Wednesday, 12 July 2017

James Northcote and the curious case of the companion portrait

The newly discovered Northcote painting

In the spring of 2017 a new portrait came to light with a stamp on the back for Wm Legg. It is signed 'J Northcote' and dated 1803.

The stamp for Wm Legg is identical to the one of the back of the Rice Portrait of Jane Austen. This stamp forms one of the main arguments the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) has against this picture. They claim it belongs to a William Legg who was known to have only traded as a colourman to artists after the year 1800.

The Financial Times ran a major piece about the Northcote painting in their weekend paper on 01 April 2017 (I am sure this is just a coincidence!) written by their journalist Ms Anjana Ahuja who happens to be the owner of this picture.

If this Northcote is genuine it would support the contention of the National Portrait Gallery, vociferously supported by various academics and experts*, that the Rice Portrait dates to after 1800 and not to the late 1780's as the supporters of the portrait claim.

This picture is therefore crucial to the debate over the Rice Portrait and it would be hard to overstate its importance. How fortunate that it happened to turn up in the possession of a journalist! The Financial Times refused Mrs Rice the right to reply and did not publish either her rebuttal (co-written with me) or her letter explaining that the 200 words they allowed her for her response was inadequate to even begin to defend her portrait.

BUT  - Is this a genuine Northcote painting? I have noted in a previous post that the date on the frame marking on the back of the portrait is obscured by the stretcher and all that can be seen is the back of a number '2'. Furthermore the signature and date on the front of the portrait are very odd, and cannot be relied upon to be contemporaneous with the painting. It is noteworthy that at no point in Anjana Ahuja's article in the Financial Times is there an image showing the signature on the front of the painting. The only place I have been able to locate a picture of the signature is on the The Saleroom Website, an auction database website.

The signature on the portrait
Taken from the Clevedon Saleroom website

There is another major problem with this picture however. It is one of a pair.

The portrait now claimed to be a Northcote was entered for auction at Clevedon Salerooms in North Somerset.

The auctioneers were concerned enough about the picture to describe it as 'attributed' to Northcote' despite the signature and the date, signifying that they had doubts about the attribution.

The picture was entered into the auction due to be held on Thursday 19 November 2015. Clevedon Salerooms holds viewing days prior to the auction and in her article in the Financial Times, Anjana Ahuja wrote that she 'drove down to take a speculative look'.

The Northcote portrait was entered as Lot 148. Presumably, when she went to view the picture, Lot 148 was standing next to Lot 147. And Lot 147 is very interesting indeed.

A Nineteenth Century Gentleman

Lot 147 is described as 'Early 19th Century English School' and as a half length portrait of a gentleman wearing a brown jacket and high collar, unsigned.

Lot 147
Compare this to the Northcote painting:

The portrait the NPG has authenticated as a genuine Northcote

Now take a look at them in their frames: 

 The exposure and the colour balance of the photographs are different (compare the different colour of the carpet) but the moulding of the frames is identical.


The pictures are the same size and in identical frames. They were entered into the auction together, and were auctioned in adjacent lots. Moreover - both have the same scrub marks in the same area at the bottom left of the picture.

Take a look at this:

In this picture the auctioneers refer to 'some slight scuffing, very minor inpainting'.

Now, here's the one signed as a Northcote: 

The auction house state that 'there is a strange rubbed/greyish area around the signature also some scuffing in the same area, the lady's drapes appear to have had some later work, some craquelure'.

Same rubbed area - but only one of these portraits is signed J Northcote and only one is dated 1803.

The other bears no signature and no date.

Now lets take a look at the back of the pictures:

This is the back of the unsigned portrait
This is the back of the portrait signed Northcote
They are different. The signed portrait has a newer piece of wood in place. The canvas also seems more bunched up at the top of the picture and is less neat than on the unsigned portrait. In my opinion this indicates it has been tampered with since it was originally framed. It also has 'Northcote 7' written on it and a stamp for William Legg which the other one does not.

Back of portrait signed Northcote

Both have a frame mark but in both cases the date is obscured by the stretcher:

Unsigned portrait - date is obscured

All the above pictures are from the website for The Saleroom.

Signed Northcote portrait date on far right is obscured apart from back of a '2'
This image is taken from Jacob Simon's NPG research pages

These are companion portraits. The pictures complement one another. The sitters do not face each other so are unlikely to be husband and wife. More likely they are two members of the same family, perhaps a mother and son or a brother and sister. They are listed next to each other in the auction and it is therefore utterly improbable that they came from different sources. Whoever entered them this time split them up but it is very likely that they were previously purchased as a pair.

Authentication by the National Portrait Gallery

Jacob Simon of the National Portrait Gallery informed Anjana Ahuja that the portrait is of a 'Mrs Smith'.

Ms Ahuja and back of her painting with new retaining clips

James Northcote kept detailed records of his paintings, Almost all of them are listed in his account books which are held at the National Portrait Gallery. Jacob Simon himself edited James Northcote's account books for the Walpole Society in 1995/96. As he writes in his introduction, 'the book covers the best part of a lifetime'. Almost all Northcote's pictures are listed although Jacob Simon tells us that 'about two dozen paintings, mostly family portraits but also a few Royal Academy exhibits and engraved pictures went unrecorded'. Very few people would know Northcote's records better than Jacob Simon.

James Northcote listed 22 paintings in his account book for the year 1803. Entry numbered 407 is described as 'Mrs Smith a head in black drapery, 20 guineas/also the frame 3 guineas, all paid'. But there is no mention in this entry of a second portrait. Neither can entry 406 or 408 in Northcote's account book refer to this companion picture. Entry 406 is Emily St Clare with a hawk. Entry 408 is Charles Black, a banker, holding paper and pen. Although Northcote's account books are not exhaustive, it is extremely unlikely he would have recorded that he painted 'Mrs Smith' and not also mention the companion picture.

The portrait was sold at Clevedon Saleroom's quarterly specialist sales of art and antiques. The  catalogue for these sales goes online 12 days before the auction date and collectors would have been alerted to the sale. This was a professional and well-known and respected auction house. This painting 'attributed to Northcote' would not have gone unnoticed prior to the sale. Ms Ahuja was able to purchase it for the price of £400, a fraction of the price tag a signed Northcote portrait would normally fetch at auction.

If the Financial Times article is factually correct then Jacob Simon, acting on behalf of the National Portrait Gallery, turned up at Anjana Ahuja's house with his ultraviolet light one evening last year and apparently authenticated the portrait on the spot, having 'examined "Mrs Smith" from every conceivable angle'. In her article she writes:

'Our Merry Widow, he concluded, was a genuine Northcote, painted in 1803 and bearing the rare William Legg stamp. In addition, partly hidden under the stretcher lay another stamp on the canvas known as a "frame marking", dated 1802. Taken together, he told us after a long pause, these markings would have a bearing on the Rice Portrait.'

I find it astonishing that Jacob Simon authenticated this portrait on that same night. He must have known that there is another, very well known portrait called "Mrs Smith" by Northcote and also dated 1803, which is in Los Angeles. Would he not have needed to carry out further research before declaring this to be genuine? He apparently did not even remove the portrait from its frame to check the frame marking in its entirety. How then, did he know that it read 1802? Or, if he did take the portrait out of its frame, then where are the photographs of the complete frame marking? They are not on the NPG website. We only have the image showing a partial '2'.

Furthermore, if this is "Mrs Smith" then who on earth is the man in the companion portrait? And - why - as a fan of British portraiture and a Northcote enthusiast, did Ms Ahuja not buy this second, unsigned portrait after attending the viewing? Given the similarities between these two portraits, if one truly was a genuine Northcote painting then it was a fair bet that the other one was also a Northcote, even though it has no signature. She states she is a collector of Northcote portraits and tells us herself that she owns another Northcote painting from 1803 with a similar signature and frame (although she has thus far not revealed which one). If the frame on Mrs Smith is similar to the picture she already possesses then it would follow that the previous lot, number 147 would have been worth a punt too! And how much did the unsigned picture sell for? A mere £200.

The very odd signature and date on the front of the portrait, the reluctance on the part of both the owner and the NPG to provide images of the Legg stamp and the date of 1802 on the back of the picture, the existence of a companion portrait in the same auction and the fact that there is already a 'Mrs Smith' in Los Angeles, all lead me to believe that this picture is not 'Mrs Smith', does not date to 1803 and probably is not a genuine Northcote.

In my next post I will be looking in more detail at the curious fact that there are now two paintings called Mrs Smith, both painted by James Northcote in 1803.

* Academics and experts who have opposed the Rice Portrait include Austen scholars Deirdre Le Faye, Professor Kathryn Sutherland and Dr Paula Byrne, her husband and Shakespeare academic Sir Jonathan Bate, journalist Henrietta Foster, fashion experts Aileen Ribeiro and Hilary Davidson, art expert Bendor Grosvenor and of course, Jacob Simon, ex-Chief Curator and now a researcher at the National Portrait Gallery. This list is not exhaustive but these are, or have been, the most vocal opponents of the Rice Portrait over the years. Many of them are quoted or mentioned in the FT article. After publication in the FT, Jonathan Bate tweeted 'Terrific piece: last nail in coffin of "Rice Portrait" of Jane Austen.' Paula Byrne replied 'I never believed that the Rice Portrait was the young Jane Austen: costume wrong'. Hilary Davidson tweeted 'looking at the Rice Portrait again, I realise I have never seen a puffed sleeve before 1798 at the absolute, stretching it, earliest'. (Perhaps she should read my posts on costume on this blog then!) Bendor Grosvenor tweeted 'Final proof that the Rice Portrait cannot be Jane Austen?'

Ellie Bennett

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