By George Townly Stubbs, published by J. Harris, 1 January 1789.
Sweet William was bought as a colt by Lord Bolingbroke, for whom he won his first race in 1772 at the Newmarket Spring meeting. His early success brought him to the attention of Richard, 1st Earl Grosvenor, a celebrated breeder and racehorse owner who was one of Stubbs's most important patrons. Lord Grosvenor promptly bought the horse and under his new colours Sweet William won again at Burford and Shrewsbury in that same season, going on to race throughout 1773–76 at Newmarket. His notable successes include winning the Craven Stakes in 1774, the Whip in 1775 and, by default, the Cup in 1776. In all, Sweet William was only beaten four times during his racing career, taking a total of 6,705 guineas in prize money. In 1778 the horse was retired to stud and stood as stallion until 1786 at Oxcroft Farm, Lord Grosvenor's stud near Newmarket. His most notable progeny include Ceres and Wheatsheaf, both of which raced for Lord Grosvenor; the Duke of Queensberry's Sweet William; Mr Paton's Superb; and Mr Stanley's Honeysuckle. Lord Grosvenor had a particular fondness for naming horses after flowers and the artist here includes a patch of the eponymous Sweet Williams in the foreground, in tribute to his patron's practice.
Born at Eaton Hall in Cheshire, Richard Grosvenor, 1st Earl Grosvenor (1731-1802) was member of Parliament for Cheshire until 1761 when he entered the House of Lords. An early ally of Pitt the Elder, he was a powerful figure in the Whig establishment and later supported the North ministry’s policy during the American War of Independence. In 1764 he married Henrietta Vernon, daughter of Henry Vernon of Hilton Park, with whom he had four sons, the eldest surviving of whom, Robert, became 1st Marquess of Westminster in 1831. The marriage broke down, however, when she attracted the attention of the King’s brother, Prince Henry Frederick, Duke of Cumberland. The two embarked on an affair which was brought to a sordid end by their discovery in flagrante delicto in November 1769. This separation with his wife, however, left Grosvenor free to focus on the more rakish pursuits of horse racing and gaming, and he spent lavishly on his stud farm as Oxcroft. Also a great collector and patron of the arts, he was the principal sponsor of the satirist William Gifford and commissioned Richard Dalton, Keeper of the King’s Pictures, and antiquary to George III to acquire paintings for him in Italy. He also commissioned contemporary British artists; including Benjamin West, who painted three great battle scenes for Grosvenor, The Death of General Wolfe, The Battle of the Boyne, and The battle of La Hogue was painted for Grosvenor; Thomas Gainsborough, from whom he bought the famous Blue Boy; William Hogarth; Richard Wilson; and Stubbs, from whom he commissioned a number of portraits of his favourite racehorses in addition to the present work; including Dux, Bandy, Alexander (sire of the Alexander Mare, one of the most important dames in the Stub Book), Sweetbrier and the celebrated Gimcrack. Grosvenor was one of the leading members of the Jockey Club that Stubbs is thought to have been introduced to by Sir Joshua Reynolds, shortly after his arrival in London in 1760, and, together with the Marquess of Rockingham and the Duke of Richmond, was one of the artists most important early patrons. Certainly he commissioned two of Stubbs’ most important early works: The Grosvenor Hunt, painted in 1762; and Lord Grosvenor’s Mares and Foals at Easton Hall, painted 1764; both of which hung in his celebrated Grosvenor Gallery in London, one of the earliest public displays of contemporary art in Britain.
A replica of this composition by Stubbs, which was painted circa 1793 for the artist’s Turf Gallery project, was sold in these Rooms, 8 December 2011, lot 298, for £349,250.
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