This magnificent picture is both an example of Opie's precocious talent for child portraiture and a key cricketing image. Dating to 1793, it was painted at the height of Opie's artistic career, and shows him at his most confident and accomplished.
Born and raised in Cornwall, Opie was discovered by Dr John Wolcot (an amateur artist and critic, and both a pupil and friend of Richard Wilson), who launched him onto the London artistic scene in 1781 as the 'Cornish wonder', cultivating the impression of a provincial talent with none of the graces of a society painter. This strategy proved successful; Opie enjoyed almost immediate success and was inundated with portrait commissions for the rest of his career. Sir Joshua Reynolds is recorded as having stated to his former pupil James Northcote 'You have no chance here...there is such a young man come out of Cornwall...Like Caravaggio, but finer' (cited in C.R. Leslie and T. Taylor, Life and times of Sir Joshua Reynolds, London, 1865, pp. 341-2). Opie also enjoyed success as a history painter, executing three pictures for Macklin's Poets Gallery, four for Macklin's Bible, seven for Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery and eleven for Bowyer's History gallery. He was elected a Royal Academician in 1788.
This portrait highlights Opie's particular gift for child portraiture, an ability that he had demonstrated in 1784 with his celebrated portraits of the children of the 5th Duke of Argyll, George William, later 6th Duke of Argyll, John Douglas Edward Henry, later 7th Duke of Argyll, and their sisters Lady Augusta and Lady Charlotte Campbell (Private Collection). In 1793, Opie was working on standard-size portraits from his home at 8 Berners Street, however, monumental history paintings and larger, more dynamic portraits such as this one, were being painted in his studio in Hampstead. The present sitter was identified by a miniature of the boy included in the 1876 sale at Christie's, described as 'The Red Boy: Lieut. McD., H.M. 39th Regt., 1813' (lot 50). Joseph McDonough appears in Army Lists for the 39th (Dorsetshire) Regiment of Foot as an Ensign 19 January 1809 and a Lieutenant 20 December 1809. Further records show that he retired from the Regiment in 1814.
The nature of cricket changed hugely from its origins in the 13th Century. By the mid-18th Century, it was increasing in popularity and steadily evolving into the national sport that it is today. Matches were often played for high stakes and clubs such as The London Club, formed circa 1701, were evolving to organise and regulate the game. The earliest surviving bats resemble a broad, curved hockey stick. These were replaced by the straight blade, as appears here, in circa 1750, with the advent of bowlers pitching the ball up. On the basis of early depictions of the sport, it appears that the game did not originally require a 'wicket', and when one did appear the early type consisted of only two stumps, approximately twelve inches high, with a third cross-stump, or bail. A third vertical stump was first introduced in 1775, to make the bowler's job less arduous. The two-stump wicket had been completely phased out by the early 19th century. The present picture is therefore a comparatively late example of it still in use.
George Williams, who either bought the picture from Lesser Galleries, or commissioned the Gallery as an agent in the 1876 Christie's sale, took the picture to his Cornish home, Scorrier, not far from Trevellas where Opie was born. The Williams were a well-established Cornish family with mining interests, who had made their fortune in 1845 when Michael Williams, on learning about a dramatic rise in the price of tin on a trip to London, rushed back to Cornwall, beating the London coach carrying the news, to buy all the available tin in his home county. The family owned a number of pictures by Opie, but may have been prompted to part with the present picture after a disastrous fire at Scorrier in 1908. The picture was later in the collection of Mrs William George Raphael, who built up a large group of late 18th and early 19th century portraits during the 1890s.
We are grateful to Viv Hendra for his assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.