From the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Artist and author, was born on 22 October 1746 in Market Street, Plymouth, one of seven children of Samuel Northcote (1709–1791), watchmaker, and his wife, whose name is unknown, but who died, according to Northcote, on 3 September 1778 aged sixty-seven. Of the seven Northcote children, three reached adulthood: James; his elder brother, Samuel; and his sister, Mary. The other four children, all boys, died in infancy. According to his autobiographical memoir, Northcote's great-great-grandfather Samuel Northcote settled in Plymouth, where he was elected mayor in 1658. Although he came from an artisan background, Northcote proudly traced his lineage back to the Norman conquest, claiming descent from one Galfrid Miles who had his seat at Northcote in the parish of East Down, Devon, and whose family subsequently took on the name de Northcote (BL, Add. MS 47790, fols. 15–18).
Youth and apprenticeship
Northcote's paternal grandfather was a painter, albeit unsuccessful—one reason, Northcote asserted, why his father was reluctant to encourage his son's artistic ambitions. Northcote's father, who intended him to enter the family watchmaking business, was apparently unconcerned about his sons' education, and by his own account Northcote could not read or write until he was thirteen. Even so, an autobiographical reference to a volume of drawings of birds executed in watercolour by his father and brother suggests that the male members of the family shared an abiding interest in art (BL, Add. MS 42524). In 1759 a family friend, Henry Tolcher, showed a specimen of Northcote's drawing to Joshua Reynolds and to the engraver James MacArdell, probably the landscape drawing now contained in Northcote's manuscript memoir (BL, Add. MS 47790, fol. 32). Northcote first caught sight of Reynolds in 1762, when he was visiting Devon with Samuel Johnson—the fifteen-year-old managing merely to touch the hem of Reynolds's coat as he passed through the crowd. In December 1762 Tolcher arranged for Northcote to be apprenticed to the engraver Edward Fisher who, like MacArdell, engraved prints after Reynolds. Northcote's father turned down the offer. Determined to pursue an artistic career, Northcote saved 10 guineas earned in part from the sale of a print made from one of his drawings. At five in the morning on Whitsunday, May 1771, he set out for London with his brother Samuel, who was then apprenticed to a watchmaker in Fleet Street. Northcote took with him a painting he had made of a duck, ‘which had met with much commendation at home’ (Northcote, Artist's Book of Fables, xvii). Once in London, Northcote presented letters of introduction to Reynolds from Tolcher and the physician John Mudge, a boyhood friend of Reynolds from Devon. Reynolds, who was already acquainted with his brother Samuel, received Northcote warmly, permitting him to make copies in oils from works in his collection. In order to make money, Northcote—then lodging with a grocer in the Strand—coloured prints of flowers for a printseller on Ludgate Hill at 1s. per sheet. Shortly afterwards Reynolds took him on as a pupil, providing board and lodging in exchange for his services. Northcote's various accounts of his five-year apprenticeship under Reynolds, including a series of letters written at the time to his brother in Devon (RA), provide a vivid insight into these formative years of his career, and to Reynolds's ménage. Northcote quickly became adept at painting drapery and other incidental details in Reynolds's portraits, including James Calthorpe (exh. RA, 1773; priv. coll.), Miss Sarah Child (exh. RA, 1773; priv. coll.), Henry Frederick, Duke of Cumberland (exh. RA, 1773; des.), James Beattie (exh. RA, 1774; University of Aberdeen), and Archbishop Robinson (exh. RA, 1775; Birmingham University). He also painted a study of one of Reynolds's housemaids, which, to the amusement of family and friends, became the object of repeated attacks by Reynolds's pet macaw. Northcote himself served as a model to Reynolds, including as one of the young men in Ugolino and his Children in the Dungeon (priv. coll.). Although initially polite about his professional situation, Northcote became disenchanted at Reynolds's personal indifference to him, at his unwillingness to provide training, and even at his own studio space, which he described in 1775 as a ‘dismal hole’ (Gwynn, 111). According to Northcote, Reynolds ‘was not the master to produce good scholars, as most of his could never get a decent livelihood, but lived in poverty and died in debt, miserable to themselves and a disgrace to the art. I alone escaped this severe fate’ (ibid., 225–6). Northcote later made much of his association with Reynolds and his circle. Yet there is no evidence that he was ever regarded as a close friend. Indeed, Henry Fuseli cruelly stated that, while he was on close personal terms with Reynolds, Northcote was ‘considered as little better than his pallette cleaner’ (The Collected English Letters of Henry Fuseli, ed. D. H. Weinglass, 1982, 12). Sometimes Northcote was invited to join Reynolds at table. However, much of the gossip he relayed in later years was clearly obtained by eavesdropping and through his conversations with Reynolds's sister, Fanny, who took him under her wing. On 25 October 1771 Northcote enrolled as a student at the Royal Academy Schools, where he drew from the antique cast and the living model. At the time he told his brother excitedly that the ‘information concerning the drawing from the naked woman is really true’. He added that the practice was ‘much disapproved of by some good folks and Miss Reynolds says it is a great pity that it should become a necessary part in the education of a painter’ (Whitley, 2.286). Of the female models themselves he remarked that they ‘looked upon it as an additional disgrace to what their profession imposed upon them, and as something unnatural. One in particular … always came in a mask’ (Conversations, ed. Swinnerton, 83). In 1773 Northcote exhibited his first portrait, Dr John Mudge, at the Royal Academy. He exhibited two further works in 1774, A Lady in the Character of St Catherine and a ‘portrait of an old gentleman’. In 1775 he showed a fancy picture of a ‘girl sleeping’ and in 1776 a character study of an old man's head. In the same year, about 12 May, he left Reynolds's service to pursue an independent career.
Italy and Germany, 1776–1780
From May to September 1776 Northcote worked as a portraitist in Portsmouth, lodging with Edward Hunt, master builder at the dockyard. In August he also spent a fortnight on the Isle of Wight, and in the autumn he moved on to Plymouth, where he continued to paint portraits. Altogether, over seventy portraits from this period are recorded. The money he earned, between £400 and £500, was sufficient to finance a visit to the continent. On 31 March 1777 he sailed from Brighton to Dieppe, and then travelled on to Paris, where he spent ten days, including a visit to the palace of Versailles. From Paris he travelled to Lyons, and across the Alps to Turin. It was a miserable journey, Northcote being temporarily short of money and quite unable to speak any foreign language. For the journey from Turin to Genoa he equipped himself with a large pair of horse-pistols—much to the vexation of his fellow passenger, who told him that they were likely to increase the possibility of being attacked by bandits. From Genoa he travelled by mule to Florence, and straight on to Rome, where he arrived on 23 May 1777. There, assisted by the Scottish landscape painter Jacob More, he found lodgings in the strada della Croce. In February 1779 he took apartments in the Palazzo Zuccaro, noting that his rooms were the very same used by Reynolds nearly thirty years earlier. In Rome Northcote made sketches from the old masters. However, he painted few pictures, complaining to his brother about ‘those cursed antiquaries’ who controlled patronage and the Italian artists who would ‘work for the meanest trifle’ (4 Feb 1778, RA, Nor/40MS). Northcote painted three self-portraits in Italy: the first in the summer of 1778 for the director of the Uffizi; the second in 1779 for the Accademia del Disegno, Florence, of which he became a member on 27 September 1778; and the third for the Accademia Etrusca at Cortona, to which he was elected on 9 August 1779. He was also elected to the Accademia dei Forti at Rome on 4 November 1779. Northcote's friends in Rome included the miniaturist Maria Hadfield (later Mrs Richard Cosway), the sculptor Thomas Banks, and the painters Prince Hoare and Henry Fuseli, whose drawings he copied (Yale University). Northcote and Hoare frequently explored the Vatican together, once managing to penetrate as far as the pope's bedroom, a cause of consternation to the palace guards, since the pope was still in bed. He also made the acquaintance of the painters Anton Raphael Mengs, Pompeo Batoni, and Jacques-Louis David. Northcote, perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, recalled that David always carried secret-pocket pistols and that ‘all his conversation was tinctured with blasphemy in respect to religion, and licentiousness in regard to government, interspersed with many ludicrous anecdotes of the late unfortunate King of France’ (Gwynn, 155). With the exception of a visit to Naples in April 1779 Northcote continued to reside in Rome until June 1779, when he and Hoare left for Florence. After three months they travelled to Bologna, Modena, and Parma, where Northcote made a copy of ‘the famous Magdalene in the well-known picture by Correggio’ (Gwynn, 6), then in the academy at Parma (Louvre, Paris). After wintering in Venice, Northcote and Hoare travelled to Augsburg via Padua, Verona, and Mantua. In Germany Northcote once more encountered the language barrier, prompting Hoare to attempt conversation with the locals in Latin. Travelling by way of Munich, Frankfurt, and Cologne, they arrived at Düsseldorf, where they saw Hamlet performed in Flemish, ‘which to us had a very droll effect’ (ibid., 188). The final leg of the journey took them to Antwerp and to Ostend, from where they took the packet to Margate, arriving on 2 May 1780. Northcote headed for London.
Confident of attracting patrons, Northcote immediately rented expensive apartments in Old Bond Street, although lack of business soon forced him to retreat to Plymouth, where he painted portraits at 8 guineas a head. Again he took up residence in London, this time in nearby Clifford Street. Still unable to make a living, he once more returned to Plymouth, where suspicions that he had failed in the capital evidently led to estrangement from local patrons. Returning to London for a second time, he was informed by Reynolds of the arrival of John Opie, who, according to Northcote, now monopolized the attention of his own potential allies and patrons. In 1781 and 1782 Northcote exhibited several portraits of naval officers at the Royal Academy, commissions derived no doubt from his Plymouth contacts. Among these was probably the dashing bust-length of Lieutenant George Dyer of the Royal Marines (priv. coll.). By now Northcote's living was derived principally from small-scale fancy pictures and illustrations of popular works of literature, including Laurence Sterne's Sentimental Journey and Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, which were sold as prints. In 1784 he exhibited his first modern history painting, The Wreck of HMS Centaur, painted for Henry Noel, sixth earl of Gainsborough (des.), which Northcote acknowledged as ‘the grandest and most original thing I ever did’ (Gwynn, 201). The success of this painting helped launch Northcote's career as a history painter, which began in earnest in 1786. On 13 November 1786 Northcote was elected associate member of the Royal Academy, achieving full membership the following year, on 10 February. By this time he was committed to producing a series of works for Boydell's Shakspeare Gallery, the idea for which he claimed came from his painting The Murder of the Princes in the Tower (Petworth House, Sussex), which Boydell had exhibited at his house in Cheapside. Other works for Boydell included The Death of Wat Tyler (exh. RA, 1787; des. 1940), The Meeting of Edward V and his Brother (exh. RA, 1787), Last Scene in Part Three of ‘Henry VI’, Last scene in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (1791; priv. coll.), and The Death of Mortimer in Prison (1791). He also painted for Woodmason's Shakespeare Gallery, a rival of Boydell's, including The Death of John of Gaunt from ‘Richard III’ (ex Phillips, 30 April 1991, lot 29). More successful than these rather lugubrious grandes machines were his fancy pictures, such as the Beggar Boy with a Monkey of 1784 (ex Christies, 5 June 1953, lot 96), and The Flower Girl Sleeping, painted for the Polygraphic Society in 1791. A large number of Northcote's paintings were engraved, Northcote presenting a volume of 190 prints after his work to the Royal Academy in 1823. In 1796 Northcote painted a series of ten narrative pictures, Diligence and Dissipation, featuring a ‘modest girl’ and her ‘wanton fellow servant’, along the lines of William Hogarth's ‘modern moral subjects’, although lacking Hogarth's humour, invention, or technical skill. Northcote exhibited each year at the Royal Academy from 1781 to 1825 (with the exception of 1790). He also showed works at exhibitions in Carlisle, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, and Exeter. His account book, listing many works from the mid-1770s until his death, is in the National Portrait Gallery. Throughout Northcote's career portraiture remained a staple; he relied heavily on the patronage of Devon and Cornish families, although later significant patrons included Sir John Leicester, Thomas Lister Parker of Browsholme, and Charles Townley. Among his more celebrated portrait subjects were Master Betty, ‘the young Roscius’, as Hamlet (exh. RA, 1805; Royal Shakespeare Company Gallery, Stratford upon Avon), the infant John Ruskin (1822; NPG), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1804; Jesus College, Cambridge), and Napoleon (1801; ex Sothebys, 16 November 1983, lot 82). During the 1790s Northcote also began to specialize in portraits of dogs, as well as narrative paintings involving monkeys, tigers, lions, vultures, and snakes. He painted numerous self-portraits, especially from the early 1800s. One of the more unusual of these depicts him as a falconer with two hawks and a dog (1823; Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter).
Character and appearance
Northcote was small and lean with angular features; Fuseli described him memorably as resembling ‘a rat that had seen a cat’ (Gwynn, 12). Peter Patmore, who knew him in old age, observed ‘His figure is small, shadowy, emaciated; but you think only of his face, which is fine and expressive. His body is out of the question’ (ibid., 21). As early as the 1780s he had earned a reputation for miserliness. When his historical painting The Death of Wat Tyler was counted a success at the 1787 Royal Academy exhibition, Fuseli observed wryly: ‘Now Northcote will go home, put an extra piece of coal on the fire, and be almost tempted to draw the cork of his one pint of wine when he hears such praise’ (ibid., 12). In 1789 Northcote moved from Clifford Street to 39 Argyll Street. He lived there until 1822, when he moved to 8 Argyll Place. Northcote never married, living from the 1790s with his sister, Mary, in an increasingly dilapidated household. Northcote's eccentricity and sharp tongue earned him the nickname the ‘walking thumb-bottle of aqua fortis’ (Conversations of James Northcote, 21). These attributes were made forcibly apparent to the young Benjamin Robert Haydon, who paid him a visit in 1804, armed with a letter of introduction from Prince Hoare. Northcote greeted him in an old blue striped dressing-gown. Looking keenly at me with his little shining eyes, he opened the letter, read it, and in his broadest Devon dialect said, ‘Zo, you mayne to bee a peintur, doo ee; and whaat zort of peintur?’ ‘Historical painter, sir.’ ‘Hees-torical peintur!’ raising his eyebrows; ‘why, yee'll staarve—with a bundle o' streaw under yer heead’. (B. R. Haydon, Correspondence and Table-Talk, 1876, 1.21)
In 1807 Northcote was invited to contribute to Prince Hoare's short-lived periodical The Artist, among his first efforts being an obituary of John Opie, who had died earlier that year. His essays on the fine arts included ‘The dream of a painter’, ‘The painter and the philosopher’, and a pretentious piece entitled ‘The slighted beauty, or, The adventures of an unfortunate lady; including a concise view of the progress of the fine arts in various parts of Europe’. Of limited literary merit, but more historically interesting, are his essays ‘On originality, imitators, and collectors’, ‘On the independence of painting on poetry’, his semi-autobiographical ‘Second letter from a disappointed genius’, and his ‘Advice to a young artist’. In 1809 he composed a brief memoir of Reynolds for John Britton's Fine Arts of the British School and about 1810 began to write his own memoirs, initially couched in the third person, although he subsequently amended parts to the first person. The manuscript, now in the British Library (Add. MSS 47790–47793), was bequeathed to Sir William Knighton, on the understanding that he should publish it. Knighton did not, but allowed C. R. Leslie access to it in writing his own Life of Reynolds, published in 1865. It was eventually published in 1898, edited by Stephen Gwynn. Northcote incorporated some of the early material in his memoirs into a biography of Sir Joshua Reynolds which was published in 1813 as Memoirs of Sir Joshua Reynolds, knt. … comprising original anecdotes of many distinguished persons, his contemporaries; and a brief analysis of his discourses. It received poor reviews, James Prior in his Life of Oliver Goldsmith even asserting that the book was not Northcote's own work. There was a grain of truth in the accusation for, as Northcote later told William Hazlitt, he had employed a certain Mr Laird to edit the book and see it through the press. Moreover, the publisher, Henry Colburn, employed researchers to gather anecdotal material relating to Reynolds, which was incorporated unacknowledged and verbatim in Northcote's text. As the British Critic noted, ‘these anecdotes are so artificially strung together, or rather have so little connection, that the performance assimilates much more to a bundle of bon-mots, or witticism, or “felicities in ana”, than to the character of regular composition’ (February 1814, 150). In 1815 Northcote published a Supplement to the memoirs of the life, writings, discourses, and professional works of Sir Joshua Reynolds, knt., late president of the Royal Academy which, as well as supplying additional material on Reynolds, contained a compilation of Northcote's own essays for The Artist entitled ‘Varieties on art’. In 1818 Henry Colburn published The Life of Sir Joshua Reynolds, an expanded version, in two volumes, of Northcote's Memoirs of 1813. Northcote's most deeply held opinions on art, life, and politics did not emerge in his own writings but via a compelling series of ‘conversations’ published by William Hazlitt. Hazlitt, who had known Northcote since 1802, published their conversations from 1826 to 1829 in various journals, including the New Monthly Magazine, the Court Journal, the London Weekly Review, and The Atlas, using the pseudonym Boswell Redivivus. A compilation of his essays was published in book form in 1830 as Conversations of James Northcote, R.A. Northcote fascinated Hazlitt, not merely as a relic from another age, but by the sheer force and venom of his monologue: His thoughts bubble up and sparkle like beads on old wine. The fund of anecdote, the collection of curious particulars, is enough to set up any common retailer of jests that dines out every day; but these are not strung together like a row of galley-slaves, but are always introduced to illustrate some argument, or bring out some fine distinction of character. (Gwynn, 13) Hazlitt freely paraphrased and even invented, introducing ‘little incidental details that never happened; thus, by lying, giving a greater air of truth to the scene—an art understood by most historians!’ (Conversations, ed. Swinnerton, xii). At times Northcote was angered at Hazlitt's revelations, not least those concerning the Mudge family, who protested to the New Monthly Magazine (Gwynn, 23). And when the book was published in 1830 Northcote told John Ruskin's father that he had tried to prevent its publication (Conversations, ed. Swinnerton, xiii). In later years Northcote was also courted by a young painter, James Ward, whose manuscript notes (RA) pertaining to their conversations were eventually published in 1901 by Ernest Fletcher. Although they lack the flair of Hazlitt's Conversations, they are an invaluable, and more trustworthy, source of information.
Northcote's final years were taken up by two further literary projects, One Hundred Fables, Original and Select, first published in 1828, and in 1830 The Life of Titian, with Anecdotes of the Distinguished Persons of his Time, both written with the assistance of Hazlitt. Northcote's Fables were illustrated with woodcuts based on illustrations from old prints onto which Northcote pasted his own designs. The text is uninspired and, as it has been remarked, ‘neither Hazlitt nor any one else could have redeemed them from dullness’ (Gwynn, 25). In 1828 Northcote painted a portrait of Sir Walter Scott, who described the artist as looking like ‘an animated mummy’ (Simon, 112). Although he neglected his house and his personal appearance, Northcote indulged his hobbies, principally the purchase of memorabilia connected with an ennobled branch of the Northcote family from which he claimed descent. He died at 8.30 p.m. on 13 July 1831 at his home in Argyll Place. In his will he stipulated that his body should remain uninterred ‘as long as it can be suffered’ to ensure that he was not accidentally buried alive. He also gave three choices for his place of burial, including St Paul's Cathedral, ‘as near as possibly may be to the remains of my late lamented Friend and Master Sir Joshua Reynolds’. In the event he was buried in St Marylebone Church. His estate was estimated at about £25,000. In his will he left a sum of up to £1400 to pay for a second edition of his Fables, to be edited by Edward Southey Rogers. His Northcote family memorabilia he left to Sir Stafford Northcote of Upton Pyne, Devon, also his various portraits of the Northcotes, his bust by Joseph Bonomi, and his two-volume manuscript account of the Northcote family. He left £1000 to the sculptor Francis Chantrey for his monument to be placed in St Andrew's Church, Plymouth, and a further £200 for a memorial to his brother, who had died intestate on 9 May 1813. His brother's monument was placed in St Andrew's, although his own was erected in Exeter Cathedral. His sister remained in Argyll Place until her death on 25 May 1836.
Martin Postle, ‘Northcote, James (1746–1831)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition, Jan. 2008) [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/20326, accessed 6 June 2013]