Picture Talking: James Northcote and the Fables

Thursday, October 2, 2014
Sunday, December 14, 2014

The first exhibition dedicated solely to James Northcote’s art and career, Picture Talking presented a fascinating look at one of Britain’s most imaginative and eccentric historical painters. Northcote (1746–1831) was a pupil of Sir Joshua Reynolds and enjoyed a popular reputation in his time for painting portraits of historical subjects, scenes from Shakespeare’s plays, and animals. His artistic career subsequently was overshadowed by his prominence as a source of information on his contemporaries, as a memoirist, a writer on art and artists, and a conversationalist whose strong and diverse opinions were often repeated in print. This exhibition, drawn exclusively from the rich holdings of the Yale Center for British Art, redressed that imbalance by presenting an array of Northcote’s works: paintings, drawings, prints, and, at its center, a practically unknown manuscript for Northcote’s One Hundred Fables, Original and Selected (1828).

Northcote wrote and illustrated these fables for adults during the last twenty years of his life. They convey moral lessons, often with themes comparing the similarities of humans to animals. Using techniques well ahead of his time, Northcote created collaged illustrations for the Fables by cutting figures of humans, other animals, and background details from his collection of historical engravings, then reassembling them into chimerical scenes.

The exhibition looked at his highly original collages for the manuscript as works of art in their own right and also explored the translation of Northcote’s designs from collage to their ultimate form as wood engravings used to illustrate two series of Fables, the first published in 1828, the second, posthumously, in 1833. Picture Talking argued that this way of working through the process of collage and borrowing was evident in Northcote’s earlier work as a history painter and designer of prints, and the Fables project is therefore the culmination of his career. The exhibition examined questions of originality versus pastiche and image versus text through careful consideration of Northcote’s artworks.

James Northcote, “The Countryman and the show of Beasts” (detail) from One Hundred New Fables: Embellished with Designs to each Fable, London, 1817, collaged engraving with pen and ink on gold paper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund

Picture Talking: James Northcote and the Fables was curated by Mark Ledbury, Power Professor of Art History and Visual Culture and Director of the Power Institute at the University of Sydney, and A. Cassandra Albinson, Curator and Acting Head of the Department of Paintings and Sculpture, Yale Center for British Art. The exhibition was accompanied by the first monograph on Northcote, his collages, and his career. Written by Mark Ledbury, James Northcote, History Painting, and the Fables was published by the Center in association with Yale University Press.

Explore Further
View the complete manuscript for Northcote’s One Hundred Fables, Original and Selected.