John Ferneley was one of the most gifted painters of sporting subjects of his generation and this magnificent picture shows the artist at the very height of his powers. By 1827 Ferneley was at the zenith of his career and was receiving many significant commissions. The then Lord Belgrave asked him to paint a large 'hunt scurry' of the Belvoir Hunt and Mr. Foljambe also commissioned a vast canvas depicting him on his horse with his hounds, surrounded by his friends. A very fine work from 1827 Two Hunters at Grass, of the same size and a similar composition to the present work, was sold Christie's, New York, 5 December 2003, lot 34 ($253,900).
Major Guy Paget summarizes Ferneley's talent and skill at rendering truly remarkable horse portraits in The Melton Mowbray of John Ferneley, 'The chief charm of Ferneley is the excellent drawing of his animals. The variety of his horses convinces you that they are true portraits. He invariably conveys a sense of space and fresh air. His landscapes are generally very pleasing, and his coloring is always soft and harmonious...When you look at a Ferneley you know the horse has another side, and that you can walk around him - he is not just stuck on a scene cloth' (p. 97).
The picture appears as number 266 in Ferneley's account book when sold to the Earl of Jersey for 30 guineas in 1827. In that year Cobweb had her first foal, a chestnut filly by Comus, which was never named. Filagree's produce, Charlotte West by Trump, also a chestnut filly, was a good deal more successful. Filagree was bred by Lord Jersey in 1815 by Soothsayer, out of Web, by Wascy. She won her only race (at Newmarket as a 3 year old in 1818) and then retired to study where she had 18 foals, the last one in 1840.
Filigree was half-sister to Middleton, a Derby winner and she was the dam of Riddlesworth, winner of the 2,000 Guineas. Also she was dam of Charlotte West who won four of her five races at three years old including the 1,000 Guineas. Her only defeat was when she was favorite for the Oaks but unplaced. Seemingly she did not train on as she was beaten in both her races at four years. Cobweb was another foal who had a rather more extensive career than her dam and was one of the best racehorses of the century. Foaled in 1821, she was by Phantom and considered one of the best looking horses imaginable. Like her mother she was not raced at two years old (Lord Jersey's usual approach) and only ran in three races at three years old before being retired to stud although perfectly sound. However, she beat the odds on Rebecca in the 1,000 Guineas and then won the Oaks readily enough. Her remarkably good looks and later success as a broodmare left her with a great reputation. Cobweb was the dam of Bay Middleton, winner of the 2,000 Guineas and the Derby and later at stud he sired the famous champion The Flying Dutchman. Cobweb was also the dam of Clematine, winner of the 1,000 Guineas and in total had 15 foals. She was also ancestress to Black Jester, Jest, Humorist, Picture Play, Ardan and Signal Light. Through another branch of Filagree's descendants, are Alycidon, Babu and Sayani. The successes of the Filagree and Cobweb family are quite remarkable and into the twentieth century include European stars such as Allez France and Royal Palme and in America La Troienne and her daughter Black Helen who descended from Filagree in the female line from Clemantine.
Lord Jersey (1773-1859), was father of Fred Villiers, Augustus Villiers, and George, Lord Villiers all of whom commissioned works from Ferneley. Paget notes that 'he was, like his sons, a very hard rider.' (op. cit., p. 66). He kept a large stud of horses at Melton. Paget records that 'At Middleton Park Lord Jersey has a fine collection of Ferneleys, chiefly racehorses, Cobweb and Filagree with foals, Bay Middleton, Riddlesworth, Glenartney, Sultan, Glencoe, and Beeswing and foals.' His first commission for Ferneley was for a portrait of his horse Cecil in 1815. An active member of the hunting community at Melton, Lord Jersey featured in the 'First Class' category in a classified list of hunting gentleman compiled in a book of hunting songs, collected by S.C. Musters, and published in 1883.