James Northcote, RA, letters to his brother

RA Collection: Archive

Archive context

Showing item 45 of 73 in this group

Reference code



James Northcote, RA, letters to his brother





Extent & medium

61 pieces

Previous reference codes


Historical Background

Northcote originated from the West Country and arrived in London in 1771. He was enrolled as a pupil in the Royal Academy schools and became a pupil of Joshua Reynolds, PRA, a place he would hold until 1776.

Northcote's early career was dominated by portrait painting. His painting style was heavily influenced by Reynolds; their association was also to be a major factor in his literary life. Northcote left London for Portsmouth in 1776 before travelling to Italy. While in Italy he was successful in getting elected to several Accademia and donated a self-portrait to the Galleria della Uffizi.

Northcote returned to England in 1780 and employed his Italian experiences to expand his practice to grand history painting. In the ensuing years he was successful in both history and portrait work. He was elected Associate of the Royal Academy in 1786 and to the full membership the following year. His career was adversly affected by the French wars and the collapse of Boydell's gallery.

His literary career began in 1807 when he contributed essays to Prince Hoare's periodical, The Artist. His memoir of Joshua Reynolds is possibly his most significant contribution to art history.

Content Description

Northcote's parents were opposed to his becoming an artist, he left their home in Plymouth secretly in May 1771 and travelled to London.

These letters are nearly all addressed to James's brother, Samuel, a watchmaker in Plymouth, who had helped to arranged his escape.

The first group of letters record experiences had while Northcote lived with Sir Joshua Reynolds in Leicester Fields. The second group are written while he prepared, at Portsmouth, to travel to the continent. The third and final group detail Northcote's experiences while living in Rome and latterly his travels around Italy with Prince Hoare.

Acquisition Details

The presentation of these letters, by Herbert N. Symes, was reported to a Council meeting on 29th July 1902 (see also Annual report 1902).

Physical Characteristics

The conservation of these letters was made possible through a grant from the Aurelius Trust, 2004.

Associated Material

Letter from John Hoppner, RA, to Benjamin West, PRA in the Royal Academy Scrapbook.


James Northcote, Memoirs of Sir Joshua Reynolds...and a Brief Analysis of his Discourses. London, 1813, suppl. 1815, 2/1819.

James Northcote, The Life of Titain, with Anecdotes of the Distinguished Persons of his Time. London, 1830.

William Hazlitt, Conversations of James Northcote Esq. R.A.. London, 1830.

S. Gwynne, Memorials of an Eighteenth Century Painter. London 1898.

E. Fletcher, ed., Conversations of James Northcote R.A. with James Ward. London, 1901.

J. Simon, James Northcote's account book, Walpole Society, lviii, 1996.