Stories of John Frederick Herring’s early life tend towards the romantic, and many are perhaps more fanciful than factual, but what is known is that he lived with his father Benjamin, a fringe maker and upholsterer, his mother Sarah and eight siblings in Blackfriars from 1795 until 1814. Whilst there he is said, like many young boys throughout the centuries, to have become obsessed with the latest, fastest mode of transport: in this instance the crack coaches of the turnpike age which passed his father’s shop on Newgate Street daily. Legend has it that his first drawing lesson came from the driver of one such coach, the London-Woking, and that the sketching of horses occupied his spare time from an early age, and led to his first commissions painting inn signs. The next known fact is that in September 1814 Herring arrived in Doncaster just in time to witness the Duke of Hamilton’s William winning the St Leger. Whether that timing was by design or just pure luck is a matter for speculation, and indeed the rumours as to why he moved to Yorkshire abound: he may have eloped; fled disapproving parents after a hasty marriage; or just have boarded the London-Doncaster coach on one of its daily passages past his father’s shop. Whatever his reasoning, the move to Doncaster proved to be a fortunate one, and after six years working as a coach driver on both the local Yorkshire and London routes, all the while continuing to paint in his leisure time, Herring secured enough of a reputation to allow him to turn to art full time. Amongst his most important early patrons was Mr Hawkesworth of Hickleton Hall who secured Herring several commissions during his first year as a professional artist from the local gentry, including Sir Bellingham Graham and the Hon. Edward Petre (see lot 7).
By the time the present work was painted in 1824 Herring’s reputation in Yorkshire was firmly established through paintings such as The Countess of Darlington's Carriage Ponies, dated 1823, which is in the collection of Lord Barnard at Raby Castle (exhibited at Washington, National Gallery, The Treasure Houses of Britain, 1985-6, no. 438). It is, therefore, highly likely that John Barker commissioned this magnificent portrait from the artist of the day in order to cement his standing in the local community, choosing to depict himself as an elegantly attired country gentleman enjoying a day’s shooting alongside his friend John Bratsby. Significantly Herring has dated the painting Aug. 12, in other words the Glorious Twelfth, signifying the start of the grouse season. The title states that John Barker was the owner of Leighton Hall in Yorkshire, however there appears to be no surviving record of the house.
A very similar painting by Herring of these two sitters, currently in a French private collection, was identified by a descendant of John Batsby as Mr. John Batsby and friend with their guns and pointers on the Yorkshire Moors (A. Vandervell and C. Coles, Game and the English Landscape, New York, 1980, p. 115, illustrated). The only variations appear to be that the pointer on the right is looking backwards and the pose of the gentlemen is slightly altered. Since both paintings are the same size, it is probable that Herring produced one painting for each of the two friends, John Barker and John Batsby. Both pictures demonstrate Herring’s virtuosity as a landscape artist and portraitist, skilfully capturing the characters of his sitters and their surroundings and indicating that he had yet to cement his reputation as a painter of race winning thoroughbreds and gleaming hunters.