John Wootton

Lady Mary Churchill at the Death of the Hare


Not on display

John Wootton ?1682–1764
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1060 × 1556 mm
frame: 1373 × 1861 × 105 mm
Presented by Paul Mellon through the British Sporting Art Trust 1979

Display caption

The young lady mounted on a grey mare is thought to be Lady Mary Churchill, the illegitimate daughter of the late Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. She watches as the hounds form a circle around the hunt servant, who ceremonially presents the dead hare.

Wootton was the first distinguished native sporting artist. He was greatly admired in his time for his ability to paint horses and for his decorative landscapes and battle-scenes. His hunting subjects, such as this, gave patrons an opportunity to be shown in an informal manner, more akin to the contemporary ‘conversation pieceportrait groups.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

T02378 Lady Mary Churchill at the Death of the Hare 1748

Oil on canvas 1060×1555 (41 1/2×61 1/8)
Inscribed ‘J. Wootton|Fecit 1748’ b.l.

Presented by Mr Paul Mellon KBE through the British Sporting Art Trust 1979

PROVENANCE ...; The Hon. Rachel de Montmorency, Dewlish House, Dorset, from whom bt by Colnaghi 1962; bt Paul Mellon 1963

EXHIBITED Clandon Park, Surrey, on long loan to the National Trust from the Hon. Rachel de Montmorency until c. 1961; Painting in England 1700–1850: Collection of Mr and Mrs Paul Mellon, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia 1963 (308 as ‘Lady on Horseback with Huntsmen and Hounds’)

LITERATURE Egerton 1978, pp.26–8, no.29, pl.10

The lady was traditionally identified in the de Montmorency family as Lady Maria Churchill (1725–1801), Horace Walpole's half-sister, the illegitimate daughter of Sir Robert Walpole by his mistress Maria Skerrett, whom he married after his first wife's death. There seems to be little reason to doubt this identification, for although her portrait in T02378 is hardly a sharply distinguished one, there appears to be a sufficiently credible resemblance to Lady Maria Churchill's features as shown in Arthur Pond's portrait drawing (repr. W.S. Lewis (ed.), Horace Walpole's Correspondence with the Walpole Family, 1973, facing p.41), in Johann Eckhardt's portrait ‘Colonel Charles and Lady Mary Churchill with their eldest son’, c.1750 (exh. Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, A Guide to the Life of Horace Walpole, 1973, no.46, repr.) and in Eckhardt's portrait of Lady Mary Churchill with a music book, c.1752 (repr. W.S. Lewis, Horace Walpole, 1961, pl.II).

Wootton had earlier painted several hunting pictures for Sir Robert Walpole, including a portrait with horses and hounds of 1727 (repr. John Steegman, The Artist and the Country House, 1949, pl.34). When Sir Robert Walpole died in 1744, his daughter Mary was still under age. On 23 February 1746 she married Charles Churchill (?1720–1812), the illegitimate son of her father's old friend General Charles Churchill by the actress Ann Oldfield. Charles Churchill served in the Army and succeeded his father as Deputy Ranger of St James's and Hyde Parks 1745–57. Lady Mary Churchill herself held Court appointments, as Housekeeper first of Kensington Palace and later of Windsor Castle. As her husband's name was never traditionally linked with T02378, the figure of the man in brown who ceremonially presents the dead hare is presumably that of a hunt servant.

Throughout his life Horace Walpole showed kindness and affection to his half-sister; she (in later years with her husband) frequently stayed with him at Strawberry Hill, and Walpole hung Eckhart's portrait of her in his Great Parlour there. Wilmarth Lewis (1961, p.170) suggests that the disappearance of Horace Walpole's letters to Lady Mary Churchill is one of the chief losses of his correspondence.

A remote red-brick house with a small turret in the background has not been identified. Lady Mary Churchill and her husband lived first at Farleigh Wallop, near Basingstoke, Hampshire, and later in a ‘Gothick’ house designed for them by Horace Walpole's friend John Chute.

The frame appears to be contemporary with the painting, and may be its original frame.

Published in:
Elizabeth Einberg and Judy Egerton, The Age of Hogarth: British Painters Born 1675-1709, Tate Gallery Collections, II, London 1988

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