Painting in Britain, 1530 to 1790

By Ellis Waterhouse | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 22
SPORTING PAINTERS FROM WOOTTON TO STUBBS

AFTER the portraits of himself, his wife, and his children the English patron of the eighteenth century liked best to have a portrait of his horse, and copies or engravings of portraits of famous horses or sporting scenes were in at least as great demand as portraits of the royal family or of popular heroes. But patrons were often less fastidious over the artistic quality of horse pictures than of human portraits, and the general run of sporting painting, although of absorbing interest to the social historian and to the student of the turf, is on a level with the work of those lesser portraitists whose achievements are passed over in silence in this book. To discuss the Sartorius tribe and such painters is no business of the historian of art, no matter how bitter the accusations of neglect are wont to be from those specialist writers who sometimes confuse the history of art with praising famous horses. The founder of sporting genre in England, Francis Barlow, was a distinguished painter in his own right; the Kneller of the field, John Wootton, made a valuable contribution to the British landscape tradition; George Stubbs was one of our great masters; and, after the period with which this book deals, Ben Marshall, who first emerges as a sporting painter in 1792, deserves a respectable niche in the history of British painting. The other figures who deserve mention are few.

The racecourse at Newmarket seems to have been the centre from which sporting pictures originated. The three founders of the school, Wootton, Tillemans, and Seymour, all worked there, and some of the most attractive early sporting pictures are panoramic views of Newmarket Heath with a string of horses. Such paintings are rather numerous, and, without the signatures, it is not always easy to tell a Wootton from a Tillemans. They show the first marriage of the topographical tradition of landscape with a sporting element.

John Wootton (d. 1756) was born early enough to have been a pupil of Wyck in the 1690s and to have assisted Siberechts in 1694. Wyck was a battle painter and Siberechts a specialist in a landscape style which was just beginning to break away from the topographical tradition. To this background Wootton himself added only a specialization in the painting of the horse, and, in the first reference to him among the Welbeck accounts, in 1714, he is described as 'ye horse painter'. He is very liberally represented at Welbeck and his horse portraits vary little in style from 1714 until the end of his career. The normal run is of pictures about 40 × 50 in., with the horse in profile, held by a groom, with a suspicion of a classic portico indicating a gentleman's stables at one side. Sometimes there are two grooms, sometimes a dog is added, sometimes a classical pot, but the formula is constant. Sometimes too the picture is life size. From this basic type Wootton's other kinds of picture evolve -- the sporting conversation piece, hunt groups, and so on. He was nearly as prolific as Kneller and prospered proportionately. Hounds also did not come amiss to his brush and, in his earlier years, he was not above doing a portrait of a lap dog.

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