This mid-19th-century oil painting depicts a chestnut hunter and spaniel in a landscape.
Once in a while, a piece arrives here with a special intangible quality that’s hard to pin down. This is one of those rare occasions. This exceptional work seems to glow and captures the imagination as if imbued with some otherworldly quality. That may seem far-fetched, but we can’t take our eyes off it.
The exquisite rendering of both animals is even more profound when you consider that it’s a study, probably in preparation for a larger work. Note the pentimenti (visible changes), such as the shortening of the tail, the adjustments to the hooves and lowering of the top outline. This is a confident artist, refining the details before moving on.
The composition is also unusual with the animals particularly close together. Both are painted as portraits rather than interacting in a scene. In other similar works, the animals look towards each other, engaging in some kind of interplay. But here, they’re standing like old friends, comfortable in each other’s presence. They elicit human qualities.
Stylistically, it’s very close to John Ferneley Snr (1782-1860) and his son John Ferneley Jnr (1815-1862). Both artists shared various nuances including the rendering of the ‘M’ shape on the upper thigh, the treatment of light across the musculature, and the meticulous handling of the head. Ferneley Snr generally painted finer than his son but this work compares to some of his studies. Both Ferneleys can be considered as working in the school of George Stubbs (1724-1806). Ferneley Snr was trained by the great Benjamin Marshall (1768-1835), who was a keen admirer of Stubbs. Ferneley Snr, in turn, trained his son.
The spaniel is also a remarkable success and carries presence. Everything feels right, the weight, fur, proportions and colouring. Note the confident marks across the back between the brown and white. With a few turns of the brush, the artist conjures up a lifelike form.
As the work is an unsigned study, it’s challenging to provide a firm attribution but, without question, this is by a very accomplished hand indeed.
Held in an early to mid-19th-century gilt frame, probably original.
Learn more about John Ferneley Snr in our directory.
Medium: Oil on canvas
Overall size: 34” x 27½” / 87cm x 67cm
Year of creation: c. 1840
Condition: Artwork presents well. Canvas relined. Fine craquelure but the paint is stable. Areas of restoration. Frame with some wear.