James Northcote, James Ferguson

Photo courtesy of Dave Penman (All rights reserved)


Country House
James Ferguson
Medium and support
Oil on canvas
Overall height: 76 cm, Overall width: 63.5 cm
James Northcote (1746-1831)
Catalogue Number


The Scottish astronomer and instrument and globe maker James Ferguson (1710–1776) was a close friend of Dr John Mudge, who shared his interest in astronomy and scientific instruments. Although Ferguson was based in London from the 1740s, he is recorded as having stayed with Dr Mudge in Plymouth, and it was presumably during this time that Northcote made the present portrait. Here, Northcote portrays Ferguson in a soft cap, holding in his hand presumably one of his own scientific publications, possibly his Select Mechanical Exercises, published in 1773. Behind, to the right, on a shelf are volumes of Isaac Newton’s celebrated Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, first published in 1687. Ferguson’s own work was indebted to Newton, whose theories he promoted through popular public lecture tours, as well as his book, Astronomy explained upon Sir Isaac Newton’s Principles, published in 1756. The format of Northcote’s portrait, portraying Ferguson in profile as a philosopher and intellectual, was influenced heavily by Reynolds’s earlier portrait of Dr John Mudge (See TN1), presumably viewing the portraits as pendants.

The mezzotint engraving of Northcote’s portrait, made by Francis Haward, was published on 20 March 1776, just eight months before Ferguson’s death (fig. 1)1. Given the time needed to produce the engraving, Northcote’s portrait may have been made sometime in 1775, or early in 1776. Since Northcote did not leave Reynolds’s service until May 1776, the present portrait was made while he was still a pupil, although by this date he was also exhibiting his own works at the Royal Academy, as well as replicating pictures by Reynolds and acting generally as a studio assistant.

The picture is not recorded in Northcote’s Account Book, which he commenced when he set up his independent portrait business in Portsmouth, probably in the early summer of 1776. At that time, as indicated by the records in his Account Book, he was charging five guineas for a head and shoulders portrait, the same size as the present painting of Ferguson. Francis Haward (1759–1797), the engraver of the print, was in 1776 still a teenager, and enrolled as a student in the Royal Academy Schools. The print is probably his earliest engraving, and the first published likeness of Ferguson. According to his Victorian biographer, Ferguson appears ‘much too youthful and gay for a careworn John Townsend man of 66’. He adds that when Ferguson’s publisher Thomas Cadell printed a second edition of Ferguson’s Select Mechanical Exercises in 1778 he rejected Haward’s print as a frontispiece in favour of a print, also published in 1776, by Robert Stewart after John Townsend (fig. 2).2

The inventory of March 1928 located the picture in the Drawing Room. It was described as ‘James Northcote R.A. 1746–1831 – James Ferguson Esq Astronomer 1710–1776 – Academical gown and fur collar, holding book, 30in by 24in’.

1776. Mezzotint, 35.3 × 25.1 cm. The British Museum (1902,1011.2484).

Figure 1.
Francis Haward after James Northcote, James Ferguson F.R.S, lettered: 'James Northcote pinxt / F. Haward fecit / Publish'd March 20, 1776 for W.Shropshire, No.158 New Bond Street', 1776. Mezzotint, 35.3 × 25.1 cm. The British Museum (1902,1011.2484).

Digital image courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum. (CC BY-NC 4.0)

1776. Mezzotint, 35.6 × 25.1. The British Museum (1902,1011.5187).

Figure 2.
Robert Stewart after John Townsend, James Ferguson F.R.S. lettered, 'John Townsend pinxt, / Publish'd Decr. 7th,, 1776 / Printed for Robt. Stewart, Engraver & Modeller of Portraits in Wax, No.15 Millman Street, Bedford Row Holborn', 1776. Mezzotint, 35.6 × 25.1. The British Museum (1902,1011.5187).

Digital image courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum. (CC BY-NC 4.0)

by Martin Postle


E. Henderson, Life of James Ferguson FRS in a brief Autobiographical Account and further extended Memoir, Edinburgh, London and Glasgow : A. Fullarton & Co., 1867, pp. 445 and 465

Stephen Gwynn, Memorials of an Eighteenth Century Painter (James Northcote), London : T. Fisher Unwin, 1898, p. 265, no. 17


  1. Ferguson died in London on 17 November 1776 and was buried in the cemetery of the parish church of St Marylebone.

  2. Henderson, 1867, p. 445.


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