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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.