The George Stubbs painting of the racehorse Gimcrack sold for $36,085,530 yesterday at a Christie’s auction in London, setting a record price for a Stubbs painting. How deliciously ironic that the meaning of gimcrack is “an object of little use or value.” The painting was bought by an unidentified bidder. Its sales price makes it the third most valuable Old Master painting ever sold at auction.
But this is not just a painting. It is considered by many to be one of the finest examples of sporting art ever painted. To begin with, Gimcrack was quite a successful racehorse, winning 27 out of 36 starts and retiring to stud at the ripe old age of 11. He met and beat almost all of the top racehorses of his day, usually conceding both weight and age and was highly admired during his lifetime. His grandsire was the Godolphin Arabian and through his son, Medley, those bloodlines were introduced to the U.S.
The painting as was commissioned by Gimcrack’s owner, Viscount Bolingbroke. It was previously sold to the late Lord Woolavington who bought it in 1951 for £12,600. According to Christies, it was sold because the cost of insurance was so high and disproportionate to the value of the other works in the collection.
The painting is more than 6′ wide and its composition was highly unusual for the time of its painting. It shows two scenes: on the left, Gimcrack is shown with his jockey, trainer and groom; on the right the horse is shown racing. Most unusual is the expanse of sky and clouds which was not typical of paintings from that era.
Stubbs (1724-1806) was perhaps the best painter of horses in art history. His paintings were highly valued for their accuracy and skill. Perhaps his most well known painting is of Whistlejacket, which now hangs in London’s National Gallery.