Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Northcote, James
NORTHCOTE, JAMES (1746–1831), painter, royal academician, and author, younger son of Samuel Northcote, watchmaker, was born in Market Street, Plymouth, on 22 Oct. 1746. His parents were of humble origin and unitarians, and while his father found employment not only in making and mending watches, but also in winding clocks in Plymouth Dock (Devonport), his mother dealt in small articles of haberdashery. Later in life Northcote took pleasure in considering that his family belonged to the same stock as the knightly family of Northcote of Upton Pyne, Devonshire (now represented by the Earl of Iddesleigh), though no satisfactory proof could be obtained. His early education was scanty, and with his elder brother, Samuel, he was as soon as possible apprenticed to his father's trade. In one of his subsequent writings, ‘A Letter from a Disappointed Genius,’ Northcote describes his early aspirations to be an artist, and the refusal of his father to offer any encouragement. This artistic impulse was no doubt increased by the growing fame of his fellow-countryman, Sir Joshua Reynolds, an intimate friend of the family of Dr. Zachariah Mudge [q. v.] of St. Andrew's, Plymouth, one of whom, Thomas Mudge [q. v.], was actually engaged in the watchmaking trade, and so was closely acquainted with the Northcote family. Northcote narrates, in his ‘Life of Reynolds,’ his delight at being able to touch the skirt of Reynolds's coat when the painter came with Samuel Johnson on a visit to Plymouth in 1762. Some of Northcote's drawings were then shown to Reynolds. Northcote's friends urged that he should be sent to study painting in London under Reynolds, or either of the engravers, Fisher or McArdell. His father continued obdurate. Northcote, however, spent his leisure hours in drawing portraits or views in the neighbourhood, and, having thereby saved ten guineas, planned with his brother Samuel a secret flight from Plymouth to London. They left Plymouth early on Whitsunday in May 1771, and after five days' journey on foot arrived in London. Northcote brought letters of introduction to Reynolds, who received him kindly, and accorded him permission to work in his studio as an assistant. His brother returned at once to Plymouth; but Northcote took a cheap lodging, and, while spending the day in Reynolds's studio, earned small sums of money by colouring prints and similar work for booksellers. Shortly after he was invited by Reynolds to become an inmate of his house. Here, besides actual work in the studio in preparing grounds, drawing draperies, and the like, Northcote worked in an adjoining room, copying or making studies as he chose, and also had the privilege of seeing and sometimes conversing with the many distinguished persons who came to visit Reynolds. Northcote studied as well in the schools of the Royal Academy, for he does not appear to have received any actual instruction from Reynolds himself. He made only slow progress both in drawing and colouring. Reynolds, in his letters to his friends at Plymouth, frequently alluded to Northcote's industry and regularity of life. Northcote sometimes sat to Reynolds as model: for instance, as one of the young men in ‘Ugolino.’ He obtained some practice as a portrait painter, and there is a story that he painted a portrait of one of Reynolds's female servants, which was so lifelike that it continually excited the rage of a pet macaw. While still an inmate of Reynolds's house, Northcote sent portraits to the Royal Academy in 1773 and following years, one of which elicited some laudatory verses from Dr. Wolcot. After five years Northcote determined to set up on his own account as a painter, and left Reynolds's house on 12 May 1776. He returned home to Devonshire for some months, painting portraits, until he had earned enough money to pay for a journey to Italy.
He started in 1777, and proceeded by Lyons and Genoa to Rome, where he remained about two years. He was an assiduous student of the paintings by the great masters, devoting special attention to the works of Titian. He lived a secluded life, supporting himself by copying well-known works. He obtained some reputation as a painter, and while visiting Florence on his return was requested to paint his own portrait for the gallery of painters there. He was also elected fellow of the Imperial Academy at Florence, the Academy dei Forti at Rome, and the Ancient Etruscan Academy at Cortona. It was in Italy that he became imbued with the desire of becoming a painter of history.
Northcote returned to London in May 1780, and received a hearty welcome from Reynolds. He at once commenced portrait-painting, and took lodgings at 2 Old Bond Street, whence he sent a portrait to the Royal Academy in 1781. In 1782 he removed to Clifford Street, Bond Street, where he remained about nine years, continuing to be an annual exhibitor at the Royal Academy. In 1783 he sent his first subject-pictures, ‘Beggars with Dancing Dogs,’ ‘Hobnella,’ and ‘The Village Doctress,’ and in 1784 his first historical picture, ‘Captain Englefield and his Crew escaping from the Wreck of the Centaur’ (engraved by T. Gaugain). In 1785 he painted a portrait of his brother, and in 1786 one of his father, which were both engraved in mezzotint by S. W. Reynolds. Shortly after this John Boydell [q. v.] embarked on his great project of the Shakespeare Gallery, commissioning a series of large paintings and a series of large engravings to be made from the same. Northcote was one of the principal painters employed by Boydell, and painted nine pictures for this series. The first was ‘The Murder of the Young Princes in the Tower,’ which he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1786. The popularity of this and other paintings obtained for Northcote a commission from the city of London to paint a large picture of ‘Sir William Walworth, Lord Mayor of London, A.D. 1381, killing Wat Tyler,’ now in the Guildhall in London. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1787, and engraved by Anker Smith. He was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1786, and an academician on 13 Feb. 1787. Of Northcote's other Shakespeare pictures, ‘The Burial of the Young Princes’ and ‘Prince Arthur and Hubert’ were especially popular, and his most important historical paintings were ‘The Loss of the Halsewell, East Indiaman’ (engraved by T. Gaugain), ‘The Death of Prince Leopold of Brunswick’ (engraved by J. Gillray), and ‘The Earl of Argyle in Prison,’ painted for Earl Grey (engraved by E. Scriven). The failure of Boydell's scheme was a great blow to Northcote's fortunes as a painter of history, and he suffered further from the rising popularity of John Opie (1761–1807) [q. v.] in the same line. His reputation, however, as a portrait-painter continued to increase, and in 1791 he removed to a larger house in Argyll Place, where he spent the remainder of his life. There he continued to paint with undiminished industry for over fifty years, producing, with little encouragement, numerous historical and sacred pictures. Among these was a series of ten pictures, entitled ‘Diligence and Dissipation,’ showing the history of a modest girl and a wanton, which were painted in direct rivalry with the works of Hogarth, and with a high moral intention; the pictures were engraved, and in that form had a large sale. The series, however, proved a complete failure both from an artistic and moral point of view. Northcote also paid very considerable attention to the painting of animals, obtaining some success, of which he was justifiably proud, and several popular engravings were made from these pictures.
Northcote, however, attained his chief excellence as a portrait-painter. His portraits are well drawn and modelled, sober in colour and dignified in conception, though they have none of the individuality of Reynolds, and hardly reach so high a level as those of his chief rival, John Opie. During his long life Northcote painted an almost incalculable number, and they include many of the most remarkable persons of his day, from Dr. Mudge down to S. T. Coleridge and John Ruskin. There are good examples in the National Portrait Gallery.
Such eminence as Northcote attained as a painter of history was due to a considerable skill in composition and to simplicity in presentment. He had little imagination or creative power in his art, and did not excel as a draughtsman or colourist. Having unexampled opportunities of studying Reynolds's method of painting, he yet showed himself but little influenced by his master in his own paintings. Of his contemporaries he was perhaps most influenced by Opie, whom he admired, although a successful rival. Throughout his life he was a devoted student and admirer of Titian, and yet seemed unable to understand the secret of Titian's skill as a colourist. Northcote's pictures are, however, good specimens of the English school, and have fallen into unmerited neglect. The only one in the national collections is ‘The Presentation of British Officers to Pope Pius VI’ in the South Kensington Museum. There are five pictures by him at Petworth House, Sussex, including ‘The Murder of the Princes in the Tower’ and a portrait of Master Betty, the young Roscius.
Not content with his success as a painter, Northcote aspired to rank as an author. In 1807 he contributed some articles to the ‘Artist,’ a weekly periodical edited by Prince Hoare [q. v.], and at the request of a friend he wrote a short memoir of Sir Joshua Reynolds for Britton's ‘Fine Arts of the English School.’ This memoir he subsequently expanded into a quarto volume, entitled ‘Memoirs of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Knt., LL.D., F.R.S., F.S.A., &c., late President of the Royal Academy, comprising Original Anecdotes of many Distinguished Persons, his Contemporaries, and a brief Analysis of his Discourses, to which are added Varieties on Art.’ The latter contained reprints of Northcote's articles in the ‘Artist’ and other periodicals. The book was published in 1813, a supplement was added in 1815, and an octavo edition in two volumes was published in 1819. It was awaited with great interest on account of Northcote's close intimacy with Reynolds, but excited some disappointment. Northcote, however, only claimed to have put down exactly what he knew himself, and his memoir has been the foundation of all subsequent biographies of Reynolds. Its insufficiency is shown by the numerous additional details concerning Reynolds which can be gleaned from Northcote's conversations and subsequent writings (see Leslie and Taylor, Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds, passim). As a devoted admirer of Reynolds, Northcote was very indignant at the rapidly growing success of Sir Thomas Lawrence [q. v.]
Northcote, besides being a very original character, possessed a shrewd observation, a retentive memory, and a caustic if not vivacious wit. His society was sought for this reason by many persons, who liked to draw him out and elicit his strongly expressed opinions on art and artists. Among these was William Hazlitt [q. v.], who was a constant visitor at Northcote's house, and made copious notes of his conversations, which were often started and directed to this special purpose by Hazlitt. In 1826 Hazlitt published in the ‘New Monthly Magazine’ a series of articles, entitled ‘Boswell Redivivus,’ containing extracts from Northcote's conversations with himself. They attracted much attention, from the shrewd wisdom of some sallies and the outspoken sarcasm of others. Hazlitt continued the series in the ‘Atlas’ newspaper. Northcote was flattered by the notoriety which he acquired; but when some remarks of his concerning his early benefactors, the Mudges, produced some strong remonstrances from his friends at Plymouth, he turned on Hazlitt, and accused him of malignant misrepresentation. Though affecting to regard Hazlitt as an enemy, he did not discourage his visits. This was probably due to the fact that he was receiving considerable assistance from Hazlitt in the preparation of two other literary ventures. The first of these was his ‘One Hundred Fables, Original and Select,’ which were compiled by Northcote, with apologues and illustrations of his own composition. These illustrations were designed in a curious way, for, though a skilful draughtsman of natural history, Northcote amused himself by cutting out figures from prints, and pasting them together until he had formed his designs; these he handed over to William Harvey [q. v.], the wood-engraver, who drew them on the wood-blocks, which were then cut by good engravers, and are among the most interesting productions of the art of wood engraving in England. The work was published at the expense of Mr. Lawford, a bookseller, and was warmly commended by Thomas Bewick [q. v.] A second series of the ‘Fables’ was published after Northcote's death. In 1830 Northcote published ‘The Life of Titian, with Anecdotes of the distinguished Persons of his Time,’ in two octavo volumes. Northcote had collected notes and papers for this throughout his life; but the result is a confused production, based mainly on the earlier life by Ticozzi. The work was one for which Northcote by nature and circumstances was particularly unsuited. In the same year Hazlitt's ‘Conversations with James Northcote’ was published in a single volume. A new edition, edited by Mr. Edmund Gosse, was published in 1894.
Northcote was a small man, with piercing eyes and strongly marked features. These became extremely accentuated in his latest years, and the frugality of his habits caused his figure to become attenuated almost to a skeleton. A contemporary remarked of him that ‘he looks like a rat who has seen a cat.’ From his earliest start in life he accustomed himself to the strictest economy and frugality, which he never abandoned. He was encouraged in his parsimonious habits by his sister Mary, who kept house for him in Argyll Place. Although money and commissions poured in on him, his house was dirty and neglected, and its condition frequently proved very repugnant to his sitters and visitors. His habits did not spring apparently from real miserly tendencies in his nature, for he spent money freely on his hobbies, such as the history and relics of the Northcote family, and at his death was possessed of far less money than had been expected. His devotion to his art occupied his whole time. He was unmarried, although he was by no means averse to ladies' society. His sister used to say that her brother had no time for falling in love. They both retained their strong Devonian accent to the last. Northcote died in his house in Argyll Place on 13 July 1831, and was buried in the new church of St. Marylebone. His sister died in Argyll Place on 25 May 1836,and was buried by her brother's side. He left large legacies in his will, including 1,000l. for a monument to himself in St. Andrew's Church, Plymouth, to be executed by Sir Francis Chantrey, and 200l. for a similar monument to his brother Samuel, who died at Plymouth on 9 May 1813, aged 70. The latter was executed and placed in St. Andrew's church; but the full-length statue of James Northcote, which was executed by Chantrey, was for some reason erected in Exeter Cathedral. His collections for the Northcote family he left as heirlooms to the head of the family at Upton Pyne.
Northcote was fond of painting his own portrait. A good example is in the National portrait Gallery; another in the Town Museum at Haarlem in Holland: others belong respectively to the Earl of Iddesleigh and Earl Cowper. In earlier years Prince Hoare, Opie, and G. Dance drew portraits of him, and in his old age G. H. Harlow, James Lonsdale, and A. Wivell. A portrait of Northcote by J. Jackson, R.A., has been recently presented to the National Gallery. The drawing by Lonsdale is now in the print room at the British Museum. Most of these portraits have been engraved.
[Leslie and Taylor's Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds; Northcote's Life of Reynolds; Flint's Mudge Memoirs; Gent. Mag. 1831. pt. ii. p. 102; Redgrave's Dict. of Artists; Cunningham's Lives of the British Painters.]