A Gentleman, His Wife and Children

Oil Painting
late 18th century - early 19th century (painted)
A Gentleman, His Wife and Children thumbnail 1
Image of Gallery in South Kensington
On display at V&A South Kensington
Prints & Drawings Study Room, level H
Place Of Origin

Group of a gentleman, his wife, and four children; the lady seated, the husband stands by her side, before whom likewise the elder daughter stands nursing the infant; two boys on the right are studying. The usual pillar, curtain and landscape supply a background; Signed J. Northcote; A rough, colour sketch in oil paints, on paper.

object details
Object Type
Materials and Techniques
rough, colour sketch in oil paints, on paper
Brief Description
Northcote, James; A Gentleman, His Wife and Children; Colour sketch in oil paints, on paper; English School; Late 18th century - early 19th century.
Physical Description
Group of a gentleman, his wife, and four children; the lady seated, the husband stands by her side, before whom likewise the elder daughter stands nursing the infant; two boys on the right are studying. The usual pillar, curtain and landscape supply a background; Signed J. Northcote; A rough, colour sketch in oil paints, on paper.
  • Approx. height: 13.75in
  • Approx. width: 11.625in
Marks and Inscriptions
Signed J. Northcote.
Credit line
Bequeathed by Rev. Alexander Dyce
Object history
Bequeathed by Rev. Alexander Dyce, 1869

The Reverend Alexander Dyce :

South Kensington Museum Art Handbooks. The Dyce and Forster Collections. With Engravings and Facsimiles. Published for the Committee of Council on Education by Chapman and Hall, Limited, 193, Piccadilly, London. 1880. Chapter I. Biographical Sketch of Mr. Dyce. pp.1-12, including 'Portrait of Mr. Dyce' illustrated opposite p.1.

Science and Art Department of the Committee of Council on Education, South Kensington Museum.A Catalogue of the Paintings, Miniatures, Drawings... Bequeathed by The Reverend Alexander Dyce. London, 1874. A 'Note' on page v comments, 'This catalogue refers to the Art portion of the Collection bequeathed to the South Kensington Museum by the Reverend Alexander Dyce, the well-known Shakespearian scholar, who died May 15, 1869'. The Catalogue. Paintings, Miniatures, &c. by Samuel Redgrave notes of the 'Oil Paintings', 'The strength of Mr. Dyce's valuable bequest to Department of Science and Art does not lie in [this] portion ... which is in its nature of a very miscellaneous character. The collection was made apparently as objects offered themselves, and without any special design.' Dyce's main interest was in literary subjects, and this is reflected in many of the paintings he bequeathed to the V&A.

Historical significance: James Northcote (1746-1831) was born in Plymouth, Devon. He began teaching himself painting whilst he was still in Devon.In 1771 he moved to London to study at the Royal Academy Schools. He was a pupil and resident assistant to Sir Joshua Reynolds, President of the Royal Academy, from 1771 to 1775. Northcote travelled to Italy in 1777. He remained there until 1780 and was elected into Academies in Florence and Rome. On returning to London he worked predominantly as a portrait artist although he also produced history paintings. He was elected ARA in 1786 and RA in 1787. He exhibited over 200 works at the Royal Academy between 1773 and1828, and also exhibited at the British Institution and the Society of Artists. He was principally a portrait painter, but also painted fancy pictures and historical subjects, including several for Boydell's famous Shakespeare Gallery. Many of his works were engraved. Northcote also contributed to the literature on art by writing biographies of artists. He published the Life of Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1813 and The Life of Titian in1830. There is a portrait drawing of him in the V&A (museum number 3007-1876).

The purpose of this small sketch on paper is unknown. It may relate to an untraced finished painting. Another possibility is that this sketch may have been used by Northcote to experiment with ideas of composition for portraits which he could then show his to his clients.

The style of dress dates the painting to the 1790s. The man is shown wearing a dark red suit of breeches, waistcoat and coat. He wears either his own hair or a wig imitating natural hair tied back. The paint has been applied to represent the fall of light on the mat fabric of the suit, suggesting that it is of a fabric such as wool. At the end of the eighteenth century there was a growing fashion for simpler English country dress amongst men. The style and fabric of this suit and the natural treatment of the hair reflects this trend. The seated woman and standing girl, presumably the wife and daughter respectively of the man, wear dresses of thin white fabric. The dresses have a higher waist than earlier in the eighteenth century although they have not yet reached that of the Empire line. This combination of fabric and cut of the dress forms a softer silhouette dating the painting to the 1790s. The "v" shape of the neckline worn by the seated figure and the way that her hair is dressed loosely but closely to her head is also stylistically typical of this decade. The two boys that stand on the right of the group wear suits that closely follow that of the man in their modest style. Although of a generally modest style, their dress has a degree of ornamentation in the use of ribbons to tie the breeches at the knees. Their hair is cut closer to the head than in the previous decade when boys often wore it to their shoulders.

In this work, Northcote has placed the figures in an outdoor setting. The fluted column of a building rises behind the man. Whilst bringing strength to the composition, this architectural element also suggests the grand setting of the portrait. A vista opens beyond the group on the right to a distant landscape. This combination of architecture and landscape, a common feature of portraits of this period, creates a link between the sitter and their setting. By placing the figures thus, Northcote can imply their commanding role as owners of both the grand building in the left of the composition and landscape in which it stands. The fluted column reflects classical architecture of Greece and Rome. During the eighteenth century such architectural features were becoming increasingly popular. Gentlemen returning from the Grand Tour were looking imitate in their own homes earlier examples of villas, particularly those by Palladio (1508-1580), that had drawn from the architecture of Ancient Rome for inspiration in the construction of their country houses. The inclusion of a curtain falling down the side of the composition, pulled back from the top-centre of the portrait is an compositional element that occurs in earlier portraits such as those of the Flemish artist Van Dyck (1599-1641). It shows Northcote employing such compositional devices to group his figures in a grand setting whilst studying how to make them interact with each other in a more intimate way, reflecting contemporary ideas of portraiture that were developing at the end of the eighteenth century.
Subjects depicted
Bibliographic Reference
DYCE COLLECTION. A Catalogue of the Paintings, Miniatures, Drawings, Engravings, Rings and Miscellaneous Objects Bequeathed by The Reverend Alexander Dyce. London : South Kensington Museum, 1874.
Accession Number

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record createdMay 2, 2007
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