Francis Cotes RA (1726 - 1770)

RA Collection: People and Organisations

A British artist celebrated for his work in pastels and oils, Francis Cotes was a Founder Member of the Royal Academy of Arts. He rivalled Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough in portrait painting before his untimely death aged 44.

Born in London, the son of an apothecary, Cotes trained with the portrait painter George Knapton. He then set up his own portrait studio, working chiefly with pastels, and quickly became the preeminent British artist in this medium. Cotes recognised the commercial potential of having his works engraved and sold as prints, which helped to further popularise his works.

In the late 1750s Cotes also began painting in oils and by 1763 had started to employ Peter Toms, a specialist drapery painter and future Royal Academician who also worked with Joshua Reynolds. From this point on, the clothes worn by his sitters would typically be painted by Toms, while Cotes concentrated on the figure and composition, as in his 1768 Portrait of a Lady.

In 1767 Cotes was commissioned to paint Queen Charlotte with her infant daughter Charlotte, the Princess Royal. The resulting portrait was hung by King George III in his bedchamber at Buckingham House. The following year, Cotes was one of the leading artists who petitioned the King to approve the formation of a Royal Academy of Arts, becoming a Founder Member. Cotes was proud of his new title, usually adding “RA” to his signature thereafter.

Cotes exhibited 18 portraits in two years at the Royal Academy’s annual exhibitions. He died suddenly in 1770 at just 44 years old, after drinking a potion that he had believed would cure him of an illness, thought to have been kidney or gallstones. Cotes’ fellow Royal Academician Mary Moser wrote that “many a tear will drop on his grave, as he is not more lamented as an artist than a friend to the distressed”.

RA Collections Decolonial Research Project - Extended Biography

Cotes’ maternal grandfather was Francis Lynn (1671–1731), who had been chief secretary of the Royal African Company (RAC) from 1720 until his death (see Notes, 1). Between 1672 and 1689 the RAC transported approximately 90,000 enslaved Africans across the Atlantic. When Lynn was chief secretary, the RAC was not as dominant in the slave-trade as it had lost its monopoly in 1698, although it continued to traffic enslaved people until 1731 (see Notes, 2). After 1698 the RAC focussed on trading commodities such as ivory and gold, but this likely involved exploitation of colonised peoples and land, and the labour of enslaved people (see Notes, 3).


  1. Jeffares, Neil. “Francis Cotes (1726–1770) and His Family.” The British Art Journal, vol. 16, no. 3, 2015, pp. 68–73, (accessed 1 March 2022).

  2. (accessed 1 March 2022).

  3. (accessed 1 March 2022).

Relevant ODNB entries

Postle, Martin. “Cotes, Francis (1726–1770), portrait painter.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sep. 2004; Accessed 1 Mar. 2022.


Royal Academician

Foundation Member

Born: 20 May 1726 in London, England, United Kingdom

Died: 19 July 1770

Nationality: British

Elected RA: 10 December 1768

Gender: Male

Preferred media: Painting and Pastel

Works by Francis Cotes in the RA Collection

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Works after Francis Cotes in the RA Collection

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Works associated with Francis Cotes in the RA Collection

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Associated books

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Associated archives

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