Black John of Tetcott, James Northcote (1746-1831)
Oil on canvas, English School. In 1784 Northcote painted the portrait of John Arscott (1718-1788) of Tetcott, Devon, and it is probable that he painted this portrait of 'Black John' of Tetcott at same the time. Black John was under four foot in height and suffered from kyphosis, known at the time this portrait was painted as 'hunchback'. The descriptions of his life, spent in the service of John Arscott, record his success as a 'jester' and his devotion to his 'master'. It was common for servants lives to be overlooked and trivialised by the households they worked for and for their histories to be re-written, ensuring that they had no voice of their own. For example, it was noted that "his role as jester included swallowing and retrieving strings of live mice and 'mumbling' sparrows, removing their feathers with his teeth while the sparrow was in his mouth. He died of grief shortly after his master." There is no history of Black John's life (not even a record of his real name) that is not in relation to that of his 'master'. James Northcote was born in Plymouth, the son of a watchmaker and optician. He was apprenticed to his father's trade but showed a talent for art. In 1769 he left his father's work and set up as a portrait painter. He was admitted as a pupil into the studio and house of Sir Joshua Reynolds in London as a pupil and assistant between 1771 and 1776. He came to consider himself an authority on his master and in 1813, after Reynolds' death, he published his posthumous Memoirs of Sir Joshua Reynolds.
The Gullett Family, John Opie (1761-1807)
Oil on canvas, English School, circa 1786. This family portrait by the Cornish artist John Opie, shows Christopher Gullet, Clerk of the Peace for Devon, with his wife Anne and youngest child Georgina. John Opie was born in Harmony Cottage, Trevellas, between St Agnes and Perranporth in Cornwall. He was the youngest of the five children of Edward Opie, a master carpenter, and his wife Mary (nee Tonkin). He showed a precocious talent for drawing and mathematics, and by the age of twelve he had mastered the teachings of Greek mathematician Euclid and opened an evening school for poor children where he taught reading, writing and arithmetic. His father, however, did not encourage his abilities, and apprenticed him to his own trade of carpentry. Opie's artistic abilities eventually came to the attention of local physician and satirist, Dr John Wolcot (who used the pen name Peter Pindar), who visited him at the sawmill where he was working in 1775. Recognising a great talent, Wolcot became Opie's mentor, buying him out of his apprenticeship and insisting that he come to live at his home in Truro. Wolcot provided invaluable encouragement, advice, tuition and practical help in the advancement of his early career, including obtaining many commissions for work. In 1781, having gained considerable experience as a portraitist travelling around Cornwall, Opie moved to London with Wolcot. There they lived together, having entered into a formal profit-sharing agreement. Although Opie had received a considerable artistic education from Wolcot, the doctor chose to present him as a self-taught prodigy; a portrait of a boy shown at the Society of Artists the previous year, had been described in the catalogue as "an instance of Genius, not having ever seen a picture." Wolcot introduced the "Cornish wonder" to leading artists, including Sir Joshua Reynolds, who was to compare him to Caravaggio and Velazquez.