Executed in 1759 for Thomas Osborne, 4th Duke of Leeds, this picture is a fine example of the hunting scenes that established Wootton's reputation as the pre-eminent painter of sporting and landscape subjects in England in the first half of the eighteenth century.
Thomas Osborne was the only son of Peregrine Hyde, 3rd Duke of Leeds (1691-1731), and his first wife, Lady Elizabeth Harley, daughter of Robert, 1st Earl of Oxford. Educated at Westminster and Christ Church, Oxford, he succeeded his father in 1731, inheriting Kiveton Hall in Yorkshire and much of the great fortune that had been settled on the 3rd Duke by his grandfather, Thomas Osborne, the 1st Duke, who as Earl of Danby had been minister to King Charles II. On 26 June 1740 the 4th Duke married Lady Mary Godolphin, second daughter and eventually sole heiress of Francis, 2nd Earl of Godolphin and Henrietta Churchill, later Duchess of Marlborough in her own right.
Set at the end of a day's hunting, the 4th Duke, seated on his horse, gestures towards a young boy holding a hare in the centre of the composition. This figure is surely the 4th Duke's eight year old son and successor, Francis Osborne (1751-1799), Marquess of Carmarthen, who later served as secretary of state for foreign affairs in William Pitt's government between 1783-91. On 29 November 1773 Francis married Lady Amelia D'Arcy, daughter and heiress of Robert, 4th Earl of Holdernesse. They had two sons and a daughter, but the marriage ended in scandal when the Marchioness ran off with Captain Jack Byron, also known as 'Mad Jack Byron', father of the poet Lord Byron.
Hornby Castle, the principal seat of the Dukes of Leeds after Kiveton Hall was demolished in 1812, housed a considerable collection of works by Wootton. Both the 3rd and 4th Dukes were key patrons of the artist and no fewer than fifteen pictures by Wootton are listed in the inventory of 1898 (op. cit), including the Arabian Mare given by King Louis XIV of France to Lord Petre, the Bloody Shouldered Arabian, and The Battle of Dettingen of 1743. A picture recorded in an earlier inventory from 1868, described as a Dog and Monkey and hanging in the Blue Drawing Room, can be identified as the work by Wootton that was most probably given to the 4th Duke by his uncle, Edward Harley, 2nd Earl of Oxford (see A. Meyer, John Wootton 1682-1764: Landscapes and sporting art in early Georgian England, exhibition catalogue, Kenwood House, London, 1984, p. 47, no. 20). Harley, a staunch Tory who patronised a famous coterie of literary figures, was arguably Wootton's most important patron and introduced the artist to Alexander Pope, Matthew Prior and Jonatahan Swift. Wootton also became a prominent member of the group of painters and sculptors that included Michael Dahl, Christian Friedrich Zincke and John Michael Rysbrack, who gathered at Welbeck Abbey,Harley's seat in Nottinghamshire.
Intermarriages amongst the families of Wootton's key patrons played a vital role in securing his reputation as the foremost painter of sporting subjects in his day; in addition to the early support of the 4th Duke's uncle Edward Harley, Wootton also received the patronage of the 2nd Earl of Godolphin, for whom he painted the celebrated Godolphin Arabian, one of the three foundation sires of the modern thoroughbred. Other major painters related to the Duke of Leeds included Lady Mary's brother-in-law Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle, and her first cousin Charles Spencer, 3rd Duke of Marlborough, who commissioned the series of canvases dating from circa 1733-4 which decorate the Hunting Hall at Althorp.
This picture, executed two years before the artist stopped painting, is a superb example of the grand scale hunting scenes that led Horace Walpole to write of Wootton : 'He was particularly qualified to please in this country... by painting horses and dogs, which he both drew and coloured with consummate skill, fire and truth' (The Works of Horace Walpole, Earl of Orford, London, 1798, III, p. 443).