This impressive picture is among the earliest portraits of a horse painted in England, preceded only by the large painting of a grey horse at Hatfield Hall, dated 1594. Placed in the immediate foreground, the unsaddled animal dominates the composition, with only one clue as to its ownership--the house glimpsed beyond the rock to the left, identified as Worcester House. Although traditionally thought to be one of the large-scale horse pictures painted for the Duke of Newcastle at Welbeck, it is now known that these could not have been commissioned until the Duke's return to England in 1658.
Originally known as Bedford House, Worcester House was built in 1522 by John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford, on a grant of land from Henry VIII. In 1612 it was purchased by Edward Somerset, 4th Earl of Worcester. His son Henry Somerset, the 5th Earl, advanced King Charles I large sums of money at the outbreak of the Civil War and was created Marquess of Worcester in 1643. From 1642 Worcester garrisoned Raglan Castle, one of the last strongholds to stand against Parliamentarian forces, finally succumbing to Fairfax in 1646. In October of that year, the captured Worcester was brought to London; imprisoned in Covent Garden, he died there in 1646. Although the present picture bears the date 1647, it was almost certainly the 1st Marquess that commissioned this portrait of a favourite steed, while in London; his son Edward was in Ireland from September 1646 until June 1647, and like so many staunch Royalists, left for France early the following year. Worcester House continued to play an important role after the Restoration; having been rented by the Earls of Clarendon, it served (as Clarendon House) as the setting for the secret marriage of James II to Anne Hyde. It was destroyed in 1683, and the site subsequently became the location of Beaufort House (another Somerset residence) and eventually of the Savoy Hotel.
Jacob Peter Gowy ('Gouwy' in Flemish) became a master of the Antwerp Guild of Saint Luke in 1636/37. He is recorded as an assistant of Sir Peter Paul Rubens, working under the latter's direction in painting decorative works for the Torre della Parada, a hunting lodge of King Philip IV near Madrid. Three of his paintings for the series, including The Fall of Icarus (illustrated in The Burlington Magazine, 110/782, May 1968, no. 45), are in the Museo del Prado, Madrid. It is not known when he came to England, but Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677) etched two of Gowy's portraits in 1644, and Gowy painted Thomas Wood (Oxford, Christ Church College), as well as a portrait of an unknown man c. 1645 to 1650, formerly at Wilton.
Although there are precedents in English painting for large-scale depictions of horses, these are (with the exception of the Hatfield horse of 1594) invariably within more complex compositions--often scenes of hunting, battle or procession. After the Hatfield horse, the present picture is the earliest painting in which the horse is the main subject, and which legitimately can be called a 'horse portrait'. When the picture was sold in these rooms in 1987, a saleroom notice became the first published record of an entry in a family inventory dated 1885, describing a 'White Horse "Grey Haddon" with groom. J. Govwy 1647 and numbered 154'.
The picture's place in the history of British sporting art is further assured by the probable influence it had on John Wootton, whose large-scale horse pictures at Althorp, Badminton and Longleat are among the greatest works of the type. In his youth Wootton was page to Lady Anne Somerst, daughter of the 1st Duke of Beaufort and wife of Thomas, 2nd Earl of Coventry. Indeed, it was the Beauforts who encouraged Wootton to pursue painting, and it is likely that Wootton would have seen the present picture in their collection. This early exposure to a truly monumental example of horse painting was to instill in Wootton a sense for the possibilities of the field that made him one of the most vigorous and daring of its exponents.