George Pitt (1751-1828), 2nd Baron Rivers of Stratfield Saye, Hampshire was Agasse's first, most important and most faithful patron. The only son of the first Lord of Stratfield Saye, George Pitt succeeded his father to the title of 2nd Lord Rivers in 1803. He counted himself amongst the Prince of Wales' personal friends and was described as 'a pleasant, elegant man, one of the last of that breed of dandies from a bygone age' in Lady Charlotte Perry's diary of 1810 (Lady Charlotte Perry, Diary of a Lady-in-Waiting, published in George E. Cockayne, The Complete Peerage of England, Scotland, Ireland, Great Britain and the United Kingdom, vol. I, 1838, p. 42.)
Lord Rivers bred greyhounds both at Stratfield Saye, where he also had a famous stud, and at his Cambridgeshire estate, Hare Park, aptly named and conveniently situated for coursing meetings at Swaffham and Newmarket. Agasse reflected Lord Rivers' enthusiasm for coursing in some of his most brilliant canvases. These include three versions of Lord Rivers Coursing on Newmarket Heath, a splendid composition that is one of his most prestigious works. They are located in the Musée d'Art et Histoire, Geneva; the Lane Fox Collection, Bramham Park and the last sold at Sotheby's, New York, 4 June 1987, lot 90.
In the present work, Lord Rivers is seen out for a walk dressed in a long brown coat, boots and a top hat. Looking slightly to the right and gripping a long walking-stick in both hands, he is accompanied by his two greyhounds. The lightly wooded moorland landscape, with its background of low hills is probably Newmarket. Apart from bearing a resemblance to the landscape shown in Portrait of Lord Rivers Coursing at Newmarket with his Friends (1818), in 1815, Lord Rivers had suffered financial setbacks and had been obliged to sell Stratfield Saye and as such it could not have been painted there.
Although there is no mention of the present portrait in Agasse's Manuscript Record Book, it can be compared stylistically with the picture painted in 1825 for which Agasse's entry reads, 'P.[ortrait] Copy of a whole length figure of Ld. Rivers with greyhound' and of which only Syer's engraving is known to survive.
In his animal paintings and in his knowledge of anatomy Agasse 'is clearly the equal of Stubbs and also of Landseer, but without the anthropomorphism of the latter.' (C. Sanger, Jacques Laurent Agasse, London, 1988, p. 39). In the present work, Agasse displays not only perfect draughtsmanship but also anatomical precision and convincingly captures the elegant pose and enigmatic quality of the two dogs. The black greyhound is Young Snowball, son of the famous Snowball, who was not only the first greyhound to be entered in a race but the winner of every race he ran. Agasse painted Young Snowball in January 1810, and the picture was engraved using a mixture of techniques in a combination of etching, mezzotint and aquatint by Charles Turner and published, according to Hardy, in 1818 (C.F. Hardy, 'The Life and Work of Jacques-Laurent Agasse', Connoisseur, August 1916, p. 197, illus.).
Prior to the 1988-9 exhibition at the Tate, London and Musée d'Art et d'Histoire, Geneva, very little was written about Agasse. He is a difficult artist to grasp as his work is atypical, he neither conforms to the image one has of late 18th-early 19th Century Swiss painting, nor does his great output in England fit stylistically with the contemporary British art of Turner or Constable. Following a tradition of artists establishing themselves in their native country and then going to Britain to make a second career, Agasse arrived in England from Switzerland with a technique and sensitivity that made him second only to George Stubbs as a sporting artist and painter of animals.
Agasse arrived in London in the autumn of 1800. He had one connection, with the Hon. George Pitt, the future 2nd Lord Rivers whom he had met in Geneva in about 1790 and was determined to establish himself in England as a sporting painter. Despite being a position even lower in Academic esteem than that of a landscape painter at the time, it nevertheless had a well-developed and a separate market with its own conventions and hierarchy of talent. He received an immediate commission, probably through Pitt, to paint a portrait of Gaylass, a black mare owned by E.H. Delne-Radcliffe, the Prince of Wales's racing manager. The portrait was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1802 and from this other commissions followed. He also collaborated with the engraver Charles Turner on a series of prints until 1818 and thereafter worked with several of the well-established print publishers in London, including Ackermann, Colnaghi and Francis Moon. Finally, he established himself as a painter of sporting subjects for sale at the London exhibitions. In 1801, just six months after his arrival, two of his works were accepted for exhibition at the Royal Academy and he continued to exhibit there until 1845. A measure of his contemporary success was not only his extensive list of patrons, but also the demand made for several copies of his most famous works, the frequent requests to paint the animals in works by other artists and the significant prices he was able to command at the highpoint of his career. Sanger concludes in the 1988 exhibition catalogue, 'Overall, Agasse's evident concern to present a faithful record of human and animal affairs is perhaps best characterised as 'Biedermeier', a term lacking the programmatic connotations of 'Romanticism' or 'Realism' but often used in a broader European context to identify a distinctive and un-selfconscious sense of innocence in the art and social life of the early nineteenth century.' (ibid, p. 39).