Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a School Leaver wearing a Nobleman's cap and gown 1770c.

James Northcote RA (1746–1831)

Portrait of a School Leaver wearing a Nobleman's cap and gown, James Northcote RA
Oil on canvas
18th Century
30 x 25 inches, 76.2 x 63.5 cm
James Northcote was one of the most prolific portrait painters of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In 1777, following a period of apprenticeship in the studio of Joshua Reynolds, James Northcote journeyed to Paris, Rome and Germany on a prolonged Grand Tour. In Rome he was elected to the Accademia dei Forti and, like so many artists before him, took the opportunity to learn from the old masters through sketches and observational studies. On his return to England in 1780, his new found appreciation for the Classical manner increasingly informed his own work.

Northcote’s principal talent lay as a portraitist though forays into the genre of History Painting, notably with The Wreck of HMS Centaur (1784,) helped establish his reputation. Through economic necessity Northcote was compelled to pander to the popular taste for small fancy subjects, ‘hack-work’ as he called it, illustrating novels from the celebrated authors of the day. An ambitious moral series, entitled Diligence and Dissipation, which was intended to rival Hogarth’s Marriage a la Mode (1796) proved a financial failure and Northcote returned to portrait painting in earnest.

This painting is a comparatively rare example of an leaving portrait, almost certainly of an Etonian. The tradition of the Eton Leaving Portrait is thought to have been initiated by Edward Barnard, head master of the college from 1756-65, and the earliest surviving example of the genre is Allan Ramsey’s painting of the Hon. Henry Howard. Leaving Portraits existed at other schools (Winchester, Westminster, Harrow) but were nowhere else as popular as at Eton. This custom of presenting portraits arose as a means for head masters to cultivate rich or well-connected young men. The practice was largely abandoned in the 1830s but was later re-initiated in the 1970s. Northcote is known to have painted such portraits, but this example never entered the Eton collection. This may be explained by the fact that it is unfinished.
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