During the course of the 1760s, Cotes competed with Reynolds in the exhibition rooms and with Ramsay in the private sphere of court patronage to secure a position as one of the most fashionable portrait painters of the day. Dating to between circa 1768 and 1770, when Cotes was at the height of his powers, this remarkably informal portrait of the young Master Smith holding a kite, his waistcoat unbuttoned and shirt untucked, compares closely with Cotes’ earliest known full-length portrait of a child, that of Lewis Cage holding a cricket bat, which was sold in these Rooms, 15 November 1996, lot 21 (fig. 1). Both portraits demonstrate a directness rarely seen in portraits by his contemporaries.
Cotes was appointed director of the Society of Artists by George III in 1765, and in 1767 the king allowed Cotes to exhibit a half-length pastel of Queen Charlotte with Princess Charlotte (The Royal Collection) at the Society’s annual exhibition. This very public backing of Cotes by the king was a sting for Reynolds, who chose not to exhibit that year. Cotes was a leading force behind, and founder-member of, the Royal Academy the following year.
British portraiture in the second half of the 18th century was still permeated by the influence of Sir Anthony van Dyck. The effect of his art is apparent in Ramsay’s full-length portrait of John, Lord Mountstuart, later 4th Earl and 1st Marquess of Bute, as a boy, standing with a crossbow (1759) and Reynolds’ full-length portrait of Thomas Lister, later 1st Lord Ribblesdale, as a boy, standing with a cane (1764), both of which show the young sitter in a commanding stance quoting from van Dyck and in early- 17th century costume. While the pose of the sitter in this portrait may loosely derive from a van Dyck type, Master Smith is shown in contemporary costume with his arm resting on a kite and in a somewhat disheveled state, his cheeks flushed, waistcoat unbuttoned and shirt loose. Johnson, in his catalogue raisonné of the artist’s portraits, noted: ‘casualness of this sort would never have been tolerated by Ramsay or Reynolds, but it was used effectively by Cotes to give intimacy and immediacy to a type of portrait that was by custom more formal and remote. His greatest success in this manner was the portrait of Master Smith… ’ (op. cit., p. 27).
Cotes’s skilled handling of the paint further adds to the vitality of the portrait: the thick, agile brushstrokes used to describe the highlights of the folds in the sitter’s coat and breeches, and the creases in his shirt, contrast with the smoother, more blended brushwork in the flesh tones. Cotes’ application of the paint becomes particularly pronounced in his description of the landscape and foliage: the branches are executed in a broad, sweeping motion, underneath which the ground is left to show through to indicate the mottled bark of the tree trunk; the grass at the sitter’s feet is represented in short, staccato brushstrokes; while the leaves are rendered in broad splashes of greens and autumnal hues, which mirrors the handling of the tail of the kite. Invented in China in the 5th century BC, the earliest kites to reach Europe were brought by Marco Polo towards the end of the 13th century and they were transported back from Japan and Malaysia by sailors during the 16th and 17th centuries. Initially regarded as mere curiosities, by the 18th and 19th centuries, kites were being flown both as a fashionable pastime and as a vehicle for scientific research.