Wootton, the pre-eminent painter of landscape and sporting subjects in England in the first half of the eighteenth century, was described in the Notebooks of the antiquarian and engraver George Vertue as ‘well beloved by a great number of noblemen and gentlemen’, and as in ‘great Vogue & favour with many persons of ye greatest Quality’ (G. Vertue, Notebook, The Volume of the Walpole Society, XXII, 1933 pp. 30 and 34). Amongst his great patrons were the King, George II, and his son, Frederick, Prince of Wales, as well as the Dukes of Beaufort, Devonshire, Newcastle and Bedford, to name but a few.
This imposing equestrian portrait is a wonderful example of Wootton’s popular approach to composition, which set the elegant form of the horse and rider against a verdant landscape framed by the repoussoir trees, a motif inspired by the fashionable landscapes of Gaspard Dughet. The sitter has traditionally been identified as Prince William, Duke of Cumberland, third son of George II. His courage and physical prowess, evident from an early age, swiftly made him the apple of his father’s eye. Though originally intended for a naval career, his natural bent led him to join the First Regiment of Foot Guards in 1741, swiftly rising to become the ‘Captain-General’ of the allied British, Hanoverian, Austrian and Dutch forces in 1745, in the Wars of Austrian Succession. His most famous military action, however, was undoubtedly the decisive and bloody Battle of Culloden, which quashed Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite Rebellion of 1746.
However, various stylistic indications, such as the form of the signature and the composition of the landscape more closely aligned with Gaspard than Claude, whose idiom Wootton acquired in his later works, suggest that this portrait was likely executed prior to 1740. Given that Cumberland had not reached the age of twenty before this date, it is unlikely that he is in fact the sitter. Comparison with other portraits of the Duke also point away from this being his likeness. The colours that the sitter wears, the buff coat and dark blue of the horse’s saddle blanket indicate that he might be Henry Somerset-Scudamore, 3rd Duke of Beaufort. Wootton executed a number of works for Beaufort, including four horse portraits still in the collection at Badminton House, which holds more paintings by the artist than any other due to his early sponsorship by Anne, Countess of Coventry, daughter of the 1st Duke of Beaufort. The Beaufort Hunt still rides in these colours today.