The character of creatures

COLORFUL characters'' quite often own colorful animals. In portraying the horses of the rich and landed, the 18th-century English artist George Stubbs must have come across a fair share of both. But this analytical, factually realistic artist is not usually thought of as a humorist, and he generally painted animals and human beings alike with a classical dignity and straightforwardness that are perfectly solemn. His solemnity, however, does not entirely rule out spirited affection, nor did his lifelong study of anatomy extinguish the inherent vitality of his subjects. Hints of something more softhearted do show through the finish and formality and accuracy of his art.

If we couldn't tell by looking at his paintings of dogs -- and of various wild animals from mouse lemurs to monkeys to leopards -- that Stubbs found delight and fellow-feeling in the particular character of creatures, we have it on written record that a white Persian cat he painted in enamel (now lost) was his ``particular favorite'' -- suggesting at least one relationship with an animal that went deeper than his apparently objective observation.

Perhaps his personal links with the animal kingdom were not, in fact, unlike the sort of regard animals sometimes form for each other. It can appear undemonstrative, even aloof: a kind of toleration based on having to share the same owners or house or field. But anyone with a dog and a cat knows how they can wind their way into each other's daily lives and achieve a friendliness that defies all the habitual ``rules'' of outdoor canine-feline warfare.

And there are also friendships that develop independently of forced circumstances. A bantam hen I once had in my farmyard in Yorkshire developed a strong devotion to one of the farmer's calves. It would perch for hours on the calf's back. They both seemed very happy with the arrangement.

And there is the recent case in the news of the gorilla that has its own ``pet'' kitten. It was encouraged to choose the kitten from a litter, and plays with it as gently as any sucking dove.

The painting by Stubbs of Colonel O'Kelly's racehorse Dungannon records a similar predilection of two animals for each other almost 200 years ago. The Sporting Magazine, in a catalog of various paintings, including this one, made by Stubbs for an unsuccessful publishing project, noted: ``The great attachment of this horse to a sheep, which by some accident got into his paddock, is very singular.''

Which brings us back to the unquestionably ``colorful'' character of the owner of both horse and sheep, Col. Dennis O'Kelly. If it weren't for various details and twists in the career of this self-made man, he might be thought rather forgettably disreputable. From Ireland he came to England and worked at first as a porter of sedan chairs, but then he proceeded to accumulate a fortune by buying, breeding, and betting on racehorses. He married a famous courtesan of the time and raised his social status by buying two things. First, a commission in the Middlesex Militia. And second, the former home of the Duke of Chandos.

Judy Egerton, in her catalog to the recent Stubbs exhibition at the Tate Gallery and Yale Center for British Art, writes further of this redoubtable colonel that ``membership of the Jockey Club, however, eluded him.'' (Apparently he was too colorful for that superior institution.)

She continues: ``Not the least of O'Kelly's claims to fame was ownership of a talking parrot which could whistle the 104th Psalm. . . . Determined that his fortune should not go as it had come, O'Kelly inserted a clause in his will that his heirs should forfeit 400 for every wager they made.''

It is difficult not to have a sneaking respect for one who so blatantly (and posthumously!) preached the ``do-as-I-say-and-not-as-I-do'' philosophy and even ensured compliance with a stiff penalty. But I like him better for his Psalm-whistling parrot. And best of all for his supremely elegant and companionable horse and sheep.

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