This sporting conversation piece probably represents the 3rd Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, either preparing for, or returning from a hunt. Charles Spencer, 3rd Duke of Marlborough and 5th Earl of Sunderland (1706-1758), succeeded to the dukedom in 1733, however, he did not gain possession of Blenheim until the death of his grandmother Sarah, the Duchess Dowager, in 1744.
The Duke, dressed in a uniform of General's rank and wearing the ribbon of the Garter and the Star of that Order, rests against a plinth in the far right-hand corner, while the Duchess is mounted on her chestnut to the left. An old handwritten label on the stretcher identifies the setting as Blenheim, however, Arlene Meyer, author of the 1984 Kenwood exhibition catalogue, commented that: 'there can surely be no doubt that the setting is fictitious' (A. Meyer, 1984 exhibition catalogue, p.41). The composition is dominated by the Duke's white hunter and groom, a study for which exists in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, referred to by Meyer as Wootton's 'finest surviving preparatory drawing from life' (ibid). The present work may in fact constitute a preparatory sketch for a larger composition, since the heads of the Duke and Duchess are only summarily treated. Meyer dated this work to the 1740s on stylistic grounds, explaining that by this date 'the poetic tonality of Wootton's classical landscape paintings had decidedly influenced his sporting conversation pieces' (ibid.). In addition, Meyer pointed to general compositional links with works by Dutch 17th century artists, such as Philip Wouwermans, and made a direct comparison with John Wyck's Going out to the Hunt (engraved by John Smith in 1713), in which a statue of Mars dominates a gathering of figures in the same way that the shrouded figure of the Farnese Flora pervades the present composition. The classical statue and urn add a sense of grandeur and nobility to the scene.
John Wootton was the pre-eminent painter of sporting and landscape subjects for the first half of the eighteenth century. 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 Wyck (1652-1700). Wootton was in London by 1706, and was a founder member of the Academy of Painting and Drawing in 1711. By 1717 he had been a steward of the Virtuosi Club of St. Luke's.
Charles Spencer, 5th Earl of Sunderland and later 3rd Duke of Marlborough was a major patron of Wootton, commissioning a series of paintings to decorate the hunting hall at Althrop in c.1733 and two landscapes, which were installed at Blenheim in 1746. Wootton was also patronised by King George II, the Prince of Wales, Sir Robert Walpole and many prominent members of the aristocracy.