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News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

Archive Spotlight: correspondence between James Northcote and Peter Pindar in Durham’s Special Collections

A new Archive Spotlight post on the blog today by Val Derbyshire (University of Sheffield). Val has kindly contributed details of her research to this series before, in another Spotlight post entitled ‘Archive Spotlight on the Derbyshire Record Office: A Marriage of the Romantic and the Scientific’. Val has also been awarded a 2018 BARS Stephen Copley Award, and we look forward to hearing more about her work at the Royal Art Academy and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London later this year.

If you’d like to contribute to this series, please find more information about how to get in touch with your ideas here.

Enjoy Val’s exploration into a heated exchange of letters that may have inspired Northcote’s Diligence and Dissipation.

 

‘[A] simple act of fornication’[1]: Diligence and Dissipation, James Northcote and Peter Pindar by Val Derbyshire, School of English, University of Sheffield

 

Just recently, I was fortunate enough to have been awarded a Stephen Copley Research Award from BARS in order to research the letters and other personal writings of portraitist James Northcote (1746-1831).  My interest in Northcote was sparked by the discovery of his personal friendship with the subject of my doctoral thesis, Charlotte Smith (1749-1806).  Over the past few months I have been visiting archival holdings to look at the personal correspondence of Northcote.

 

James Northcote, Self-portrait, c.1784, oil on canvas

 

Northcote has traditionally been viewed as a marginal figure within the art world of British Romanticism, but research has revealed that he was in fact central to the circles of a number of key Romantic figures.  Exploration in the archives has shown that not only did he have an intimate friendship with William Godwin, even leaving Godwin £100 in his will, but that he also corresponded with Elizabeth Inchbald, in addition to taking tea with Smith, along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Godwin.[2]  He was one of the last people to see artist John Opie  alive, and Opie’s wife, novelist Amelia Opie, took comfort from Northcote’s visit to her dying husband’s bedside, detailing Northcote’s kindness and sensitivity.[3]  Further, the connection between his own visual artistry and the literary world was clearly very important to Northcote.  Within his Letter Book held by the Bodleian Libraries he keeps a detailed list of every work of fiction which makes reference to or details his work.  These include,

 

Northcote’s pictures perused in the following: Rosalind de Tracy, a novel by Elizabeth Sophia Tomlins. The Triumphs of Constancy, A Novel in a series of letters Mammon in London, or the Spy of the day.  John Thelwall also wrote about him in The Champion May 27 1821.[4]

 

Within The Papers of James Northcote, R.A. presented to Sir William Knighton upon his death, there was also the inclusion of many extracts from the publications of the day which praised his work.[5]  Northcote was an artist to whom the range of his influence concerned him greatly.

One archive which holds a fascinating series of letters to Northcote can be found within the Special Collections of Durham University Library.  Here, there is held a series of letters from John Wolcot (1738-1819 – aka the satirical poet, Peter Pindar), which covers the period 1774-75.

 

John Opie, John Wolcot, c. 1780, oil on canvas

 

During this time, Wolcot appealed for his friend Northcote’s help because ‘[a] Damn’d Bitch as common as the air liv’d with me and got herself with Bastard’.[6]   ‘[I]n order to remove the Scandal, [Wolcot] sent her to London with money sufficient ’til [he] was inclin’d to send her more.’[7]  Within this series of letters, Wolcot is utterly heartless in his description of his seduction of the girl, who has clearly been his servant, and occupies the precise position of both the ‘Modest’ and the ‘Wanton’ serving girl in Northcote’s series of plates, Diligence and Dissipation: Or, The Progress of a Modest Girl and a Wanton, Exemplified in Ten Different Stages of Their Lives, Being an Attempt to Exhibit the Natural Consequences which attend on Good and on Bad Conduct, published in 1796, just a couple of years after Northcote received Wolcot’s correspondence.

 


After James Northcote, The Modest Girl Rejects the Illicit Advances of her Master, Plate VI from James Northcote, Diligence and Dissipation: Or, The Progress of a Modest Girl and a Wanton, Exemplified in Ten Different Stages of Their Lives, Being an Attempt to Exhibit the Natural Consequences which attend on Good and on Bad Conduct (London: H. L. Galahin, 1796), engraved by Thomas Gaugin and Thomas Hellyer, 1796, etching on paper

 

Wolcot is equally callous in his subsequent abandonment of the woman when she becomes pregnant with his child, and denial that the baby boy belongs to him.  The nine letters outline Wolcot’s various pleas to Northcote to give the woman money on his behalf, and persuade her to give the child up ‘to be taken care of as a Common Brat’  in any place which can be found for him.[8]  ‘Could I have expected,’ Wolcot protests, ‘so much Disagreeableness would have followed a simple act of fornication.’[9]

Northcote’s replies are not available in the archive, but from the tone of Wolcot’s letters, it becomes clear that Northcote expostulates with him upon his conduct, to which Wolcot replies ‘she is with all that seeming simplicity a Hypocrite […] Indeed, Northcote, your honesty deludes you.  I know her to be a B—-.’[10]  It is unclear whether this incident affected their friendship, although one of the letters reprimands Northcote for his failure to send Wolcot a head portrait of himself.  Indeed this portrait does not seem to exist, the head portrait of Wolcot being completed by Northcote’s friend and fellow Royal Academician, John Opie.  Despite Wolcot’s protestations that Northcote should feel free to use Wolcot’s services for similar purposes because ‘[b]elieve me I’ll take as much care of your Bastards if you shall think proper to send them into Cornwall,’ it seems unlikely Northcote would ever do so, and that Wolcot’s licentiousness placed their relationship under strain.[11]  It could be that the resulting plates from Diligence and Dissipation were inspired by this unfortunate episode.  Northcote’s artworks caution the beautiful girls in his text against the men they might encounter and their flawed nature.

During May this year, I will be using the funds from the Stephen Copley Research Award to dig further into the archives and reading letters from Northcote held at the Royal Art Academy and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

 

References:

[1] John Wolcot, ‘Letter to James Northcote dated 24th March 1775 in ‘Nine Letters to James Northcote’, Durham Special Collections, holding number ABL 596.  (All of the digitised versions of these letters can be accessed via this link).

[2]James Northcote, The Papers of James Northcote, R.A., Collected and Presented by G. G. Williamson, (London: British Museum Additional MS 42524).  Letters from Elizabeth Inchbald are included in The Letter Book of James Northcote (Oxford: Bodleian Libraries, MS Eng Misc e 143), and include charming details such as Northcote arriving uninvited at Inchbald’s home in order to take Inchbald to ‘Mrs Wedells rout’ (Letter dated 28th May 1801).  Unfortunately, as Northcote was not expected, Inchbald had already put her nightgown on for the night, but was then crippled by guilt at refusing to see Northcote, if only to ‘load [him] with reproaches.’

[3] Amelia Opie, Lecture on Painting Delivered at the Royal Academy of Arts: with a Letter on the Proposal for a Public Memorial of The Naval Glory of Great Britain by the Late John Opie Esq., to which are Prefixed a Memoir by Mrs. Opie and Other Accounts of  Mr. Opie’s Talents and Character (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees and Orme, 1809), p. 49.

[4] Northcote, The Letter Book of James Northcote.

[5] James Northcote, The Papers of James Northcote, R.A., The Sir William Knighton Collection (London: British Museum Additional MS 47790-47792).

[6] John Wolcot, ‘Letter to James Northcote dated 1774’ in John Wolcot, ‘Nine Letters to James Northcote’, Durham Special Collections, holding number ABL 590-598 (1774-1775), holding number ABL 590.

[7] John Wolcot, ‘Letter to James Northcote dated 1774’ in ‘Nine Letters to James Northcote’, Durham Special Collections, holding number ABL 590.

[8] John Wolcot, ‘Letter to James Northcote dated 10th January 1775’ in ‘Nine Letters to James Northcote’, Durham Special Collections, holding number ABL 592.

[9] John Wolcot, ‘Letter to James Northcote dated 24th March 1775 in ‘Nine Letters to James Northcote’, Durham Special Collections, holding number ABL 596.

[10] John Wolcot, ‘Letter to James Northcote dated 6th April 1775’ in ‘Nine Letters to James Northcote’, Durham Special Collections, holding number ABL 597.

[11]John Wolcot, ‘Letter to James Northcote dated 23rd March 1774’ in ‘Nine Letters to James Northcote’, Durham Special Collections, holding number ABL 591.