- Extended catalogue entry
© National Portrait Gallery, London
by James Northcote
Oil on twill-weave linen , 1822
49 7/8 in. x 39 3/4 in. (1267 mm x 1010 mm)
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Inscriptionback to top
Inscr. lower centre: ‘Js. Northcote pinxt ./ . 1822’.
On back of frame, typed label: ‘James Northcote / 49. Portrait of John Ruskin, aged three / Collection Mr Theodore Leavitt’;
on top edge, printed label: ‘W S Budworth & Son / Packers & shippers of Works of Art / 424 West 52nd St New York NY’.
This portraitback to top
Commissioned by the sitter’s father, this depicts John Ruskin aged 3; it was executed in Northcote’s studio at 39 Argyll Street, London.
According to the sitter, it shows ‘a very pretty child with yellow hair, dressed in a white frock like a girl, with a broad light-blue sash and blue shoes to match; the feet of the child wholesomely large in proportion to the body; and the shoes still more wholesomely large in proportion to the feet.’ He explained that ‘these articles of my daily dress were all sent to the old painter for perfect realisation; but they appear in the picture more remarkable than they were in the nursery because I am represented as running in a field at the edge of a wood with the trunks of its trees striped across in the manner of Sir Joshua Reynolds’. He added that, when asked, he had requested ‘blue hills’ in the background.  The King Charles spaniel was one of a sequence of dogs in the Ruskin household. A faint pentimento shows that the blue ribbon in Ruskin’s left hand was originally linked to the dog.
James Northcote was a pupil and friend of Joshua Reynolds, and a leading portraitist of his day. He followed up this work by requesting that young Ruskin model for a subject picture variously known as The Sylvan Doctor and The Thorn in the Foot (see ‘All known portraits, By other artists, 1823’), which was accordingly purchased by Ruskin’s father.
The portrait remained with Ruskin until his death. It is seen hanging between portraits of his parents in the dining room at his home, Brantwood, Coniston, in photographs from the 1890s (NPG x12196 and NPG x12197; see also Dearden 1999, p.24). Sold from the Ruskin estate in 1931, it was acquired by a collector in New York in 1951, and eventually purchased from Sotheby’s in 1987, with the intention it be returned on indefinite loan to Brantwood, where it has since hung, in the same location as placed by Ruskin. 
Two reduced watercolour copies were made. The first, before 1900, possibly by Arthur Severn, was reproduced in the Bookman, March 1900, vol.17, p.169 (ref. Dearden 1999, no.2) and is now in the Ruskin Museum, Coniston. The second is of unknown date and by an unidentified artist (ref. Dearden 1999, no.3, repr. p.216).
See also Cook & Wedderburn 1903–12, vol.36, no.1; and Dearden 1999, no.1.
Dr Jan Marsh
Footnotesback to top
Physical descriptionback to top
Whole-length, life-size, with dog.
Conservationback to top
Conserved 1989; 2000; 2005.
Provenanceback to top
Sitter and heirs; Sotheby’s, 20 May 1931 (125); Sotheby’s, 18 Nov. 1987 (57) purchased with assistance from the NHMF and NACF (the Vera and Aileen Woodroffe Bequest) with the intention of placing it on indefinite loan at Brantwood, Cumbria, managed by the Ruskin Education Trust.
Exhibitionsback to top
Ruskin Centenary Exhibition, Coniston, 1919 (2)
Royal Academy, London, 1919 (180)
Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY, 1950
Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites, Tate Britain, London, 2000 (11)
Reproductionsback to top
Spielmann 1891b, p.73.
Graphic, 27 January 1900, p.113.
‘Ruskiniana’, Bookman, March 1900, p.169.
Spielmann 1900a, p.19.
Cook & Wedderburn 1903–12, vol.35, pl.ii.
Bookman, October 1908, p.18.
Dearden 1999, pl.1 and elsewhere.
Hewison 2000, p.39
View all known portraits for John Ruskin