caption

James Northcote, Self-Portrait

Photo courtesy of Dave Penman (All rights reserved)

Details

Country House
Trewithen
Title(s)
Self-Portrait
Date
c.1776–7
Medium and support
Oil on canvas
Dimensions
Overall height: 74 cm, Overall width: 61 cm
Artist
James Northcote (1746-1831)
Catalogue Number
TN4

Description

James Northcote painted this previously unrecorded self-portrait probably before he left for Italy in the spring of 1777.1 Northcote’s physical appearance around this time can be gauged from an engraving after a drawing by the artist Prince Hoare (1755–1834), who accompanied Northcote on his Italian sojourn (fig. 1). Although the circumstances surrounding the self-portrait’s creation are uncertain, it is likely that Northcote presented it to his friend and patron, Dr John Mudge, who had commissioned other works by the artist when he was a pupil of Joshua Reynolds in London from 1771 to 1776. They included a copy after Reynolds’s portrait of Dr John Mudge (TN1) and a portrait of the Scots astronomer James Ferguson (TN2). Over a career spanning nearly sixty years, Northcote proved to be a prolific painter of self-portraits, of which this is probably the earliest. The portrait is exceptionally vigorous in terms of the bravura handling of paint, with loosely applied brushstrokes across the entire composition. The expression of the youthful artist, portrayed in the act of painting, is compelling and intense. In some respects, the dramatic image is influenced by Joshua Reynolds’s Rembrandtesque self-portrait of around 1749 (fig. 2), made in his mid-twenties, just before his own visit to Italy.

undated. Mezzotint engraving, 27.7 x 21.9 cm. National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG D3733).

Figure 1.
Henry Kingsbury after Prince Hoare, James Northcote, undated. Mezzotint engraving, 27.7 x 21.9 cm. National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG D3733).


Digital image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

c. 1747-1749. Oil on canvas, 63.5 x 74.3 cm. National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG 41).

Figure 2.
Sir Joshua Reynolds, Self-portrait, c. 1747-1749. Oil on canvas, 63.5 x 74.3 cm. National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG 41).


Digital image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

A self-portrait which relates to the present picture is in the collection of Plymouth Art Gallery (fig. 3). However, as a comparison between the two works reveals, the latter picture is far inferior in terms of quality and appears to be a later copy by another hand.2 Curiously, the Plymouth picture differs from the present picture through the incorporation of the raised right arm of the artist, a gesture slightly reminiscent of Reynolds’s earlier self-portrait. More favourably, the present painting can be compared with Northcote’s self-portrait of 1784 (fig. 4), where once more the right arm is raised above the forehead.

Self-portrait

Figure 3.
After James Northcote, Self-portrait, date unknown. Oil on canvas, 75.4 x 63.2 cm. The Box, Plymouth City Council.


Digital image courtesy of The Box, Plymouth City Council. (All rights reserved)

1784. Oil on canvas, 73.7 x 61 cm. National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG 3253).

Figure 4.
James Northcote, Self-Portrait, 1784. Oil on canvas, 73.7 x 61 cm. National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG 3253).


Digital image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

By the 1820s the portrait belonged to John Mudge’s son-in-law, Richard Rosdew. However, following the publication in 1827 of defamatory statements concerning Zachariah Mudge that appeared in William Hazlitt’s conversations with James Northcote, Rosdew removed the painting from view and apparently placed it in the attic of his home, Beechwood, Plympton. On hearing the news, Northcote responded that ‘the only way to make it safe would be to destroy it, lest, in some future time, another possessor, of a different mind, may again take it into favour’.3 In the inventory of March 1928, by which time it hung on the Middle Staircase at Trewithen, it was described as, ‘Another [portrait] of James Northcote by himself, half length holding palette and brushes, face in profile, grey coat, red and black scarf roll collar’.

 

by Martin Postle

Footnotes

  1. During his time in Italy Northcote presented another self-portrait to the academy in Cortona, presently in the Museo dell’Accademia Etrusca e della Città di Cortona.

    1
  2. The painting was given to Plymouth Museum and Art Gallery by the Western Morning News Company, 1930.

    2
  3. Allan Cunningham, The Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, 6 vols, London: John Murray, 1833, vol. 6, p. 114.

    3

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