Born in Plymouth, James Northcote was a watchmaker's son. He arrived in London in 1771 and became pupil and resident assistant to Reynolds; he also studied at the Royal Academy Schools. Northcote travelled to Italy in 1777 and remained there until 1781. On his return to London, he achieved success both as portrait and history painter, also attempting 'modern moral subjects' in Hogarth's manner. He was one of the first contributors to Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery in Pall Mall, London. Perhaps more interesting as a personality than an artist, he published a biography of Reynolds in 1813.