James Northcote (1746-1831) was born on 22 October 1746 in Plymouth the son of Samuel Northcote a watchmaker. His father wanted Northcote to enter the family watchmaking business and did not support his son's artistic ambitions. Northcote was encouraged however by Henry Tolcher, a family friend, who in 1759 showed a specimen of Northcote's drawings to Joshua Reynolds and the engraver James MacArdell. Tolcher provided further assistance by arranging an apprenticeship with the engraver Edward Fischer, however Northcote's father rejected the offer.
Northcote was set on pursuing an artistic career and moved to London in May 1771. On arrival Northcote presented letters of introduction to Reynolds from Tolcher and a childhood friend of Reynolds' John Mudge. Reynolds permitted Northcote to make copies of works in his collection and soon took him on as a pupil, giving him bed and board in exchange for his services. Northcote spent five years as an apprentice to Reynolds and would paint drapery and other small details in his portraits; he also served as a model. However the reluctance of Reynolds to provide training led to Northcote becoming disenchanted. Northcote would later make much of his association with Reynolds but there is little evidence that Reynolds ever regarded him as a close friend. He left Reynolds' service in 1776 to pursue an independent career.
In October 1771 Northcote enrolled as a student at the Royal Academy Schools, there he drew from the antique cast and the living model. He exhibited his first portrait at the Royal Academy in 1773, exhibiting further works between 1774 and 1776.
Northcote left London in May 1776 working first in Portsmouth before moving on to the Isle of Wight and then to Plymouth. In little over a year he painted over 70 portraits earning him between £400 and £500 which financed a trip to the continent in March 1777. Northcote spent most of his time abroad in Rome, where he made sketches from the Old Masters and also painted three self portraits. He became friends with the painters Prince Hoare and Henry Fuseli amongst others; Hoare would accompany him on the rest of his European travels. On leaving Rome Northcote travelled around Italy, he then moved on to Augsburg and other German cities. He returned to Britain in May 1780.
Northcote's return to Britain was not initially met with success, he sought to base himself in London but lack of business saw him return to Plymouth. He moved between the two cities until finally settling in London. In 1781 and 1782 he exhibited several portraits of naval officers at the Royal Academy. His income was mainly sourced from small-scale fancy pictures and illustrations of popular works of literature. 'The Wreck of HMS Centaur' was exhibited in 1784 and the success this work generated helped launch his career as a history painter.
Northcote was elected associate member of the Royal Academy on 13 November 1786 before achieving full membership a few months later on 10 February 1787. He exhibited at the Royal Academy every year bar one from 1781 to 1825. Portraiture remained a staple throughout Northcote's career, amongst his more famous portraits is the infant John Ruskin (NPG 5973).
From 1807 Northcote contributed to Hoare's periodical 'The Artist', the periodical did not exist for long but it gave Northcote the taste for writing and in 1809 he wrote a short memoir of Reynolds for John Britton's 'Fine Arts of the British School' and in 1810 he began to write his own memoirs. He also wrote the poorly received 'Memoirs of Sir Joshua Reynolds, knt...' in 1813, adding a supplement in 1815. William Hazlitt who had known Northcote since 1802 published their conversations from 1826 to 1829, these included Northcote's most deeply held opinions on art, life and politics.
The later part of Northcote's life saw him continue to work on literary projects; he also painted an ill received portrait of Sir Walter Scott. He died on July 13th 1831 at his home in Argyll Place, his will stated his body should not be buried for as long as possible to ensure he was not buried alive. He was buried in St Marylebone Church and a monument was erected for him in Exeter Cathedral.
This biographical description is largely based on Martin Postle, 'Northcote, James (1746-1831)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/20326?docPos=1, accessed 20 Jan 2017]