The Bloody Shouldered Arabian, so-called because of the red markings on his right shoulder (hence he is always shown from this side), was bought in Aleppo by Nathaniel Harley, who had settled there as a merchant in 1686. In 1705 he wrote home to his brother Edward 'that next to choosing a wife for a man, the most difficult thing is to please him with a Horse. I will do what I can to find both a Horse & Mare of the true Arab race.' It was to Edward that, aged seven, the stallion was sent, being subsequently given to his nephew, Lord Harley, later Earl of Oxford. Known variously as 'Lord Harley's Bloody Shouldered Arabian' (as with the inscription on this picture), or more often 'Lord Oxford's Bloody Shouldered Arabian', he was presumably at one time the property of a Mr Bassett, as the General Stud Book records him as 'Bassett's Oxford Bloody Shouldered Arabian'. Arabian horses were great status symbols, reflecting both their success as stallions and the considerable problems and costs associated with importing them, and the changing of their names as they passed through different ownerships was commonplace; his final owner, from 1729, may have been the Duke of Somerset. Wootton painted several portraits of the horse, his popularity as a subject probably accentuated by his exotic markings.
The Bloody Shouldered Arabian's most successful son was Sweepstakes (known as Bolton Sweepstakes to differentiate him from a good later horse of the same name), a chesnut colt foaled in 1722 out of a mare by Curwen's Old Spot, who won several King's Plates in the late 1720s, including a race at Newmarket in October 1728 when he beat top class horses in Victorious and Goliah. Other offspring included Brisk, and Sweepstakes was the maternal grandsire of Whistlejacket, whose monumental portrait by Stubbs is in the London National Gallery (see lot 12, page 70, fig 6).
Described by the Earl of Egmont in 1734 as 'the best painter of horses in England', John Wootton was the pre-eminent artist specialising in sporting and landscape subjects for most of the first half of the 18th century. The date of his birth, in Snitterfield, between Warwick and Stratford-on-Avon, is believed to be 1682. Little is known of his family 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 (or John) Wyck (1652-1700). Wootton was in London by 1706 when he married Elizabeth Walsh, although she died only five years later. His second marriage, in 1716, was to Rebecca Rutty, by whom he had two surviving children, a son Henry, and a daughter Elizabeth. He was a founder-member of the Academy of Painting and Drawing in 1711, and by 1717 had been elected a steward of the Virtuosi Club of St. Luke's.
Wootton's early works, particularly his battle and hunting scenes, were much influenced by Netherlandish painters such as Wyck, Siberechts and Dankerts, yet he was quick to assimilate the lessons of an established painting tradition with the changing demand of his patrons. Hence highly ambitious works such as The Warren Hill, Newmarket (eg The Bute Collection of Sporting Pictures, Christie's, London, 27 May 1999, lot 4) of circa 1715, represent a distinctive new subject from within the sporting genre. His classic single-horse portraits, such as the present picture, were in themselves an original formula presenting his subjects 'in a classic profile pose, with the form elegantly contoured against a decorous landscape setting' (A. Meyer, John Wootton, catalogue for the exhibition, London, 1984, p. 14). He was certainly an astute man as George Vertue recorded:
'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 paintings amongst the professors of art & in great vogue & favour with many persons of ye greatest quality, his often visiting of Newmarket in the seasons produced him much imployment in painting race horses, for which he had good prices, 40 gns. for a horse and 20 for one of a half-leng cloth.'
Wootton's many patrons included King George II, Frederick, Prince of Wales, Sir Robert Walpole, and many of the most prominent members of the aristocracy. The enormous entrance hall paintings he executed for Althorp, Longleat and Badminton all survive in situ, while his versatility as an artist is known through commissions for a pendant to a Claude owned by Henry Hoare, and a copy of a Dughet sea-piece for the Duke of Marlborough. He made a significant contribution to the development of a native school of painting in early 18th century Britain.