Val Derbyshire has completed this research report following a recent trip to archives in London. She was funded by a BARS Stephen Copley Award.
James Northcote: The Man Who Exists Only in Fragments
by Val Derbyshire (University of Sheffield)
This year, I was fortunate enough to win the Stephen Copley Research Award from BARS. This generous award provided the funding to visit the Royal Academy of Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, both of whom hold personal letters and papers belonging to the portrait painter James Northcote (1746-1831). I’ve written about Northcote’s work before, and am particularly interested in how this often overlooked portrait painter sits at the centre of a number of celebrated figures from Romanticism.
The Victoria & Albert Museum, London, on the very sunny day on which I visited to look at Northcote’s personal papers and letters held here.
My PhD thesis explores Charlotte Smith’s connection with Northcote. My research has shown that both Northcote and Smith utilise similar techniques in portraying their male heroes. Northcote was a painter who portrayed far more men than women and both Smith and Northcote adapt the tropes traditionally associated with the aesthetic of the beautiful in the portrayal of their male ‘heroes’. This undermines the conventional view that the sublime is a male trait, whilst the beautiful belongs to the feminine sphere. By considering the male portraits of Northcote and Smith in tandem, it becomes possible to see how both artists engage with an abstract concept in order to reveal that it is a conceit which is utterly flawed. This, in turn, leads to questions and uncertainties concerning masculine identity which Smith emphasises within her novels, just as Northcote similarly raises these concerns within his artworks. Over the past few months I have been visiting archival holdings to look at the personal correspondence of James Northcote. These visits have thrown up some interesting findings, including the fact that he had a close relationship with William Godwin (close enough to leave him £100 in his will) and he also corresponded regularly with other literary figures like Elizabeth Inchbald. Northcote’s notebook held by the Bodleian Library includes fifteen letters from Inchbald to Northcote and their mutual friends. These letters include charming details such as how Northcote called for Inchbald one evening in order to take her to ‘Mrs Wedells rout.’ Unfortunately, as Northcote was not expected, Inchbald had already put on her nightgown and was ready for bed, but was then crippled by guilt at refusing to see Northcote, if only to ‘load [him] with reproaches.’
It is known that Smith and Northcote were friends. He was included within an invitation to take tea at Smith’s home which was addressed to William Godwin dated 27 February 1800: ‘Will you dine with me some day next week if I can assemble Mr & Mrs Fenwick, Mr Northcote, Mr Coleridge, & one or two friends – who would not spoil the party.’ The party took place on 4th March 1800, when Godwin noted in his diary ‘tea C Smith’s w. Coleridge, Northcote, Fenwicks & Duncans.’ By visiting these archival holdings of Northcote’s personal letters and papers, I hoped to find further evidence of his friendship with Smith (more letters perhaps?) Unfortunately, however, there were no letters either from Smith to Northcote or vice versa. What I did gain, nevertheless, was a fascinating insight into the man Mark Ledbury describes as ‘mostly a curiosity […] enmeshed with many others’ and hampered by the ‘widespread and persistent belief that Northcote was simply not an interesting enough painter to merit close critical scrutiny.’ ‘It is unfair,’ as Ledbury argues, ‘to liken Northcote to the subject of his satirical fable ‘The Painter Who Pleased Nobody’ (see figure 2), but rather he was ‘the painter who pleased nobody enough.’
James Northcote, ‘Illustration to accompany “The Painter Who Pleased Nobody”’ in James Northcote, Fables Original and Selected (London: John Murray, 1838), pp. 216-7.
My visits to the Royal Academy of Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum helped me to construct a more rounded picture of Northcote. The letters held by the Royal Academy are for the most part addressed to his beloved brother Samuel, and detail the period in time when Northcote left home, much against the advice of his parents. Northcote headed to London to learn his craft, to seek his fortune as an artist, and ‘follow an amusement which is to me beyond every other upon Earth.’ Shortly after his arrival in London, Northcote would take up residence with the founder and first president of the Royal Academy of Art, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and spend his time perfecting his artistry in copying Reynolds’s own art collection and painting the drapery and hands in Reynolds’s masterpieces. The letters progress through Northcote’s apprenticeship with Reynolds to the point when he leaves him in order to complete his training abroad by taking an Italian tour, providing details of this tour and the friendships he forms during this. By the time Northcote left Reynolds, he writes ‘I know him thoroughly and all his faults, I am sure, and yet I allmost Worship him.’ This ‘worship’ was to persist throughout Northcote’s long life. In his will, held at the British Library in London, he desires that ‘my mortal remains […] shall be deposited […] as near as possibly may be to the remains of my late lamented Friend and Master Sir Joshua Reynolds.’
Detail from James Northcote, Letter to Samuel Northcote dated 3rd January 1776, NOR/15, Royal Academy of Art.
The notebook of letters and personal papers held by the Victoria and Albert Museum were much more diverse in nature. They included letters relating to Northcote’s business as a successful portrait painter, as well as personal epistles from William Godwin and William Cowper, and details of his friendship with fellow artist (and also friend to Charlotte Smith), John Raphael Smith (1751-1812).
All in all, despite not finding any letters between Smith and Northcote, the research trip was very successful. It provided me with a clearer picture of the man who ‘exists in fragments,’ as Ledbury terms it, and whilst only a few items will contribute to my doctoral research, the trip has given me food for thought for future research projects. I would like to thank BARS for their generous award of the Stephen Copley Research prize which has made all this possible.
 James Northcote, The Letter book of James Northcote (Oxford: Bodleian Libraries, MS Eng Misc e143).
 Cited in Pamela Clemit and Charlotte Smith, ‘Charlotte Smith to William and Mary Jane Godwin: Five Holograph Letters’, Keats-Shelley Journal, 55 (2006), 29-40 (39). ‘Mr & Mrs. Fenwick, refers to Eliza Fenwick (1766-1840), author of Secresy, or the Ruin of the Rock (1795), and her husband.’
 Cited in Pamela Clemit and Charlotte Smith, ‘Charlotte Smith to William and Mary Jane Godwin: Five Holograph Letters’, Keats-Shelley Journal, 55 (2006), 29-40 (39). (Clemit notes that ‘the Duncans have not been further identified.’ (p. 39).
Mark Ledbury, James Northcote, History Painting and the Fables (New Haven & London: Yale Center for British Art, 2014), pp. 1-2.
 Ledbury, James Northcote, History Painting and the Fables, pp. 1-2, emphasis in original.
 James Northcote, Letter to Samuel Northcote dated 25th June 1771, NOR/1, Royal Academy of Art.
 James Northcote, Letter to Samuel Northcote dated 3rd January 1776, NOR/15, Royal Academy of Art [Sic].
 James Northcote, ‘Last Will and Testament of James Northcote’ in The Papers of James Northcote, holding number 42524, British Library, London.
 Ledbury, James Northcote, History Painting and the Fables, p. 1.