And this protagonist of whom I speak? James Northcote (1746-1831), one-time apprentice to and later biographer of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Our year is 1776 and, like the colonists across the pond, Northcote is sizing up the merits of taking his liberty, in this case from an apprenticeship he had held with Reynolds for over four years. When he confronts Reynolds with the length of this tutelage, so Northcote reports to his brother, “he [Reynolds] smiled and said he thought that full long enough and that I was very well able to do for my self now. I then said that I was very sensible of the great obligations I had to him I would stay any time he should think proper if I could be of service to him, he said by no means I had done enough already.” Despite Northcote’s talk of ongoing “obligations,” Reynolds is cutting the proverbial cord, leaving the younger painter to fend for himself in a highly competitive London art-market.
Now, Northcote’s brother and father in Plymouth think he is crazy. Surely, he would do better by staying with Reynolds, they counsel, where he could at least keep a roof over his head. Northcote rebuffs this idea vigorously. Learning of the opinions of a few family friends who “think it best for me to continue longer with Sir Joshua,” the apprentice merely sneers: “This astonish’d me even tho I consider’d how totally ignorant they are of the study of painting.” He defends his proposed departure, first, by snatching a page from Reynolds’s own high-minded theories of eclectic emulation: “Can any Body think Sir Joshua got his excellence by seeing, imitating and being saturated with the manner of a single master. A student who goes this way to work is ruin’d beyond a doubt and the highest degree possible for him to arrive at is to be an imitator of the manner of a single master without possessing that delightful originality which is the whole merit of that master, for manner is only the defective part of every man.”
However, it quickly becomes clear that more than high principle is in play. If he is to fulfill his dream of traveling to Italy to study the revered Old Masters in situ, then Northcote needs money. That can’t be gotten by remaining with Reynolds who, Northcote complains, never gave him more than one hundred guineas in the total duration of his apprenticeship. Drudge-work under the aforementioned obligation without pay has a period name, and Northcote uses it: “two very long apprenticeships is enough in one lifetime and this I have now done, I no longer want to be a slave.”
Manumission, in the case, comes from the invitation to Portsmouth by a naval officer named Mr. Hunt who promises to introduce Northcote to the officer-class garrisoned at that major naval base, many of whom were keen to have their portraits painted. The departure is a fearful moment for painter. No longer a spring chicken (at the age of thirty), his prospects of success in Portsmouth are not guaranteed but he hopes to make enough money in there such that “I might only have occasion to paint Plymouth those who I am under any obligation to.” Entrusting most of precious materials—paintings, drawing, and other hard-won implements of his artistic education—to ship-captains (even though he refuses to go by ship himself “as I might be made sick and lose time by it or be lost myself”), Northcote ultimately does find success in Portsmouth.
As he is being fêted and amply remunerated by the south-coast gentry, his brother writes. He calls him back to mind his obligations to his own home town. There, his “friends think it will be paying my native town an ill complement to paint at any other place before I come there.” Northcote’s response is again surprising: “I am not under the least obligation to any one mortal there.” Freed from his slave-like obligation to Reynolds and desiring to paint only those to whom he owns obligation, Northcote overcomes those obligations insofar as he is able to enact the liberalizing, many-mastered approach taught by Reynolds’s discourses while making the money that actually does fund his eventual voyage to Italy. Obligation ends by the ability to generate much, which in this case is the means if artistic liberality—freedom from dependence on any one school. Per Northcote's self-portrait above, a right old head-scratcher that one is.