He was born into a Leicestershire family of some standing, living at Stordon Grange, a moated manor house at Osgathorpe. Boultbee as one of eleven children and his parents evidently lived beyond their means for he did not receive an inheritance and, with a wife and eight children to support, horse and cattle portraiture would have provided him with a reasonable living.
His brother Thomas married well and painted only as an amateur.
John Boultbee’s best work comes close to Stubbs and has been confused with it. By the 1780’s Boultbee had returned to his home territory and was working in Loughborough area painting horses, sporting and dog portraits.
His clients, while including much of the local gentry, extended well beyond his locality. Loughborough was conveniently close to Robert Bakewell’s farm at Dishley Grange and it may well have been an introduction to Bakewell which have Boultbee the opportunity to add cattle painting to his commissions. He painted a portrait of Bakewell on his bay cob Tom with the great barn at Dishley and Longhorn Cattle in the background, several versions of which exist. This has become an iconic image of the age.
Boultbee himself published a print after his painting of Bakewell’s famous cart stallion, entitled ‘The Black Shire Horse’ engraved by Jukes in 1791. Dishley Grange and its adjacent church where Robert Bakewell is buried appear in the background of several of Boultbee’s paintings. Boultbee was patronised by Bakewell’s nephew and heir Mr. Honeyborn.
Through Bakewell, Boultbee could have earned an introduction to many of the most eminent cattle breeders although the marriage of a relation Charles Boultbee (1783 - 1833) to Julia Wyndham, sister to Lord Egremont, would also have been useful. Through Lord Egremont, Boultbee obtained an introduction to George 3rd. He painted several commissions of favourite animals of the Royal Farmer George.
Bakewell may also have introduced Boultbee to another important patron, Thomas Coke of Norfolk. In 1783 he exhibited two portraits of horses belonging to Thomas Coke of Norfolk at the Royal Academy. The group of paintings of Longhorns by Boultbee at Shugborough are believed to have been commissioned by Coke when he purchased the animals after the dispersal of the Rollright Herd in 1791. According to tradition they arrived at Shugborough when Thomas Anson married Coke’s daughter Margaret in 1794. Viscount Anson was at the forefront of Agriculture at the time and much influence by Coke.