The present work is a study for the first of Wootton's impressive series of monumental hunting scenes commissioned by Charles Spencer, 5th Earl of Sunderland, and later 3rd Duke of Marlborough, to hang in the Palladian entrance hall at Althorp from c. 1734, now known, in reference to the pictures' importance, as 'The Wootton Hall'. The paintings depict Lord Spencer riding with the Althorp and Pytchley Hunt, including not only the local gentry, but every component of the hunt in careful detail, such as the kennel men, grooms, terriers, earth stoppers, and the Earl's favorite hunters. The present prototype is presumably one of a series of smaller pictures Wootton first painted to gain the Earl's approval for the scheme's design. It seems possible that the hounds in this study may have been worked on by an other hand.
According to a note in the diary of the 1st Earl of Egremont, dated Sunday, 7 April 1734, he viewed the finished paintings in the artist's studio before they were actually dispatched to Althorp: '[I] was called to go to Wootton the Painter's to see some large noble hunting pieces made by him for the Earl of Sunderland to be set up at Althorp. He is the best painter of horses in England.' John Wootton was certainly the pre-eminent painter of sporting and landscape subjects for the first half of the eighteenth century, and the hunting scenes at Althorp arguably precipitated his renown. It is likely that the success of the paintings in the Wootton Hall led to further important commissions for the artist, notably the seven canvases conceived for the Great Hall at Longleat, the seat of Thomas Thynne, 2nd Viscount Weymouth (1710-1751). Signed and dated 1736, the hunting scenes at Longleat, surely inspired by those at Althorp, incorporated portraits of the 2nd Viscount with his family and friends, his servants, and his favorite horses and hounds. At around the same time, Wootton was also working on the group of sporting pictures for the Entrance Hall at Badminton, Gloucestershire.
Little is known of the artist's early life, although as a young boy he may have served as a page to Lady Anne Somerset, daughter of the Duke of Beaufort, on her marriage to Thomas, later 2nd Earl of Coventry in 1690. From these families he appears to have received encouragement to take up painting, and perhaps also the introduction to his master, the Dutch painter Jan Wyck (1652-1700). Wootton was in London by 1706, and was a founder member of the Academy of Painting and Drawing in 1711. By 1717 he had been a steward of the Virtuosi Club of St. Luke's, and by the early 1730s, thanks largely to the Althorp commissions, had established an unrivalled reputation as the foremost painter of racing and hunting pictures in England. His success allowed him to move his studio in London from Soho to Cavendish Square, where his landlord was Edward Harley, later 2nd Earl of Oxford, another of his key patrons. The artist's success and the breadth of his aristocratic network of patrons were commented upon by George Vertue who wrote of him:
'Mr. J. Wotton [sic.] by his assiduous application & the prudent management of his affairs rais'd his reputation & fortune to a great height being well esteemed for his skill in landskip [sic.] paintings amongst the professor's [sic.] of art & in great vogue and favour with many persons of ye greatest quality...' ('The Note Books of George Vertue', Walpole Society, XXII, 1933-4, p. 34.).
Other important patrons of the artist included King George II, the Prince of Wales and Sir Robert Walpole, while the Earl of Sunderland commissioned further works, such as the two landscapes installed at Blenheim in 1746.