Stephen Pearce, whose father was in the Crown Equerry's office, was born in the Royal Mews at Charing Cross and was brought up in the new stables or 'mews' built behind Buckingham Palace. This exposure to the daily life of an active stables seems to have influenced the direction of his career as an artist. He studied at the Royal Academy and at Sass's Academy and was a pupil of Sir Martin Archer Shee for two years, first exhibiting at the Royal Academy in 1839 with a portrait of Tartar the King's favourite saddle horse. In 1842, his career took a different path when he became tutor-secretary to the household of the Anglo-Irish novelist Charles Lever, the author of Charles O' Malley (1841), and he did not work as an artist again until 1848. In the early stages of his career he concentrated primarily on painting portraits, among them his well known portrait of the Artic Council discussing the plan for the search for Sir John Franklin (London, National Portrait Gallery) but he later turned increasingly to the genre of equestrian portraiture for which he is best known.
Pearce was commissioned by a committee of coursers from England, Scotland and Ireland to paint this large scale composition in 1862. The picture was to be presented to William, 2nd Earl of Craven, the owner of Ashdown Park, as a token of respect and esteem and an acknowledgement of the generosity shown by Lord Craven and his family for allowing coursing over his estates for many years. In his Reminiscences (op.cit.) the well known sportsman and courser William Borron, whose portrait is included in the picture, commented of coursing at Ashdown Park, where the sport had been part of the fabric of life since the 17th Century, that the:
'estate affords the very best coursing in all England, and its meetings, attended by hundreds of carriages and ladies and gentlemen on horseback in uniform or fancy costumes, headed by the Earl and Countess and their fine family of sons and beautiful daughters, was indeed a grand and splendid spectacle to behold - a fairy scene unequalled anywhere, and one on which imagination delights to dwell, and its memory never to be forgotten.'
The picture - for which £1200 was paid - was originally to include thirty portraits but in the end the finished work included double that number. The commission came at an important moment in the artist's career and its scale and ambition no doubt reflected Pearce's understanding that its success would be crucial for his future career. In his autobiography Pearce commented that it 'was the most complicated picture I ever painted' (op.cit. p. 113). Pearce took great care with the many portraits, most of which were sat for at his London studio at 54 Queen Anne Street. There was some criticism of the length of time that the picture took to complete and in his autobiography Pearce complained of the 'troublesome, wearisome, and difficult business to obtain sittings from the many who were scattered over England, Ireland and Scotland'.
In order to paint the coursing meeting and the downs where it took place convincingly Pearce made several visits to Ashdown. He attended his first coursing meeting there in the autumn of 1863, and painstakingly studied the landscape from the vantage point of a 'rubbing House' on 'One O'Clock Hill'. On these visits he initially stayed with Lord and Lady Craven but he later availed himself of the hospitality of their son-in-law the Hon. George Brudenell Bruce, staying with him at Whitestone Lodge, at the foot of White Horse Hill.
The composition, selected by the committee on the basis of a preliminary sketch that the artist made following his initial visit, shows a cavalcade ascending the downs just before the sport commenced. The Earl of Craven is shown in a yellow coat and breeches, mounted on his horse, at the centre of the composition, with his daughter Lady Evelyn Brudenell-Bruce just beyond him. Lord Craven's family are well represented in the picture which includes his wife Lady Emily Craven, his eldest son William, Viscount Uffington, and his younger brother the Hon. Frederick Keppel Craven (1812-1864). Alongside them are other members of his family, friends and many notable sportsmen of the time. The picture includes several important figures from the world of coursing; William Borron, who represented coursing in Scotland, is shown in the grey uniform of the Ardossan club, as is Lord Bective, who represented the sport in Ireland. Ashdown house, with its hipped roof topped by two massive chimneys and octagonal cupola, which Pearce described in his autobiography as 'quite out of this world in the midst of the wild downs' can be seen in the distance to the left. The house was built in the 1662, for the William, 1st Earl of Craven, as a refuge for King Charles I's sister Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia, who was to die before its completion. It was given to the National Trust by Cornelia Countess of Craven in 1956.
An old plaque on the frame identifies the sitters from left to right.