AN ART LOVER"S GUIDE TO CAMBRIDGE - 'Gimcrack, with John Pratt up, on Newmarket Heath', George Stubbs, 1765
How many horses do you know who have a club named after them, an annual race run in their memory and were painted by George Stubbs? It’s Ascot week and here is Gimcrack, with his jockey John Pratt, standing on Newmarket Heath. The painting is thought to have been commissioned shortly after the horse’s first victory at Newmarket races on 9th April 1765.
Stubbs shows horse and rider standing against the wide East Anglian sky, gazing confidently across the gallops. Behind them is the rubbing down house, where horses would be taken after a race to cool down. Stubbs, the great horse painter, shows his skill. The horse is painted with remarkable anatomical accuracy, the sheen of his coat accentuating the muscles underneath, while his face is alert and full of character.
Gimcrack became a racing legend, winning 28 of his 36 races. He was relatively small for a racehorse, standing at just 14 hands, but what he lacked in stature he made up for in bravery and determination. Together with his winning record, this endeared him to the racing public. Lady Sarah Bunbury, daughter of the Duke of Richmond, was one of his many admirers, describing him as “the sweetest little horse .. that ever was”.
While Gimcrack was the most successful racehorse of his day, John Pratt was the most successful jockey. Pratt is shown wearing a red jacket and black cap, the colours of Gimcrack’s owner at the time, William Wildman, the Smithfield meat salesman who commissioned the painting. Today we are used to seeing jockeys wearing coloured silks, but they had only just been introduced when Gimcrack was painted. Racing, which had been the preserve of the aristocracy, became more democratised and professional in the eighteenth century. As more horses took part in each race, it was important to be able to differentiate between runners and riders as they came thundering past.
Wildman was one of Stubb’s most regular patrons. After his death in 1787 this painting was sold at auction, together with sixteen other works by Stubbs from Wildman's collection. Having changed hands several times, the painting came up for sale in 1982. To prevent it being sold abroad, the Fitzwilliam Museum launched a public appeal to buy it, receiving support from their Majesties the Queen and Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, together with other funders. To boost the appeal, the museum’s director, Professor Michael Jaffé, went to Newmarket races where he stood at the turnstiles shaking a bucket to encourage race goers to contribute to the purchase. His efforts paid off. The painting now hangs in the Fitzwilliam, just a few miles from Newmarket, immortalising horse, rider, patron and artist. Perhaps another victory for Gimcrack?
George Stubbs (1724-1806) Gimcrack with John Pratt up on Newmarket Heath, 1765, oil on canvas, 100 x 127 cm, Fitzwilliam Museum
All posts written and researched by Sarah Burles, founder of Cambridge Art Tours. The 'Art Lover's Guide to Cambridge' was sent out weekly during the recent Covid 19 lockdown while Cambridge museums, libraries and colleges were closed.