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All in the name of the game

'Sporting paintings are often something in disguise.' Iain Gale on the Tate Gallery's British Sporting Art exhibition
Lady Mary Churchill looks a game girl. Perched side-saddle on her grey mare, she gazes benignly on the object of her morning's work - a dead hare. It might baffle us today that an apparently sane and attractive young woman should commission an artist to paint her portrait alongside a recently killed small furry animal, but John Wootton's fine equestrian portrait neatly defines the essence of the Tate's current display of British Sporting Art: a testimony to a now almost vanished way of life which once involved an entire rural population - male and female, rich and poor.

It was not Lady Mary's intention to be portrayed as a bloodthirsty Amazon. But by being portrayed "in the chase", she was defining her status in society. For, like all of the works hung with it here, Wootton's painting cannot simply be called a "sporting painting". Indeed, it might be argued that there is no such thing as "sporting art". The avowed intention of these works might be to record a particular race or hunt meet, but whatever was in the mind of the master of the Carrow Abbey Hunt when in 1780 he commissioned Philip Reinagle to paint himself and five fellow members relaxing with their hounds, you can be sure it had nothing to do with "great sporting moments". Rather, Reinagle was charged with portraying the men who, in 1780, owned, rode and ruled the land around Carrow Abbey. For all its informality, this is essentially a court portrait, its throne a dining table, its orb and sceptre the musket and whip.

Sporting paintings are often something in disguise. Tilleman's Foxhunting in Wooded Country is really an excuse to paint unfashionable landscape, Stubbs's Mares and Foals an equine "sacra conversazione". The quintessential "sporting painting", though, is a portrait of a landowner who professes to both understand and control his land.

In spite of such hidden agendas, however, one of the lessons of this exhibition is that "sport" was never solely the preserve of the aristocracy - but of all country dwellers. Certainly the men who career across the ditch in Alken's The Belvoir Hunt Jumping In and Out of a Lane are farmers and landowners, but what of the peasants of George Morland's Rabbiting - a village family waiting with their terrier at the edge of a warren on common land, to legitimately claim their quarry.

Similarly, James Pollard's painting of Fly Fishing on the River Lee is a paean to Izaak Walton's "calm, quiet, innocent recreation". The rich might have their venison, partridge and salmon (the unspeakable not always pursuing the inedible), but the right to hunt - be it only for rabbit, pigeon or trout - was inalienable to every countryman (ask any 18th-century reader of Tom Paine). Certainly these paintings reinforce the late 20th- century prejudice that "field sports" are the preserve of the lite - for what villager in his right mind would spend any little money he had on a painting depicting him killing a rabbit? Ironically, in creating these enduring icons to status, the patrons of sporting art were destroying their own way of life.

This exhibition is a requiem for the most English of art forms. Landscape and portraiture may survive, their true purposes sufficiently obscure. But sporting art, even without a dead hare, is just too blatant for an avowedly classless society. And precious few talented artists are today prepared to take on the mantle of Stubbs and Wootton.

n At the Tate, London, to 2 July. See listings below for details