James Northcote

James Northcote, 18th century painter

print from an early self-portait. ©Royal Academy of Art
print from an
early self-portait

James Northcote was one of a number of prominent painters of the 18th century who hailed from the Plymouth area of Devon, the most notable of whom was Sir Joshua Reynolds, the founder and first president of the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Today Northcote is chiefly admired for his portraits, though his paintings of animals found favour in his lifetime. In his later years he devoted an increasing amount of time to history paintings, including some scenes from Shakespeare's history plays which were exhibited in Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery.

Northcote is renowned also for his writing, penning the first full biography of Reynolds in 1813, and later a Life of Titian, as well as a book of fables lavishly illustrated by woodcuts crafted from his own designs. He had trenchant and outspoken views on his fellow artists and other famous figures of the day; these opinions were expressed publicly in William Hazlitt's Conversations with Northcote that appeared in book form a year before Northcote's death in 1831. A prolific artist, Northcote was credited with around 2000 works, and by living frugally in his London house for the last fifty years of his life he died a wealthy man.

Starting out

Born in Plymouth on October 22nd 1746, little is known of Northcote's early years, save that like the illustrious Reynolds before him, he was educated at Plympton Grammar School. Remarkably for such a small school, two more famous English painters of this period were former pupils: Benjamin Haydon who become head boy in 1801, and Sir Charles Lock Eastlake (1793-1865), a one time president of the Royal Academy. The etching of the school reproduced below dates from 1820.

Founded in 1658 by a bequest from one Elize Hele, it was originally called Hele's School and was highly regarded in Reynolds' day. Though modest in size by modern standards, the building impressed Samuel Rowe who wrote in 1821:

Plympton Grammar School
Plympton Grammar School
This is a handsome edifice in the gothic style, with large antique windows. Below the school-room, is a spacious piazza, with nine arches, supported by granite pillars, intended and excellently adapted for school-boy sports in rainy weather. [Rowe1]

By the mid 19th century the school had entered a period of decline after a failed attempt to replace the classical curriculum with more commercial courses. With the number of pupils dwindling and the building falling into disrepair, the school was closed down following the introduction of state control for secondary education in 1902 and didn't reopen until 1921.

The Grammar School made no lasting impression on Northcote and goes unmentioned in his memoirs; indeed he criticises his father for leaving him disadvantaged by neglecting his education:

[He] paid no attention to his children, and but for the prudence of my mother [I] would never have been taught to read. Reading, writing, and arithmetic was all the school learning I ever got, and this small portion was not acquired till I myself was sensible of the want of it, being then near thirteen years of age. [Gwynn2, p31]
Moving on

On leaving school Northcote was apprenticed to his father, a humble watchmaker who was opposed to his son becoming a professional painter. Frustrated in his desire to become an artist, and feeling like a caged bird, he vowed to make a break from his father: "..tired of my present mode of life, I decided rather to throw myself on the wide world.".

In the summer of 1771 he and his elder brother left Plymouth for London telling their father that they would return within a fortnight. With only 10 guineas in their pocket, they decided to travel a considerable part of the journey on foot. Northcote relates how, arriving dishevelled and weary at Woodyates Inn between Blandford and Salisbury, they were refused a bed for the night and were obliged to sleep in the hayloft with the grooms and post-boys.

Unknown to either his brother or father, James had in his pocket two other valuable items: letters of introduction to Sir Joshua Reynolds. One was from Mr Henry Tolcher, a senior Alderman from the city of Plymouth, who had long been convinced of James's artistic talent. To the considerable irritation of his friend Samuel Northcote (James's father), Tolcher frequently counselled him to send his son to London to study painting. The second letter was from Dr John Mudge, an eminent Plymouth surgeon who was a personal friend of Reynolds.

Northcote becomes assistant to Reynolds

The day after their arrival in London, Northcote lost no time in delivering his letters to Reynolds.

Sir Joshua received me with kindness, and offered me any assistance in his power. It is impossible to surpass the pleasure I now received in breathing, as it may be said, in an atmosphere of art, until this period being entirely debarred not only from the practice of art, but even from the sight of pictures of any excellence. 2, p45

James was given the freedom to spend his days copying pictures from Reynold's collection, and it wasn't long before he was invited to come and live in the house and assist the master on a permanent basis. Northcote joined two other younger assistants making copies and painting the draperies on portraits at Reynolds' bidding. During his time with Reynolds he had occasion to meet with distinguished men of letters such as Oliver Goldsmith and Samuel Johnson, and the renowned Shakespearean actor David Garrick, who were regular visitors to Reynolds' house.

After more than four years of this essentially menial work, Northote decided that his artistic skills were not progressing as they should, and it was time to part company with Reynolds which he did on amicable terms.

Going it alone
self-portrait in pencil from Northcote's Italian notebook
self-portrait in pencil from
Northcote's Italian notebook

He left the service of Reynolds in 1775, travelling to Portsmouth the following year before returning to Devon. He managed to save enough from portrait commissions to realise his ambition of making an extended visit to Italy:

The great object with me was to visit Italy as soon as possible, in hopes to make myself more able in my profession by seeing and studying the works of the great masters. 2, p117

Aspiring artists from across Europe congregated in Italy at the time, and Northcote encountered several individuals who would become eminent later in life. Among these was the painter Henry Fuseli from Zurich, an early exponent of the romantic movement who later settled permanently in London. Like Northcote, Fuseli lived to a ripe old age, and the pair were friends and rivals on the London scene for another half century. They both had sharp tongues, and it was said that they watched each other like game cocks before a spurring match.

On his return to England three years later, after a short visit to Devon, Northcote moved back to London where he remained for the rest of his long life, dying aged eight-five with his faculties unimpaired until the very end.

Representative paintings

Admiral Samuel Hood, 1784
Henry Fuseli, 1778
Mrs. Smith Barwell, 1803
  • Mrs. Smith Barwell. Painted in 1803.
  • ©LACMA
History paintings
print of Captain Inglefield and eleven men saved at sea
Print of Captain Inglefield and
eleven men saved at sea

On returning to London from his sojourn in Italy, Northcote was hoping to set himself up as a portrait painter. But, lacking a patron and experiencing considerable competition from among others the newly arrived and highly regarded Cornishman John Opie, he turned of necessity to painting "small historical and fancy subjects from the most popular authors of the day, as such subjects are sure of sale amongst the minor print-dealers, being done in a short time, and for a small price. 2, p200"

In Northcote's day the sale of prints was an important source of extra income for an aspiring professional painter; it was important to work in partnership with a competent engraver and to paint images that would appeal to the public.

One popular print of a Northcote painting from this period depicted a recent shipwreck: that of Captain Englefield and eleven of his crew who survived in a small boat after the sinking of the man-of-war Centaur on return from Jamaica. The print of this scene by Thomas Gaugain is shown alongside. Gaugain was a French engraver and publisher who collaborated with Northcote on many occasions, and was his engraver of choice.

Aiming to capitalise on a revival of interest in Shakespeare in the late 18th century, in 1786 the publisher John Boydell and his nephew Josiah embarked on an ambitious scheme to promote historical painting in London. The Boydells' scheme had three elements: a purpose-built gallery to exhibit specially commissioned paintings of scenes from Shakespeare by leading contemporary artists, an illustrated edition of Shakespeare's plays, and a folio of prints from the gallery items.

Northcote was commissioned to contribute canvases to the Boydell collection from its inception, and later claimed credit for inspiring the Boydells to embark on their project:

..the 'Murder of the Princes in the Tower' was painted previously to this scheme and had been some little time in Boydell's possession before the splendid edition of Shakespeare had been thought upon. This picture had been publicly exhibited at his house in Cheapside, and it seems not unlikely that this very picture first suggested the scheme to their minds, as it had been greatly noticed and admired. 2, p205

An intriguing connection between the 'Murder of the Princes' and his 'Death of Wat Tyler'[note 2], a large canvas also painted for Alderman Boydell who was Lord Mayor of London by this time, is revealed in this anecdote from Northcote's memoirs:

It was a usual custom with me to take a short walk in the morning between the hours of eight and ten o'clock into the fields for the benefit of air and exercise. One morning, at the time I was employed in painting this large composition of the 'Death of Wat Tyler', as I was walking alone in the field, a man crossed the field and came up to me, which somewhat decomposed me. I expected to have been robbed, as this was a very ill-looking fellow; however, the man, probably seeing some good reason at the time not to rob, contented himself by only asking alms.
print from Death of Wat Tyler
Print from Death of Wat Tyler
I told him that I had nothing for him, but that if he would call at my house I would find employment for him, and then gave my card of direction. Soon after this fellow came, and from him I painted one of Wat Tyler's rebels, and also one of the assassins murdering Edward V and his brother in the Tower. This fellow afterwards came to the house so drunk and appeared so very worthless that I forbid his coming any more there again for ever. 2, p206

By now Northcote had achieved the recognition he sought. He was elected associate of the Royal Academy in 1786, and accorded full membership the following spring. Notwithstanding his new found status, he was chided as a penny-pincher by his detractors; following the acclaim accorded to his 'Death of Wat Tyler' painting at the 1787 Academy Exhibition, Fuseli remarked with his customary sarcasm:

Northcote will go home, put an extra piece of coal on his fire, and be almost tempted to draw the cork of his one pint of wine when he hears such praise.

After initial success, especially with the gallery of paintings in Pall Mall, the Boydell project eventually foundered partly due to the uneven quality of the material, especially the engravings for the folio. By the middle of the 1790s the volume of subscriptions for the folio was in decline, and poor record-keeping of the existing subscriptions was creating further problems. Eventually the Boydells became insolvent and the Gallery and its contents were sold off in a lottery. Northcote later made this scathing comment on the efforts of the lesser known contributors:

With the exception of a few pictures by Joshua and Opie, and, I hope I may add, myself, it was such a collection of slip-slop imbecility as was dreadful to look at, and turned out, as I had expected it would, in the ruin of poor Boydell's affairs. [Merchant3, p75]
Murder of the Princes
  • Richard III: Act IV, Scene 3: Murder of the Princes in the Tower. First painted in 1785.
Juliet awakes
  • Romeo and Juliet: Act V, Scene 3: Juliet awakes, and finds Romeo dead. First painted in 1789 for Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery.
animal paintings
Vulture and snake
Tiger Hunting (after James Northcote)
  • Tiger Hunt. A mezzotint with etching by William Annis from an 1804 painting by Northcote.
  • ©Royal Academy of Arts


Life of Reynolds
design from title page of Northcote's memoirs
Title page of Northcote's memoirs

Northcote first began to write for publication in 1807 when he contributed pieces for various periodicals, and in 1809 he wrote a short memoir on Sir Joshua for John Britton's series, Fine Arts of the British School. The first edition of his Life of Reynolds5 appeared in 1813. This version contained a number of Northcote's essays that had first seen light of day in The Artist magazine which were dropped in the second edition.

His Life was not merely a life of Reynolds but also a hotchpotch of opinions and reminiscences taken directly from his hand-written volume of memoirs that formed the basis of Gwynn's Memorials2, discrediting the rumours circulating at the time that Northcote has simply signed a biography written by someone else. Hazlitt recounts that a certain Mr Laird has assisted Northcote in readying the book for publication, but it was otherwise in his own hand. The book has had its critics but was a treasure-trove of anecdotes from the last surviving member of Reynolds' inner circle.

Conversations with Hazlitt

Essayist William Hazlitt had a long friendship with Northcott, his senior by more than thirty years, and held him in high regard. Hazlitt published a sequence of their conversations in the New Monthly Magazine which were eventually published in book form as Conversations with Northcote6. In the following extract from one of Hazlitt's essays he expounds on why he found Northcote such agreeable company:

The best converser I know is the best listener. I mean Mr Northcote, the painter. Painters by their profession are not bound to shine in conversation, and they shine the more. He lends his ear to an observation as if you had brought him a piece of news, and enters into it with as much avidity and earnestness as if it interested himself personally. If he repeats an old remark or story, it is with the same freshness and point as for the first time. It always arises out of the occasion, and has the stamp of originality. There is no parroting of himself. His look is a continual, ever-varying history piece of what passes in his mind. His face is as a book. 4
James Northcote self-portait
James Northcote self-portait
Other collaborations with Hazlitt

Hazlitt collaborated with Northcote on two other publications, the Life of Titian and Northcote's Fables, but this did little to enhance the writing in this last work which was the old man's last and most cherished venture. According to Gwynn (referring to the fables) neither Hazlitt or anyone else could have redeemed them from dullness.2, p25

A second edition of the Fables was published posthumously financed by a clause in his will setting aside between £1000 and £1400 explicitly for this.


1. Regarding copyright
This page contains a number of photographic images of out-of-copyright works by James Northcote. By reproducing these images I am adopting the official position of the Wikimedia Foundation, which is that faithful photographic reproductions of public domain works should be considered to be in the public domain. This has been upheld in the 1999 US court case Bridgeman Art Library vs Corel Corporation, though it has not been tested in a UK court. Notwithstanding this, I have attributed the copyrights of these images to the websites hosting the originals where ascertainable. The copyright notices link to enlargements on these websites, but in some cases these links are now dead (in 2019).
Northcote speaks of the daunting challenge of completing such a large and detailed canvas in Conversations with Northcote, p252:
When I set about the "Wat Tyler", I was frightened at it: it was the largest work I had ever undertaken: there were to be horses and armour and buildings and several groups in it: when I looked at it, the canvas seemed ready to fall upon me. But I had committed myself and could not escape; disgrace was behind me - and every step I made in advance, was ground positively gained. If I had staid to make a number of designs and try different experiments, I never should have had the courage to go on. Half the things that people do not succeed in, are through fear of making the attempt. [return]


The Panorama of Plymouth, Or, Tourists' Guide to the Towns and Vicinity of Plymouth, Devonport and Stonehouse by Samuel Rowe, Plymouth 1821. [return]
Memorials of an Eighteenth Century Painter (James Northcote) edited by Stephen Gwynn, London 1898.
Quoted in Shakespeare and the Artist by W M Merchant, London, 1959. [return]
From William Hazlitt's essay "On the Conversation of Authors", first published in the London Magazine, September, 1820 and later reproduced in The Plain Speaker (1826). [return]


The engraving of Plympton Grammar School is reproduced from the Devon Libraries Local Studies Service Etched on Devon's Memory series which is licensed under this Creative Commons License.