A contemporary of Reynolds, Gainsborough and Ramsay, the young Cotes was apprenticed to the portrait painter George Knapton (1698-1778) in the early 1740s. His early work was in pastel, a medium whose subtleties he mastered quickly, and it was not until the late 1750s that he started working extensively in oil. Often considered to have favoured fashion, elegance and a strong likeness, over a complex insight into the character of his sitters, Cotes became one of the most fashionable portrait painters of the 1760s and might well have gone on to rival the seemingly insurmountable reputations of Reynolds and Gainsborough, but for his early death in 1770. That the present picture was painted in 1768 is significant not only because the artist was then at the zenith of his career, but also because Cotes was a leading force behind, and founder-member of, the Royal Academy which came into existence the same year. Already popular at Court, having received three Royal commissions in 1767, the artist was afforded an even greater profile at the new Academy, and exhibiting the picture there in 1769 was to have it compared on the highest stage with the finest of his illustrious contemporaries' work. Northcote, in his Life of Sir Joshua Reynolds (op. cit.), records 'In this place, as a proof of the advance that the arts had made in England, even as early as 1769, I shall mention that the pictures which chiefly attracted the attention of the connoisseurs at this first season of the Royal Academy Exhibition in Pall Mall, were ... and a Boy, playing at Cricket, by Mr Cotes'. The artist exhibited seven pictures at the Academy that year, the most likely candidate for Lewis Cage being number 23, Ditto [A portrait] of a young gentleman, described by Horace Walpole as 'Very pretty'.
Some of the most arresting portraits of the 18th Century were those of children. Examples of masterful precursors to Lewis Cage may be seen in Gainsborough's tender studies of his daughters and Ramsay's John, Lord Mountstuart (1759, Scotland, Mount Stuart), while works such as Reynolds' The Archers, albeit showing young men rather than children (1769, Private Collection, on loan to Cardiff, National Museum of Wales) and Gainsborough's Blue Boy (probably exhibited at the R.A. in 1770, Huntingdon Gallery, San Marino, California) were to follow shortly after. Yet it is an example of Cotes' directness that one aspect of The Young Cricketer sets it apart from almost any comparable picture. Lewis Cage, whose family's seat was Milgate Park in West Kent, is depicted slightly flushed after the rigours of the game with his shirt untucked and left stocking falling down. For all that the young sitter's pose - derived from Van Dyck - imbues him with a noble presence, and his air leaves us in little doubt as to the confidence and self-aussurance which prevades him, the disarray of his clothing is an endearing expression of the boy's lack of concern for any conventional expectations of appearance.
Of course the picture's cricketing attributes are themselves fascinating. By the mid-eighteenth century the sport's popularity was increasing and it was rapidly developing into the national game that it is now. 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 nature of the game had also changed from it's origins in the 13th Century. The earliest surving bats resemble a broad and curved hockey stick. With the advent of bowlers pitching the ball up, which occurred about 1750, the straight blade was generally adopted although slightly curved bats such as the one in the present picture can be seen in depictions of the game well into the 19th Century. Interestingly, 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 (such as the one Lewis Cage stands beside) consisted of only two stumps, approximately 12 inches high with a third cross-stump, or bail, on top. It was not until 1775 that the third vertical stump was introduced to make the bowler's job less arduous.
In his portrait of The Young Cricketer, Cotes has achieved not only an intimate representation of his sitter, but in the scene and mood of the picture he has created an image of singular beauty and of unquestionably English character.