Datable to circa 1715, this picture is one of the most celebrated images of early 18th Century racing. Quick to assimilate the lessons of an established painting tradition with the changing demands of his patrons, with this set-piece Wootton created a startlingly original composition which met with instant success.
By the late 17th Century, Newmarket had established itself as the racing capital of England, and here were trained the racehorses of many of the leading owners in the country. Wootton, based in London by 1706, was an astute man who, doubtless both executing and seeking commissions, visited Newmarket regularly as George Vertue recorded:
'Mr.J. Wotton [sic] by his assiduous application & the prudent management of his affairs rais'd his reputation & fortune to a great height being well esteemed for his skill in landskip paintings amongst the professors of art & in great vogue & favour with many persons of ye greatest quality, his often visiting of Newmarket in the seasons produced him much imployment in painting race horses, for which he had good prices, 40 gns. for a horse and 20 for one of a half-leng cloth.'
In this picture the artist shows himself standing in the foreground sketching the grey, a similar self-portrait to that which he used in King George I at Newmarket (Collection of the late Paul Mellon).
Warren Hill lies to the east of Newmarket and Wootton's view looking north takes in the side of the town with St. Mary's Church, beyond the steeple of which can be glimpsed the King's Stand to the left, and the King's Stables to the right. The outline of Ely Cathedral can just be made out on the far right of the horizon. Arlene Meyer, in the catalogue of the Kenwood exhibition (op.cit), suggests an origin for the wooden structure to the right of the carriage on the hill: 'In the reign of Charles II, whose enthusiasm was largely responsible for the subsequent development of Newmarket as the principal centre for racing, the King's Chair was placed at the summit of the hill so that he could watch the training gallops of the horses. A large portable sedan chair somewhat answering the description of this earlier one is shown in Wootton's painting.'
It has often been suggested that Tregonwell Frampton, Keeper of the King's Running Horses, is depicted, and he is perhaps most likely to be the lone figure standing in the middle of the scene. Several of the other characters in the picture appear to have been painted as specific portraits although their identities have not been established. The mounted figure in the foreground, with his back to the spectator, holds a particularly prominent position, and may be William, 2nd Duke of Devonshire (1672-1729), who had succeeded in 1707 and was a Knight of the Garter (as indicated by the star on his blanket). Before him is a prominent string of horses, the identity of whose owner has, in other versions of the picture, caused some confusion. Here, though, they are clearly wearing Devonshire colours. The only other readily identifiable colours are those of the grooms in royal scarlet leading the string of horses in the foreground, while the string in the middleground, in front of 'Frampton', may be in the colours of the Duke of Wharton who was a highly important owner until about 1720.
The early provenance of this picture is unclear, and the suggestion on the frame that it was painted for Lord Harley is probably a mistaken reference to the slightly larger picture now on loan to the National Trust at Wimpole Hall, for which there is a receipt signed by Wootton for a payment of 43 on 16 May 1715. Wootton frequently repeated successful compositions and other versions of this picture are known. The superb quality and detail of this picture, with numerous pentimenti, lend it a freshness which underscores its autograph character, and suggests that it is likely to be the prime, original, version of the subject.