whips and friends. Stubbs covered the painting, cleaned his brushes. She rose, stood at his side. Soon, she said, the painting would be finished.
So too, he told Jeffrey would his work on Mary Dyer and her unborn, unnamed son. And to think, he told Jeffrey that it took as long to draw the head of the lifeless infant as it did to paint the entire trim on the knee-length waistcoat of the boy as long to draw one of the lifeless legs of the infant as to paint the overly-large tapering fingers of the boy’s right hand. Thick as a grapevine—Stubbs was incapable of sentimentalizing his horse but talked to him anyway—and looking more like a gnarled vine in a wintry field than like the supple length of physiological tubing he had expected, the umbilical cord alone took hours. Two grand projects, Stubbs said as the Dyer cottage came into sight and Jeffrey picked up his heavy trot. Two artistic projects impossible to choose between since the one would further his career as much as the other.
Despite their need for secrecy Mary Spencer increasingly opened the shutters in his absence. She could not help herself. Crows were gathering. There was always a faint line of smoke ascending from the chimney of the darkened cottage to greet his return each evening, always the smell of strong soap and cold water to accompany him each morning as he set off for Colwick Hall. By midride Lady Nelthorpe’s scent inevitably sprang from the wet spring countryside, an icy sweetness faint as the flowers beneath the snow, an aroma he recognized with every new turn in the road.
There came the day when Stubbs spent longer at his easel than he had meant to. The temperature had fallen in the midst of a thaw; the tips of new shoots were shrouded in a glaze of ice, the entire day had been clear and fresh, spring itself lay frozen for miles around Colwick Hall while the light of the cold sun shone against the blue of the sky and struck the tenderest of icicles from the limbs of trees and eaves of the stables. But all day the light that had filled the intimate green of the parlor had been of a soft orange warmth of color. A last ray broad and aimed at a slant through the thin glass as if intentionally at Lady Nelthorpe, had fallen upon her seated figure and for an hour or more caused the colors of her gown to brighten like the soft coals in the grate behind her. The gown she wore was of a floral pattern, tinted pink and ivory blossoms bumping against their immodest orange counterparts, pinkish ivory flowers and orange flowers, each as large as the painter’s fist, floating in the creamy taffeta folds of her gown—though Lady Nelthorpe herself sat perfectly still and upright in her chair, hand dangling as usual, eyes upon him, smiling. The boy too had commented on the beauty of the flower-patterned gown.
Stubbs took a step back from the easel, suddenly more interested in the full-length figure he had painted than in the woman he had been watching while painting her son. At this moment even Lady Nelthorpe and her floral gown, which was unlike any he had ever seen, were nothing compared with the young boy who stared back at Stubbs from the canvas. What, he asked himself, had he done? The auburn hair—like the mother’s but of a darker shade—and the golden beige of the knee-length coat, the burnt red that tinged the muddied gold of the lower portion of the waistcoat and its broad trim, the beige and ivory mass of the waistcoat that was wrinkled and shadowed by the plumpness of the boy’s torso, and the ivory ruffles that bound the throat and the dark brown satin of the britches concealing his little legs to below the knee, all of this figure displayed in the spring green parlor like a gem in its setting—what loveliness, Stubbs asked himself, had he fashioned in this way to last forever? The child’s face mirrored the father’s, Stubbs told himself, not the mother’s. The dimples, the fleshy lips, the large forehead, the dark undiscerning eyes. The father, of course, the dull-witted father. Never could Stubbs have brought himself to portray this boy as revealing any trait at all of the mother.
He moved still further from his painting, brush held to the side, not in a dramatic gesture but only to restrain its tip from the canvas. Nothing in this portrait of the young Lord Nelthorpe allowed for change. Nothing. Stubbs had brought the boy from bone and soul to finished figure. In days, a week, a month, years ahead, the surfaces and depths of this work would still shine as now when the paint was fresh. He decided that it did not need his signature.
Finished, whispered the seated woman in obvious pleasure, finished. Stubbs nodded. The boy stepped forward, inspected the work, declared this rendering of his mother passable and that the work should hang at the end of the entranceway of Colwick Hall, and left the room. Stubbs waited. Would not Lady Nelthorpe also stand beside him for her first glimpse of the completed portrait? But no, she was still in her chair. Awkwardly Stubbs set down his brush, his palette, glanced again at his modest triumph, turned toward the woman, admitting to himself that the gown she wore was more handsome than the pale silver-colored gown in the painting. And the woman who was teasing him with her silence wore no jewelry while in the painting there was the thinnest diamond choker around her throat. The throat without adornment was preferable. Precisely as Stubbs made this comparison, and as there came the boyish noises of the sportsmen once again leaving the stableyard to silence, the hands, only the hands, moved. In all his physical bulk and poor posture, Stubbs watched, concentrated, memorized what he was about to see. He glanced at her clever face, stared at the hands. Slowly the fingers took hold of the taffeta at the knees, the hemline of the abundant gown began to rise, the ankles, the lower calves came into view. No further covering of any kind concealed what she was exposing. The shaft of sunlight in which she sat was so firm, so clear, so warm that neither one of them would be able to speak as long as it turned one side of Lady Nelthorpe into brightness and caused dark shadows to smudge the other. Her feet and lower legs were extended slightly toward the edge of the light. There might have been silent children playing about her feet. But already she had destroyed the last vestige of domesticity. Up rose the hem of the skirt, slowly he saw the knees—the small shiny knees—and still she continued to bare herself, drawing the gathered taffeta to mid-thigh, and the light remained constant. He watched, waited, the expression on her heart-shaped face began to change. The hands, the gathered taffeta held between the tips of the fingers ceased to move. Her bare legs were fully exposed to this man.
Behind her a single round coal that had thoroughly consumed itself and become a perfect mass of crystalline heat, slipped from its place on the burning heap, fell a small distance and shattered with a rustling feathery sound on the bed of ember.
For an hour following sunset Stubbs painted the figure of Sophia Nelthorpe out of the portrait as agreed. She did not look at the painting until Stubbs said there was nothing left of herself to see.
Mary Spencer knew at once that Stubbs had completed his first commission at Colwick Hall the moment she greeted him in the swampy yard behind the cottage. Even before he dismounted he told her: the Nelthorpe painting was done. And within the hour, Mary Spencer knew; she would spend no more time in the room with Mary Dyer. Only another night or two of cold stones, blankets she could hardly bring herself to turn down, and the smell of the gases that flow from the unburied dead.
Mary Spencer could no longer share the nightly meal she prepared for Stubbs. However, she thought with a smile, it did not matter. She cleared the table more important to him for drawing than eating, he described his portrait of the Nelthorpe heir, they went as they always did to Mary Dyer’s room. The more candles they lit the more shadows gathered in the room and around the bed like charred portions of the air itself. Mary Spencer wrapped her nose and mouth in her cloth, she reminded Stubbs to wear the long surgical coat, once white. The anatomization of Mary Dyer was all but complete and, to Mary Spencer, had even been carried to unnecessary lengths, Stubbs having satisfied himself as to the full situation of the enlarged uterus, its relationship to the stomach and its compressing effect within the body as high as the lungs; he knew which veins and arteries were fullest and what distortions had been imposed on the bladder; he showed Mary Spencer that the kidneys were oversized as was the heart. But it was the infant he cared most about, the infant he studied, going so far as to seize it and turn it this way and that in the uterine space whose elasticity conformed to the infant’s every impatient move. Candles burned out, light jumped and stuttered across what was now the shimmering formlessness of Mary Dyer’s remains. Stubbs peered down, cut something, spent a moment with his sketch pad, then declared himself done with the cadaver. He straightened, waited for Mary Spencer to pinch out the last of the candles which she did in haste, admitting to herself that no ordinary dignity could be restored to Mary Dyer and that her removal from the cottage must be left to obliging medical students as planned by Stubbs and Charles Atkinson.
Once again Stubbs sat at the table and stooped his shoulders so that, as always, he worked in his own shadow. But he was diligent, determined, and the final diagrammatic drawing of the infant grew. She arranged fresh candles around him as best she could, watched, seeing little, sat across from him wrapped in a blanket. She did not allow herself to sleep. She was needed, she knew; and waited. She heard the mice, heard the cold air creaking above in the beams. Could conditions be any worse for an artist? Yet he was smiling.
Toward dawn Stubbs put down his pencil, leaned back, flexed his fingers. He was finished. And it was then that Mary Spencer had her reward, since at that moment, without a pause, Stubbs said she must see his exhibition, and without stretching his shoulders or stifling a yawn, he spread out the sixteen drawings for her to see. He stood beside her, settling his large size close to her sparse smallness, and in his familiar expectant silence waited as she began to look. She could feel his full pleasure, so rarely evident, the sheer bulk and power of this man obviously immune to the cold. She looked. She bent closer to study the large drawings flat on the table. She too began to smile. How, she asked herself, had he been able to transform the shapes and surfaces which to her had become increasingly indistinct into these anatomically exact—she was convinced that they must be anatomically exact—reproductions of the infant on the eve of its birth while at the same time giving the image—the infant—a determined little life of its own? Why she thought, no other infant at the time of birth had looked like this one, none but this one could have weighed so much or taken such possession of the womb in which it was both confined and sustained. These were correct drawings but surely not clinical drawings, she thought, since Stubbs had shaded with fine cross-hatching both womb and child. And what had he made of Mary Dyer’s infant? Nothing less than a chubby acrobat. Here he was curled up in peace but not symmetrically since even here in what must be the easiest posture for the unborn infant to assume, one small fat leg was bent down, creating a counter-angle to the other leg which, upraised, concealed one of the little forearms. And here he was the swimmer or perhaps the diver bent backwards on his stomach in the womb that was his, and even the fingers were plain to see—his fist was clenched!—the toes of the two feet as distinctly drawn as the hand. Oh, but it was an awkward position that he could not keep for long.
Mary Spencer straightened, smiled up into the heavy face, then returned to the drawings. She chose her favorite two: in the first he had gotten himself upside-down and was holding his elbows to his sides and resting on his nearly square head which actually distended the womb downwards as if he were already beginning his struggle into the air. The fat little buttocks were high, making two healthy curves, and again the symmetry was broken by one rebellious thigh that jutted out to one side and the leg and foot—a single foot!—thrust into the cross-hatched darkness slightly above the buttocks. Here the spine was nothing but a few dots in a vertical row; yet she found herself wanting to run a finger down the bones beneath the fat. Lastly he was on his back, one plump leg hiding the other, but here—and best of all to see—he was driving one arm straight out to the side, sheathing his violent arm in the elastic wall. A little undaunted man, she thought, a sturdy little man even before he was born. But why suddenly did he seem so familiar? She puzzled a moment, gave up, accepted the drawings for themselves only and then turning and embracing her Stubbs, whispered that he was nothing less than a master.
George Stubbs and Mary Spencer returned to York. Dr. Smellie was elated, Stubbs was invited to join Charles Atkinson on the podium, at the insistence of Dr. Smellie. Stubbs forged on to learn the crafts of etching and engraving since there was only himself to prepare the sixteen copper plates required for the printing of his illustrations in the Midwifery Book. Mary Spencer resumed her work in the rooms and corridors of St. Bartholomew Hospital. Sometimes from the cold hall there came the familiar voice as Stubbs lectured on the physiology of birth. The Midwifery Book was widely hailed. Whenever he returned from a visit to Lady Nelthrope, Charles Atkinson was as happily animated as Stubbs was noncommittal over the success that Stubbs had obviously made of himself at Colwick Hall.
Stubbs was not surprised when one day Atkinson returned with the second invitation from Lady Nelthrope: to paint herself and Lord Nelthorpe posing together on horseback. Stubbs knew at once that the discreet inclusion of the husband was the wife’s doing but that the inclusion of the horses came from the husband. And thanks to John Nelthorpe—not his wife—the subject that had been waiting to absorb Stubbs all the while he had lived at the Dyer cottage and during his many weeks back in York stood before him: the horse. Only the complete anatomy of the horse would do. How else to paint faithfully the creature that Stubbs loved most?
So again Stubbs visited Lady Nelthorpe, speaking to her in such a way that she not only became his patroness for present and future paintings but also for the project—he could not describe it fully he confessed—that was consuming him. Lady Nelthorpe bore well the impersonal conversation, colored somewhat but then was privately amused that Stubbs, as he told her in passing, had married. As his patroness, she said, she would do all and everything he asked. He noted that she was wearing a lemon-colored gown on which shone the heads of pale irises.
The average horse of the time weighed perhaps twelve hundred pounds. Such a horse was the equivalent in weight to six or eight men, and the top of its head was all but beyond the reach of the upstretched arm of Mary Spencer. And this was the creature Stubbs meant to anatomize as he had the cadaver of Mary Dyer? Furthermore, as Stubbs began to make increasingly cleat, he planned to undertake this dissection with an attention to minutiae he had not even attempted to devote to the dead woman. Section by section, part by part from largest to smallest, Stubbs intended to expose all there was to expose of the horse. In the end there would be nothing left except the skeleton. He could go no further than the skeleton, Stubbs told Mary Spencer, and he intended to articulate the skeleton. She would see. And so she should, she thought, yet how could he do it? Where would he find the horses—for she knew at his first words that a single horse would not suffice—and where would the laborious dissections be performed, and how was he to handle animals so large, so heavy? Who would help him? Even as she asked the question she became resigned. Ahead of her she saw stretching more paths of blood, more nights of fright, more secrecy, more impossible work than she could bear. Surely Mary Dyer had been enough. But there was no alternative. Hers would be the willingness Stubbs expected. Nothing less.
Stubbs forced the cycle of their lives into repetition. A few miles outside Harkstow a village nine miles from Colwick Hall instead of two, but as much under the aegis of Lady Nelthorpe as Barton was, a tenant farm presented itself for his use. They moved in. The main cottage was clean and dry with a well-thatched roof and kind furnishings. More important, the monumental work they would soon begin was to be done not in the cottage but in a sturdy windowless outbuilding in which the overhead beams were massive and the floor was of stone. In Harkstow Stubbs readily found tallow; rope, candles, pulleys, chain, hammer and wrenches, planking and a blacksmith’s forge along with the coal it required. Again Charles Atkinson provided the surgeon’s instruments without which Stubbs could not proceed to lay bare the horse for scientist, artist and ordinary horseman to see and profit by. Atkinson said his great friend would cut the wings from Pegasus if he could, and kissed Mary Spencer on the cheek. Stubbs chided Atkinson for his levity. Mary Spencer smiled.
She was reassured when he said that he could not possibly work on so arduous a schedule as he had when alternating his time between the Dyer cottage and Colwick Hall, less pleased when he said that the solution was to remain for three or four weeks on the Harkstow farm and then to spend a week of daylight hours at Colwick Hall. Lady Nelthorpe acquiesced readily enough while Mary Spencer was finally grateful for this partial turn of life toward the normal.
Together in the cold outbuilding—late fall brought fog, rain, sudden brightening of sun and air—Stubbs and Mary Spencer contemplated how to manage the carcasses of the horses they themselves must destroy and then preserve. Side by side in the large room that smelled of candles, stone, dry wood, the sharp farm instruments that for some reason had been removed, they considered the problem. Stubbs said that they must look on the lifeless horse as a statue and nothing more—Mary Spencer understood what he meant—and that they had only to lift it upright and then hold it in place. Of course they would use the block and tackle, the chain, the lengths of iron. Mary Spencer, hands inside her shawls, asked how Stubbs replied that if the horse was to stand it must have a platform on which its hooves could rest. But since it could not stand of its own accord, said Mary Spencer, how was the full weight of the horse to be suspended? Would they fit the carcass with girths as if for saddle? Stubbs paused. He said the horse brought to mind the stable but that they must think not of what was appropriate to the living horse but the dead one. Butcher, said Mary Spencer, and surprised them both.
Hooks was the next word that came to their minds and Stubbs thanked his common-law wife for her ingenuity.
Mary Spencer pumped the bellows. Using the forge and anvil and short lengths of the iron rods, Stubbs hammered out eight hooks modeled on the ordinary needle with the points curved upward and the eyes wide enough when cool to accept the long bar of iron that was half the weight of Stubbs himself. The hooks slid along the bar wherever Stubbs wished to place them, in the center of the bar was a ringlet large enough to hold a ship’s prow to one of the docks in Liverpool. A corresponding ringlet in the ceiling beam, block and tackle between the two, the hooks driven into place between the ribs and under the spine of the subject, as Stubbs called the poor animal—and he and Mary Spencer could hoist to whatever height they wished the heaviest horse that could possibly be brought to their farm in Harkstow. But they could not be engaged in this kind of work, Stubbs said once more when the iron device first hung above them, menacing hooks yet to be used, without the protection of Lady Nelthorpe.
Stubbs sent out his request for horses.
The first appeared on a Sunday. A young boy bareback on a pony shaggy beneath its winter coat—long hair covered its eyes and most of its face—led an old gray horse into the barnyard on a length of rope. Stubbs and Mary Spencer stepped out and greeted the boy. Mary Spencer tried to talk with him while Stubbs inspected the horse or Nan as she was called according to the boy who pronounced the name with a scowl to Mary Spencer Nan proved to be a brood mare close to thirty years in age, Stubbs decided. She was healthy though thin, which was to be expected, and obviously was of no further use to the farmer who had sent her off with the boy. The boy said that the farmer offered the pony as well—the boy could return on foot if need be—but Stubbs said that Nan, who was hanging her head and looking at Mary Spencer with large blue eyes, was sufficient and that he had no use for a pony. Stubbs unfastened the rope, the boy hung it loosely coiled around his neck. Stubbs paid the boy for Nan, the boy said he must have the halter. Stubbs removed it, the boy rehooked the halter to the rope and let it hang at his hip. The gray horse was motionless and so was the boy. A breeze that was tinted the color of the sun on the horizon—a greenish red—and cold enough to make Nan shiver, passed out of the barnyard, disappeared. At last Stubbs said that he had been brought up a tanner and that his mother was still proprietress of the family tanning business in Hull. Upon hearing what he had been waiting for, an explanation, the boy nodded, smiled, raised a finger as to the brim of a hat—he was wearing none—and prodding the pony with the heels of his boots that had once been worn by his grandfather—they were that large—he turned the little animal about and started back the way he had come. A short way down the frozen road he looked once over his shoulder, gave a short hoot of laughter, and sent the pony into a rolling jouncing canter. Nan, still rooted where she stood, swung around her long gray head, stared after the departing pair, and began to tremble. Stubbs whistled softly and Nan set off at his heels toward the distant outbuilding that was now dissecting room and drafting room combined. Mary Spencer followed.
She saw how with every step old Nan’s legs splayed out to the side, how the once massive croup swayed to and fro jerkily how docilely she accompanied Stubbs. Miles away Lord Nelthorpe’s hunting party was in full pursuit of a fox, but those sounds meant nothing, thought Mary Spencer, when compared with those of Stubbs’s boot on the frozen earth as well as those made by old Nan’s unshod hooves. And this was the horse she was to view as a statue? She could not, Mary Spencer told herself, no more than if she were to assist in the slaughtering of one of Nan’s own foals. How could she do it? For that matter, how could Stubbs?
Nan herself helped Mary Spencer through the ordeal, or most of it. The old horse waited stock-still while they lit the candles, donned their leather aprons, uncoiled the ropes. The interior of the outbuilding was no warmer than the exterior, yet Nan ceased her trembling once inside. She waited without halter or chain to hold her as they readied themselves to tie her feet, fasten the girths that would bear her weight—ropes and pulleys fastened from smaller ringlets in the beams above the girths—in the process of toppling her over and stretching her out flat on her side. Mary Spencer stroked the cool flanks, the serpentine head, but the old horse did not peer down at her, did not so much as blink or allow her breath to be seen in the watery nostrils or detected in any movements of the ribs that were silvery to both touch and sight. Why the old horse was complying with her own fate! Was making of herself a statue, was her own sculptress. There was not a ripple to be seen or felt in the front of her or the hindquarters. The pale blue of the eyes was already as of the glass of sightlessness.
Stubbs commented on Mary Spencer’s revery and without her help tied Nan’s front legs together, then the hind legs as well. He fastened the girths, drew the ropes taut, said that now he could not proceed unless Mary Spencer assisted him. She must hold the ropes, he said, while he leaned against the old horse and pushed her over, the blocks and tackle, regulated by Mary Spencer, easing the horse over gently and down. But here, surely Mary Spencer thought, there would be a struggle though nothing on Stubbs’s face revealed the concern he might have felt.
But no, Stubbs pushed and Mary Spencer pulled, leaning herself backwards against the ropes—how easy it was to hold the entire weight of a horse if given the cleverness and resultant apparatus of a man like Stubbs—and the ancient mare obliged them without a shiver, allowed herself to tilt, go over and slowly down, even holding her head and long neck in the same plane as the body. Then she was lying flat on the stone, a statue indeed!
Stubbs had maneuvered the animal so that its neck lay across the trough he had cut into the stone of the floor, beneath the wall to the ground outside where, though the earth was frozen, he had dug a pit to receive the twenty gallons or more of the blood that he would now drain from the veins of the placid creature. He knelt, scalpel and square of canvas in hand. Mary Spencer knelt at the head, assuming that for the moment she could be of no help to the dissector. Stubbs covered the head and neck with the canvas, told Mary Spencer that he would lift his side of it only and do his work swiftly protecting her against the sight. They would see no blood since beneath the heavy canvas it would leave the body and return to earth with the creature’s life, slowly until the heart in its last contractions had pumped the animal all but dry.
Stubbs raised the canvas. From several miles away came the commotion of Lord Nelthorpe’s hunt running to earth their fox. But before he could make the swift deep slice he had envisioned, Stubbs withdrew his hand in astonishment. In a quick reflex beyond his control he pulled back from the horse. She moved! Nan might as well not have been tied, might as well not have had half her head covered like some prisoner facing execution. She raised her head from the floor; tossed it about as best she could, flung off the canvas, struggled with all the recovered strength she had once possessed and did her best to kick, flaying her pairs of legs in a scissors-like motion, there on the cold stones looked as if she were flying in some sort of barbaric gallop despite the ropes. She thrashed her tail, heaved her ribs for breath, rolled her eyes and, worst of alt cried out in tones that suggested human strangulation. She sweated, her coat glowed. In all her ancient being Nan rebelled.
Mary Spencer gave a cry, Stubbs a grunt. What now?
Then Mary Spencer again dared to approach the tossing head on her knees, cried the old mare’s name in womanly compassion—Nan! Nan!—and cradled the wet muzzle, chin, cheeks, in her arms. The rebellion ceased. The terror and fierceness left the eyes, the quieted blue eyes looked up into Mary Spencer’s face, the woman rested the great head on her knees. The motion ceased, the body sagged, legs and tail again lay inert on the stone. The horse was stilled. In a quick whisper Mary Spencer told Stubbs to open the jugular vein as he said he would. Quickly!
When he was done Stubbs said that Mary Spencer had been through the worst and could now bear as well as himself the various stages of dissection that were to come—from insertion of the iron hooks to disemboweling to the delicate work he would do on more than one horse’s head. Whether as witness or assistant, he said, for her there would be no commotion as disturbing as the one they had lust experienced and no more suffering for Mary Spencer—or himself, he added. Oh, he said, the horses might refuse the tying of their legs and heave in resistance to being lowered. But none of them would be as difficult as the first.
That same day and the next Stubbs injected the major veins and arteries with tallow, and then on the third day he drove in the hooks and hoisted the old mare into full standing position, hooves on the plank, about eighteen inches from the floor. Now Mary Spencer understood that Stubbs had meant the word “statue” literally as well as figuratively and shared Stubbs’s opinion that the dead horse—they had agreed to use her name no longer—looked exactly as she had in life, but also that the gray mare standing in the candlelight of their outbuilding was more than similar to some historic horse statue in a village square. Mary Spencer was fond, as she said, of the animal they had managed to suspend in place—fond at least until Stubbs began the slow process of dissection. By the end of seven weeks, when the subject was too decomposed to be of any further use to them, Mary Spencer felt not fondness for it but revulsion, though still she helped Stubbs in the disposal and did not call attention to her emotions. She could not say which was the more oppressive to her: the animal’s panic, scrutiny of a lateral view of a horse with only a portion of its skin and subcutaneous fat removed, fear of disease or the signs of carnage in which they spent their days. But the more their work continued through the third horse, the fourth, the more she marveled at her Stubbs who drew exactly what he had dissected and whose only emotion in their outbuilding was the pleasure of concentration.
Lord Nelthorpe wanted Stubbs to paint husband and wife seated side by side on their horses and facing the viewer. Lord Nelthorpe said that he wished the portrait to show himself and his wife and the heads and faces of their horses as in a mirror. Stubbs waited. Then he asked if his Lordship wanted the painting to include only partial busts of himself and wife at best? Lord Nelthorpe colored at the word, his wife smiled, Stubbs looked at them both and considered. Then he asked Lord Nelthorpe if it might not be to greater advantage if he painted his Lordship and Lady Nelthorpe from the side. The lateral view; he said, especially if Lord Nelthorpe’s horse were positioned directly behind his wife’s, would show much more of his Lordship, the entirety of his wife’s gown, the full beauty of their horses, and as well would pay tribute to Lady Nelthorpe by allowing her to ride ahead of her husband. Lord Nelthorpe knew a great deal about horses but nothing about women or argumentation. After a moment’s pause, his thick face settling into obvious distaste for the painter and pique at not having his own way he agreed.
The first sitting was conducted on a cold day between two icy showers. The husband and wife rode out in front of Colwick Hall and a groom positioned them as indicated by Stubbs according to plan, the husband’s horse directly behind the wife’s. Both horses had docked tails, the husband’s horse was darker than the other and marked by two white stockings on the rear legs. Stubbs asked that the husband’s horse be moved still closer to the wife’s so that the gelding’s head hung just above the stumpy tail of the mare. Lord Nelthorpe wore a long chocolate-colored coat, white britches, black boots half of the upper portion of which was tan. On his head was a small dark hat with a narrow brim, a thick braid of hair reached to his shoulders. He sat straight though somewhat round-shouldered on his horse and stared resolutely at his wife. But the wife, of her own accord and without a word from Stubbs, was looking unashamedly at the painter And it was she who dominated the preliminary sketches and the final portrait.
It was no more possible for Stubbs to tell Lady Nelthorpe how to arrange her skirt than it was to arrange it himself. But no sooner were the horses standing front to back, parallel to Colwick Hall behind them—Stubbs had already decided that the handsome elongated manor house would stretch its pinkish brick from one edge of the painting to the other—than Lady Nelthorpe understood exactly what Stubbs wanted: a total view of her. Carefully she arranged the skirt of her riding dress—she was seated sidesaddle on her gentle hack—so that it flowed as far forward and down as possible from her upraised knee and as smoothly as possible down from that exaggerated curve she made of her body from her shoulders to the rear of the saddle. This portion of the skirt fell well below the horse’s belly swept up again at a pleasing angle to where her right foot was concealed in the folds of cloth mere inches behind the silhouette of her horse’s chest. Most important of all, Lady Nelthorpe’s riding costume, or the one she had chosen for this portrait, was scarlet. It was a bright yet subtle scarlet that could not be ignored. The jacket and bodice and skirt covered her body completely so that only the face and the briefest glimpse of a wrist were exposed, the skirt composing a triumphant scarlet triangle in a single sweep—in this way Lady Nelthorpe filled the portrait though she was given no more space than her husband. Then too, however, she wore a swollen black hat that topped her little head more like a mass of raven than ostrich feathers—which they were—and exaggerated for anyone who cared to see, as did Stubbs, the ordinary unimaginative hat of the husband.
To the final portrait Stubbs added two dogs, a brown dachshund all but impossible to see between the front legs of the husband’s horse, and a white foxhound bitch trotting head-high just forward of Lady Nelthorpe’s horse. There had been not a day of sun when Stubbs made his sketches and worked on the painting—the canvas came to be mounted on two easels in the same parlor where he had painted the son—but Stubbs gave it a clear sky and a gentle mass of clouds that corresponded inversely to Lady Nelthorpe’s shape on her horse. He had the pleasure of painting the husband’s horse without its ear, a detail that went unnoticed by Lord Nelthorpe. Lastly Stubbs heightened one small additional point of red, Sophia’s lips, and this small point of color matched to Stubbs’s thorough satisfaction the entire scarlet riding costume of Lord Nelthorpe’s wife.
On the day that Stubbs completed the portrait, when beyond their parlor the world was enclosed in the season’s hardest shell of ice, Stubbs found himself speaking as he had not intended. He said that the time would come when Lord Nelthorpe would have his wife painted out of this portrait. Not by himself, Stubbs said, but by some other artist. Just as she had vanished under his hand from the painting of her son, so the husband would rid this second painting of her presence.
With better cause she said, and laughed.
But he will destroy the painting then, said Stubbs.
Confidence, confidence, she answered. At least they two would know for the rest of their lives that she was there, in both portraits, just as he had painted her.
Invisible, said Stubbs.
Invisible or not, she answered.
There was a crash, a shattering of ice, the breaking of frozen briar and bramble. Mary Spencer gave a cry, Stubbs dropped his instrument, made for the door. Mary Spencer reminded him of the apron. He removed it.
As soon as he stepped from the outbuilding, Stubbs confronted at a short distance Lord Nelthorpe, master of Colwick Hall, his clothing wet, his stirrups iced, his complexion both red and white, his pink coat pulled askew with vigorous action. His hunter was tossing and throwing his head, rearing, its broad chest wet and slick. And horse and rider were motionless in fury at the edge of the copse that bordered the outbuilding. Lord Nelthorpe yanked on his horse’s mouth, leaned to the side to keep Stubbs in his line of sight.
“Not one of mine, Stubbs!” he shouted and pointed with the handle of his crop toward the windowless outbuilding. “Not one of mine!”