Ferneley Snr, John (1782-1860)

Ferneley Snr, John (1782-1860)
Ferneley Snr, John (1782-1860)

British artist John Ferneley Snr. specialised in sharply executed, highly colourised paintings of horses and equine sports. Working at a time when many wealthy clients were eager for artists to depict their country sport and leisure in a vivid and celebratory manner, Ferneley proved himself to be one of the best in the business.

Ferneley was the son of a wheelwright and was initially apprenticed to his father in this trade. A calling for art, however, could not be ignored. When his aptitude for painting was noticed by the Duke of Rutland, Ferneley successfully procured a spot as a pupil under sporting and animal painter Benjamin Marshall (1768-1835).

It has been said that Ferneley was so accomplished that copies he made after Marshall’s work were indistinguishable from the originals. Marshall was a seemingly encouraging tutor, also acquiring his student a place at the Royal Academy Schools, ensuring Ferneley received the best arts education possible.

Ferneley began to exhibit at the Royal Academy in 1806. His paintings would grace its walls for almost 50 years. He also showed works at the British Institution and the Suffolk Street Galleries.

The records of these works show that Ferneley was producing animal and sporting paintings, just like his master. Indeed, from the moment his training was complete, Ferneley was receiving commissions to produce carefully rendered and exquisitely detailed works in this genre.

Since the late 18th century, and increasingly during the 19th century, paintings of equine pursuits and thoroughbred horses were highly desired by the wealthy upper classes to whom such activities and animals were the reserve. The majority of Ferneley’s patrons came from these ranks. This included notable figures such as Beau Brummel and Count d’Orsay. They offered a steady stream of employment for the entirety of Ferneley’s career.

After travels in Ireland, where Ferneley received commissions from the likes of the Earl of Belmore and Lord Rossmore, Ferneley settled in the Leicestershire town of Melton Mowbray. Not only was this close to his birthplace of Thrussington, but it was a canny move on Ferneley’s part. Melton Mowbray had become something of a watering hole for the upper classes engaged in their country sports. As a result, it was the perfect place to set up a studio which catered exactly to their needs.

Ferneley was able to bring to his works a crystal-clear sense of coherency. From the composition to the colouring to the realistic detail lent to every aspect, his works appear like snapshots of a moment in time. Horses are caught in their pursuit, hunting hounds with noses to the ground, riders mounted proudly. He frequently complimented the grand stature of horse and rider with landscapes caught in a dramatic flurry of nature. Skies are swathed with fascinating culminations of clouds and offer interesting and varying dissemination of light across each piece.

Ferneley specialised in creating panoramic scenes of ‘scurries,’ a sprint race, in which he would combine each stage of the race into one, large piece. He was also a regular at the annual Quorn and Belvoir races, and in 1829, was commissioned to produce a work commemorating the Heaton Park races.

This example offers insight into the time and dedication Ferneley applied to his work. Not only did Ferneley have to include specific individuals in this work in order to make a statement about their status and deserved place in the proceedings, but great attention had to be paid to every aspect. In a letter to Ferneley, the patron, Lord Wilton, encourages him ‘to be down ten days before the time in order to get in the drawing of the Course and the park.’ Ferneley’s works were an elaborate layering of varying different elements, from the landscape to the horses to the particular dress of individuals. This was a time-consuming and highly specialised task. Expectations were high, and it is clear Ferneley had to dedicate large amounts of time to completing each commission.

It is a credit both to Ferneley’s artistic skill and financial shrewdness that patrons kept coming through his studio door. Ferneley kept his prices the same throughout his career, ensuring a reputation as a dependable and fair artist, very appealing to potential clients.

It seems Ferneley was a humble artist who was keen to perfect his speciality and appreciated any help offered. Figures were not his forte, and so Ferneley entered an artistic relationship with Sir Francis Grant (1803-1878). Grant offered Ferneley instruction in figure painting, and in return, Ferneley helped him with equine artistry. The two would sometimes collaborate on works as a result of this mutually beneficial relationship.

Ferneley would remain living and working in Melton Mowbray for the rest of his life, being kept busy right up until the months before his death in 1860. As a result, he is greatly celebrated in the town and the wider Leicestershire area. The John Ferneley College in Melton Mowbray is named after him, and a number of his works are now held in the Melton Carnegie Museum and Leicestershire Museums Collection.

Through two marriages, Ferneley sired eight children. Two of his sons would follow him into the artistic business. Both Claude Loraine and John Ferneley Jnr. (1814-1862) also became animal painters, the latter focussing on military subjects.

Neither, unfortunately, saw the same heights of success as their father.
In the works of John Ferneley Snr., it appears as if every element, from the landscape to the animals to the people, are caught in their prime. They are the apex of human activity. These works are true celebrations of the upper-class way of life. In the opinion of many historians, Ferneley is one of the greatest animal and sporting painters of his time.


Born in Thrussington, Leicestershire, Britain.


Apprenticed under Benjamin Marshall.


Exhibited frequently at the Royal Academy.


Travelled in Ireland.


Married Sarah Kestle.


Travelled intermittently to Ireland.


Moved to Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, Britain.


Wife Sarah Kestle died.


Married Ann Allan.


Exhibited frequently at the British Institution.


Died in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, Britain. Buried in Thrussington, Leicestershire, Britain.

Stay In Touch
Subscribe to our Wednesday newsletter for the latest finds and 10% off your order.