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One of George Stubbs' most celebrated works to lead Sotheby's London Old Master sale
George Stubbs (1724-1806), Tygers at Play, oil on canvas, 101.5 by 127cm; 40 by 50 in. (est. £4-6 million). Photo: Sotheby's.

LONDON.- Tygers at Play, one of George Stubbs’ most celebrated works is to lead Sotheby’s London Evening Sale of Old Master and British Paintings on 9 July 2014. Painted circa 1770-75, this masterful depiction of two leopard cubs ranks among Stubbs’ most popular subjects, reproduced in numerous prints. The painting itself, however, has rarely been seen in public, having been exhibited only four times since its original appearance at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Testament to the artist’s exceptional eye for capturing the animal form, this admirably preserved work boasts impeccable provenance, having been sold only once since it was commissioned from the English painter. It remained in the possession of a single family until 1962, when it was acquired by the present owners. Coming from a distinguished British aristocratic collection, Tygers at Play will be offered with an estimate of £4-6 million.

Talking about the sale of the painting, Julian Gascoigne, Specialist, British Paintings at Sotheby’s commented: “Major big cat compositions by Stubbs very rarely appear at auction. Having only passed through two careful owners since it was painted, this work is in perfect condition, down to the delicate whiskers of the leopards, which is exceptionally rare for a work of this date. Never has the art market been so global and the universal beauty of Stubbs’s animals appeals today to an ever-growing array of collectors across the world. We therefore very much look forward to exhibiting this extraordinary work in Hong Kong, Moscow, New York and London in the three months leading up to the sale”.

Of Stubbs’ four paintings of leopards, Tygers at Play is by far the most ambitious and dramatic. This rare example of the artist’s understanding of animal anatomy is also illustrative of his preoccupation with wild and exotic animals from the late 1760s and 1770s, which resulted in some of Stubbs’ greatest paintings, including his famous Lion and Horse series (a theme which emanated from his encounter with classical antiquity in Rome in 1754), as well as his famous paintings of an Indian Rhinoceros (c.1790/91, Hunterian Museum, Royal college of Surgeons), a Zebra presented to Queen Charlotte in 1762 (Paul Mellon Collection, Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven) and his portrait of The Kongouro from New Holland, recently acquired by the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

The seemingly incorrect title, Tygers at Play, which was used by Stubbs in the Royal Academy exhibition in 1776, and in the lettering for the engraving in 1780, seems curiously old fashioned given the artist’s studious and observant depiction of what are quite clearly leopards. A possible explanation would be that before circa 1750 the word “tiger”, or “tyger” was used as the generic term for all striped or spotted members of the cat family that were not lions.

Stubbs’ fascination with exotic animals was partly a symptom of the rise of menageries in mid-18th century London, stocked with wild beast brought back from Africa and India by men like Warren Hastings, and the contemporary fascination with exotic specimens from far off lands, which was fuelled by expeditionary voyages such as Captain Cook’s journey to the South Pacific in 1766, and his subsequent discovery of Australia in 1770.

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