This magnificent work is a tour de force in Ferneley's oeuvre. Only a handful of the artist's pictures equal it for scale and ambition - the photograph showing it hanging in the dining room at Osberton Hall, the Foljambe family seat in Nottinghamshire (see fig. 1), gives a sense of the original context for this grand and imposing composition, with the silver firs towering above the room just as they do the men in the picture. For an artist governed by the constraints of rather formulaic portrait commissions, here one feels Ferneley was able to give a notably more free reign to his artistic expression. Never having previously appeared on the market, the picture also survives in remarkable condition.
The sixth son of a Leicestershire village wheelwright, Ferneley's talent was spotted at a young age by the Duke of Rutland, who, in 1801, sponsored him to travel to London and take up an apprenticeship under Ben Marshall. His rise to prominence was fast, exhibiting his first picture at the Royal Academy in 1806, and quickly finding favour with a number of key aristocratic and land-owning patrons. By 1814 he was established at a purpose-built house and studio in Melton Mowbray, which, at the centre of the Quorn, Cottesmore and Belvoir hunting countries, was very much at the heart of the hunting world. A congenial and popular character, Ferneley was a sporting man through and through, and while hunting - and the commissions it brought - was undoubtedly central to his life, he followed all manner of other sports. Subjects he painted included racing, stalking, coursing, coaching, archery and horse-fair scenes.
George Savile Foljambe, in whose family the present picture has descended, is depicted at the centre of Silver Firs at Osberton beside his father-in-law, Sir William Milner. With them are three game-keepers, a large group of Clumber spaniels (a relatively new, but popular breed at the time; Queen Victoria thought them 'such nice, dear dogs') and the day's bag: pheasant, woodcock and hare. Foljambe was one of Ferneley's most important patrons, and the photograph of the picture in situ at Osberton shows it hanging between two pairs of horse portraits by the artist. Writing in 1931, Guy Paget (op.cit.) recorded 'At Osberton the dining-room walls are entirely covered with Ferneleys'. An important hunting group of The Rufford Hunt (1827) hung above the sideboard while 'over the mantel-piece is a most artistic shooting picture with a team of Clumber spaniels'.