At the age of fourteen, William John entered the Bute Workshops, working on the decoration of Cardiff Castle. In 1881 he joined the London studio of the sculptor Thomas Nicholls. In 1889 he gained the Royal Academy Gold Medal and a Travelling Studentship. His travels ended in Paris, where he was much influenced by Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). He set up his first London studio in 1891, and quickly established his reputation. Boy at Play reveals the influence of both Jules Dalou (1838-1902) and of Alfred Gilbert 1853-1934). A full size bronze was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1896. Boy at Play was also exhibited in the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900, where John was awarded a gold medal. A small version was lent to the Cardiff Exhibition of Works by Certain Modern Artists of Welsh Birth or Extraction in 1913-14.
A smaller version of this model is in the National Museum in Wales.