George Stubbs, 3rd Duke of Portland, Welbeck Abbey, 1766

This is one of two paintings by George Stubbs in The Portland Collection and was commissioned by the 3rd Duke of Portland. George Stubbs knew Welbeck well and painted several pictures here. He also used nearby Creswell Crags as a backdrop for some of his horse portraits.

The 3rd Duke of Portland (1738 – 1809) inherited Welbeck in 1762, and this painting was commissioned shortly afterwards. The scene is set outside of Welbeck Abbey’s Titchfield Library, which was originally built by William Cavendish as a riding school. This references the 3rd Duke’s impressive family history.

William Cavendish (1593 – 1676) was the grandson of Bess of Hardwick. He is best known for his passion for horsemanship and was regarded as the finest horseman in Europe, particularly in manège, which was the art of training horses to a high level of obedience. Cavendish wrote two books on this subject, which are still considered the work of a true master.

This painting shows the 3rd Duke on horseback, accompanied by a groom and a stable boy. The horse is clearly well-bred, and the Duke is shown in a classic pose which is designed to show his authority. When the painting was shown in an exhibition in 1767 it was given the vague title A nobleman on horseback, but visitors at the time would have recognised who it was. The 3rd Duke was a well-known and influential figure – he was Prime Minister twice (with an extraordinary 24 years between his terms in office) and married Lady Dorothy Cavendish from Chatsworth. The 3rd Duke also takes a place in history as the great-great-great grandfather of Queen Elizabeth II.

George Stubbs

George Stubbs, William Henry Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland and his younger brother Lord Edward, 1767-68. Available on Bridgeman Images.

The Duke was clearly pleased with Stubbs’s work as only a year or so later he commissioned a second portrait, showing him and Lord Edward Bentinck watching a groom training a young horse at an adjustable jumping bar. Stubbs has carefully depicted the parkland setting at Welbeck, including the great oaks for which it was famous. The Duke took immense pride in the ancient woodlands he had inherited, which he enhanced with extensive new plantations. Unlike most of Stubbs’s patrons, such as Lord Rockingham, who hung his works in their country houses, the Duke took his to London, no doubt to remind him of the pleasures of the countryside as he pursued his demanding political career.

Michael Hall, Treasures of The Portland Collection