As the first English artist to paint portraits of horses, John Wootton was considered the horse painter to the aristocracy for half a century. Indeed, the Earl of Egremont referred to him as ‘the best horse painter in England’.
Little is known of Wootton’s childhood, although as a young boy he may have served as a page to Lady Somerset, daughter of the Duke of Beaufort, on her marriage in 1690 to Thomas, later 2nd Earl of Coventry. Under the Duke’s influence Wootton visited Rome and would have been influenced by the classical painters (eg Claude and Poussin) in the English collections of his clients. Wootton painted some of the most famous racehorses of his time, often life-size. He frequently collaborated with a leading portrait painter, such as Thomas Hudson or William Hogarth, to paint the rider. In the present picture it is the hunter and not John Shafto who is the focus of the artist’s gaze. Shafto’s dog looks toward Shafto as servant to master but the hunter looks out at us as an equal.
In 1736 Wootton painted a series of massive hunting scenes for the Great Hall at Longleat, commissioned specifically for the space by Thomas, 2nd Viscount Weymouth. He is the gentleman with his hand on his hip on the left of the painting above the fireplace. The works celebrate Weymouth’s alliances and connection: his uncle Henry Villiers (son of the Earl of Jersey), his cousin the diplomat Thomas Villiers (later Earl of Clarendon) and his brother-in-law John Spencer of Althorp, father of the 1st Earl Spencer. There may be a more romantic subtext behind the subject matter of the paintings. It is said that they represent the tale of an orphan found in the woods, who was employed as a stable boy. The final picture, in the Upper West Corridor, depicts the boy aged fourteen, when he was killed trying to separate two fighting stallions. In 2003 the seven pictures, valued at ten million pounds, were acquired by Tate Britain in lieu of inheritance tax, though they remain in situ at Longleat.
Wootton’s contemporaries believed him to be the highest paid artist in England, and this may well have been the case, with the Prince of Wales, King George II and Sir Robert Walpole being just some of his patrons. He was the pre-eminent painter of sporting and landscape subjects for most of the eighteenth century