John Boultbee (1753-1812)

The Durham Ox (1802)

John Boultbee (1753-1812)

John Boultbee was an English painter of equestrian and other sporting subjects. He and his twin brother Thomas (1753-1808) both entered the Royal Academy Schools during Sir Joshua's Presidency of the Academy. John Boultbee exhibited six paintings at the Royal Academy: the first in 1776 (a landscape) and the last two in 1788 (Portrait of Horses and Portrait of a Favourite Horse of Mr Bakewell). One of his most well-known horse portraits is that of Highflyer (1774-1793) an undefeated thoroughbred racehorse in 14 starts and a very successful sire of the 18th century, producing 469 winners, including three Derby winners, three St. Leger winners, and an Epsom Oaks winner.

John Boultbee was greatly admired by George III, who commissioned several horse-portraits by him and assigned him a residence in Windsor Great Park near the Cumberland Lodge so that he might carry out his painting duties more conveniently “and commissioned him to paint the Royal Herd of shorthorn cattle.”[1] In 1802 he “was commissioned to paint the [Durham Ox] for [John] Day’s first exhibition of the animal.”[2]

[1] Ron Broglio, “The best machine for converting herbage into money: romantic cattle culture”, in Consuming Culture in the Long Nineteenth Century: Narratives of Consumption, 1700-1900. Edited by Tamara S. Wagner and Narin Hassan. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007, 44.

[2] Ron Broglio, Technologies of the Picturesque: British Art, Poetry, and Instruments, 1750-1830. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2008, 173.

The Durham Ox (After J.B.) (2022)

Paul Boultbee (b. 1951)

John Boultbee was the first family artist I learned about. He appears to be the most prominent both in the family and in the art world. Because The Durham Ox is central to the project, I think of it as “essence”. As a result, I decided to use a technique I have used before as I explored my family history—mat board stencils that focus on the overall shape, while reflecting the fact that many details related to my ancestors have been lost over time.

The Durham Ox was turned into an etching by John Whessel (c.1760-1823). According to Ron Broglio, the “painting and its subsequent engraving by Whessel became the most famous cattle image of the nineteenth century.”[1] I wanted my piece to suggest the idea of multiples and reflect the fact that the image was produced approximately 2,000 times.

The piece went through several iterations both as a maquette and as a full piece before I settled on the final painting. The initial maquette featured one large outline of the ox, centred on the canvas with three solid oxen in different sizes (cut from a variety of wallpaper designs) placed on the ox outline. This arrangement was not very satisfying and didn’t really reference the sense of multiples that I was after. What’s more, the wallpaper designs were too overpowering. I realized from this maquette that bright colours would not work and so I chose to use the light-coloured handmade paper instead.

Because this piece is such an iconic image of an ox, I chose to remove all other extraneous elements, including the human attendant. The outline of the ox, the varying sizes, and the use of light-toned handmade paper echo the sense of multiples and the ghost/shadow of the artist as a distant relation.

[1] Ron Broglio, Technologies of the Picturesque: British Art, Poetry, and Instruments, 1750-1830. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2008, 173.

Relationship: I am John’s second cousin, six times removed.