James Northcote RA (1746 - 1831)

RA Collection: People and Organisations

James Northcote was born in Plymouth, one of seven children of Samuel Northcote, a watchmaker, and his wife, whose name is unknown. Of the seven Northcote children, only three survived to adulthood. Northcote’s father intended for him to take up the family watchmaking business and did little to encourage his son’s schooling or artistic education. Northcote was determined to pursue an artistic career however, taking great inspiration from Sir Joshua Reynolds – who was brought up in nearby Plympton and had risen to become a leading artistic figure of the era.

In 1771, Northcote travelled to London with his brother hoping to gain recognition in artistic society. He approached Reynolds with letters of introduction; the older artist welcomed him warmly and invited Northcote to make copies in oils from paintings in his collection, and shortly after accepted him as a pupil in his studio.

Northcote spent the next five years working under Reynolds, adding details such as drapery to his portraits and also serving as a model, including in Reynolds’ Ugolino and his Children in the Dungeon (1773). Over time however, Northcote became frustrated at Reynolds’ indifference to him and the lack of artistic guidance he offered.

While working under Reynolds, Northcote also enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools and showed his first work, a portrait of Dr John Mudge, at the Annual Exhibition in 1773. He left Reynolds’ service in May 1776 and spent the next 10 months painting portraits for clients along the south coast including in Portsmouth and Plymouth.

Having earned enough from portrait commissions to support a trip to the continent, in 1777 Northcote travelled through France to Italy, where he settled in Rome. He spent time studying the Old Masters and extending his artistic connections, befriending artists such as the painters Maria Hadfield and Henry Fuseli, and the sculptor Thomas Banks, and meeting influential European artists such as Pompeo Batoni and Jacques-Louis David. Northcote returned to London in 1780.

On his return, Northcote struggled to attract clients and moved between London and Plymouth in search of commissions. He exhibited several portraits of naval officers at the Academy in 1781 and 1782 and showed his first modern history painting, The Wreck of the HMS Centaur, in 1784. The success of this work at the Annual Exhibition undoubtedly played a significant role in launching Northcote’s career as a history painter.

Northcote was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1786, becoming a full member in 1787. He exhibited at the Royal Academy every year from 1781 to 1825 (apart from 1790). He worked widely across genres, producing literary works for John Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery, genre works and animal paintings, with portraits remaining a staple throughout his career. Several of Northcote’s paintings were engraved, and he presented a volume of 190 prints after his work to the Royal Academy in 1823.

Alongside his artistic career, Northcote was a prolific writer and essayist, and his Memoirs provide one of the most important – albeit somewhat inconsistent and elaborated – insights into artistic London society of the period. These Memoirs are documentary rather than discursive, but Northcote’s personal views have been preserved in a series of ‘conversations’ with William Hazlitt, who published these conversations in various journals between 1826 and 1829, and who also published a compilation of Northcote’s essays as a single volume in 1830 as Conversations of James Northcote, R.A.

In his later years, Northcote was engaged in two further literary projects with the assistance of Hazlitt. The texts were accompanied by woodcut illustrations based on old prints by Northcote. He also became increasingly fascinated with his family history, particularly with collecting memorabilia relating to the noble Northcote family from whom he claimed descent.

Northcote died at his home in Argyll Place, London, in 1831, leaving a small fortune.

RA Collections Decolonial Research Project - Extended Biography

Northcote was distantly related to the noble Northcote family of Devon, who may have profited from colonial enterprises in the preceding centuries. A member of this family, Henry Stafford Northcote, Baron Northcote (1846-1911), was a key British colonial governor in India and Australia.

James Northcote subscribed to the second edition (1791) of Cugoano’s anti-slavery tract, Thoughts and sentiments on the evil of slavery (see Notes, 1).


  1. Ottobah Cugoano, Thoughts and sentiments on the evil or slavery; Or, the nature of servitude as admitted by the law of God, compared to the modern slavery of the Africans in the West-Indies; in an answer to the advocates for slavery and oppression. Addressed to the sons of Africa, by a native (London, 1791); https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/CB0126566527/ECCO?u=lonlib&sid=bookmark-ECCO&xid=f994b30d&pg=1 (accessed March 2, 2022).

Relevant ODNB entries

Postle, Martin. “Northcote, James (1746–1831), artist and author.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sep. 2004; Accessed 11 Mar. 2022. https://www-oxforddnb-com.lonlib.idm.oclc.org/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-20326

Lucas, C. P., and H. C. G. Matthew. “Northcote, Henry Stafford, Baron Northcote (1846–1911), colonial governor.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sep. 2004; Accessed 11 Mar. 2022. https://www-oxforddnb-com.lonlib.idm.oclc.org/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-35256


Royal Academician

Born: 22 October 1746 in Plymouth, Devon, England, United Kingdom

Died: 13 July 1831

Nationality: British

RA Schools student from 25 October 1771

Elected ARA: 6 November 1786

Elected RA: 13 February 1787

Gender: Male

Preferred media: Painting

Works by James Northcote in the RA Collection

7 results

Works after James Northcote in the RA Collection

8 results

Works associated with James Northcote in the RA Collection

3 results

Associated books

9 results

Associated archives

40 results