Painting the strange: George Stubbs’s yak and rhinoceros

‘Our collection of plants was now grown so immensly large that it was necessary that some extraordinary care should be taken of them least they should spoil in the books. I therefore devoted this day to that business and carried all the drying paper, near 200 Quires of which the larger part was full, ashore and spreading them upon a sail in the sun kept them in this manner exposd the whole day, often turning them and sometimes turning the Quires in which were plants inside out.’
- Joseph Banks

Banks was one of many gentlemen scientist collectors who worked to help understand and organize the natural world. Banks though was one of the few that actually went out into the field to see these plants and animals in their natural state. The Stubbs paintings, which the Royal Museums Greenwich are trying to acquire, hung in his Soho Square house and are examples of some materials that decorated rooms across London where those interested in science would gather.

George Stubbs was commissioned by others, like John Hunter, to paint the new and strange animals being discovered. John Hunter’s Leicester Square ‘museum’ would later become the Hunterian Museum were you can see two other works on display that Stubbs was commissioned to paint. The two pictures are of a rhinoceros that was brought to London in 1790 and very curious-looking yak painted in 1791. It is so interesting to see Stubbs, who we know more for his horses, paint these unusual animals.

Mike Sarna is Director of Programming and Exhibitions at Royal Museums Greenwich