I was once told by a picture dealer that he considered Stubbs, Marshall, and Ferneley the three best British sporting painters, and he placed them in that order. I do not suppose that many will find fault with this appreciation.
A good idea of the rise in monetary value of sporting pictures during the present century may be gained from the prices paid for the famous portrait by George Stubbs of that unbeatable race horse ‘Eclipse’. At the Elsenham Hall sale in 1915 this painting realized 700 guineas; it was resold in 1929 for ten times that sum, and finally found a home in Kentucky for a price said to be well into five figures. Then, we have the example of the two "Bolingbroke Stubbs'," which increased in value a hundred per cent between the time they were sent to Christie's by Lord Bolingbroke in 1943 and their sale eight years later in the collection of the late Walter Hutchinson. Throughout his long life, John Ferneley produced work of consistently high quality. In the dining room of a famous English mansion there is a picture of a horse painted in 1860, the year the artist died, which shows all the careful draftsmanship and vigor of a much earlier period. Ferneley found buyers during his lifetime for some twelve hundred paintings, at prices ranging from 2 1/2 to 150 guineas. At a Christie's sale in 1925, two sets of Ferneley hunting paintings brought the then unprecedented prices of 3,000 and 4,000 guineas.
Another sporting picture that broke a record is the painting by J. N. Sartorius of Thomas Oldaker, the renowned huntsman to the Old Berkeley Hunt, mounted on his hunter, Magic. When this picture appeared at Christie's in 1928, the bidding rocketed to over four thousand pounds, although no previous work by this artist had ever before reached the thousand-pound mark. Some of the paintings by Ben Marshall brought record prices at the Hutchinson sale in 1951. In Marshall's work more than one period can be discerned; unfortunately he sustained serious injury from an accident in 1819, which affected the quality of some of his later paintings.
Ben Marshall's son, Lambert, might have been a great horse portraitist in his own right if he had not fallen into the easy way of copying, or finishing, his father's paintings. The same might be said of two of Stubbs' followers, Charles Towne and John Boultbee, both of whom would have achieved far greater fame and market value had they not been overshadowed by the pre-eminence of their master.
Thomas Rowlandson, better known in other fields, can justly claim a position among the list of sporting artists. It is true that he mostly visualized the chase from a comic angle, but when he depicted it in a more serious mood, he did so with accuracy and charm.
A perfect setting for sporting pictures was shown by the late Guy Paget in his illustrations to ‘The Melton Mowbray of John Ferneley’, which depicted the author's dining room, as well as rooms in other beautiful English homes, adorned with fine examples of such work.
With the increasing interest shown by Americans in British sporting pictures, however, some very choice examples have left England, such as the famous set of four shooting pictures by George Stubbs, painted in 1769, which once adorned the dining room at Hallingbury Place, Essex. International rivalry has probably proved all to the good where English sporting art is concerned, since it has placed it now on a higher and firmer level than it has ever been before.
What is the position of sporting pictures at present? Where are prospective buyers, both in England and America, likely to find the sporting pictures they are seeking? The picture dealers still have limited numbers, although many firms will tell you that they are finding it difficult to add new paintings to their existing inventory. There are also of course the auction sales, either of the contents of large properties or of single pictures. The supply of available pictures is bound to fluctuate, and unless something very unforeseen occurs it will not be at all extensive.
Fishing and shooting pictures seem to be more popular now than, say, hunting, racing, and coaching subjects. Generally speaking, owing to the restricted space of modern living, smaller-sized pictures are most in demand. While the pictures of the best sporting artists must inevitably be scarce and costly, there is usually an opportunity for those interested to buy the works of the lesser known and quite unknown artists, and these are often very decorative and pleasing to live with. After all, if a painting pleases us, does it matter so much if it is not of great value? We may have to buy our experience at considerable cost in the early stages of collecting. I can still remember the time, thirty years ago, when I bought a painting for $150, though it bore no signature and no date, with the feeling that I had been very clever. Later on, when I called in an expert to examine it, I learned to my sorrow that the fee I paid for his opinion was more than the commercial value of the painting! Some people like to rely on their own judgment and are prepared to take risks, but experts are always ready and willing to help the amateur. If we only learn our lesson early enough, we shall have sustained no great harm.