'In showing hunters at grass Ferneley is at his best, balancing to a nicety his main subject and his background, neither over-emphasising the former nor slurring the latter.' (Major G. Paget, The Melton Mowbray of John Ferneley, Leicester, 1931, p. 28).
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. He was born in Thrussington, Leicestershire, the youngest son of a wheelwright. His artistic ability was first recognised by John, 5th Duke of Rutland, who noticed some pictures which Ferneley he had painted on the side of a cart on which his father, to whom he was apprenticed, had been working. The Duke is said to have persuaded Ferneley's father to allow him to become a pupil of Ben Marshall, himself of Leicestershire origin, who was then working in London. Ferneley studied and lodged with Marshall between 1801 and 1804 and was enrolled by him in the Royal Academy Schools. After leaving Marshall's studio in 1804, Ferneley spent time in Norfolk and then at Lincoln where he first met Thomas Assheton Smith, who became a life-long friend and for whom he painted several celebrated pictures of the Quorn.
In 1809, returning from a year long stay in Ireland, he married Sally Kettle, of Gaddesby, near Melton. In 1814 they settled in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, where he built a studio and later a house, Elgin Lodge. Ferneley flourished with a steady stream of patronage and his work became very fashionable. His patrons included many of the most famous sportsmen of the day, and members of some of the most prominent aristocratic families, including the Dukes of Somerset, Rutland, Richmond, Westminster, Hamilton, Leeds and Beaufort; the Marquises of Waterford, Exeter and Bath; the Duchess of Montrose; and the Earls of Bathurst, Jersey, Wemyss, Lichfield, Durham, Sandwich, Coventry, and Cardigan. Of the six children from his first marriage, Claude Lorraine, John and Sarah all became artists, while Charles, his son from his second marriage, to a Miss Allen, became a notable pioneer of photography.
Paget summarises Ferneley's talent and skill at rendering truly remarkable horse portraits, '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 round him - he is not just stuck on a scene cloth' (op. cit., p. 97).
Ferneley was discovered by American sportsmen long before English collectors or dealers became seriously interested in his works. At the beginning of the twentieth century collectors such as the Mellon family, Ambrose Clarke, Marshall Field, Percy Pine, Harvey Ladew, W.R. Grace and Mrs Jones, Junior bought his pictures. The two principle qualities of a portrait by Ferneley, which are both very much in evidence in the present work, are the exquisite drawing of the horses' heads and the sophistication of his landscapes, 'All the veins stand out, and the eyes are bright and intelligent. He is fond of a soft bluish landscape, which so truly portrays the hazy effect which the cold clay soil gives to the horizon in Leicestershire. His distances are soft and blending; they recede naturally into his skies.' (Paget, op. cit., p. 102).
In 1827 Ferneley was at the height 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. Paget considered this 'the best Ferneley I have ever seen' (op. cit., p. 44). In Ferneley's Account Book, of the pictures noted under the year 1827, entry no. 262, which reads 'The Marquis of Worcester Portrait of Two Horses', appears to relate most closely to the present work although this has not yet been confirmed.