Dress and Textiles, Maritime Subjects, Portraits: British 18th C, South West England: Artists and Subjects 43 If not by James Northcote, who painted this work of Captain Rous?

Captain Rous
Topic: Artist

I am currently conducting some research (in a voluntary capacity) into a number of portraits held by Plymouth Museum and Art Gallery. One of the works I am looking into is this portrait of 'Captain Rous' currently attributed to James Northcote. I have been able to tentatively identify the sitter as probably Thomas Bates Rous 1739–1799 MP for Worcester 1774–1784 (a former Captain and director the East India Company and owner of Moor Park in Hertfordshire). The painting is undated but from the sitter's dress would appear to be from around 1790.

The current attribution to Northcote seems doubtful, the pose, colour pallette and paint handling are uncharacteristic of Northcote and it is not listed in 'Memorials of an Eighteenth Century Painter' by Stephen Gwynn (London 1898). Not to do down the reputation of a Plymouth born artist but it seems too good to be by Northcote. Reinforcing this opinion is a curator's note from the 1980's prior to the picture being loaned to Buckland Abbey in which it is described as 'Portrait of Captain Rous, MP, an executor in the Drake family, Unk Artist.'

Assuming for the moment that my identification of the sitter is correct, are there any suggestions for an alternative attribution?

Dave Evans 01, Entry reviewed by Art UK

43 comments

Bruce Trewin,

Similar in some aspects to George Romney's self portrait (attached) but cannot really see the brushwork. Any chance of a facial closeup?

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Dave Evans 01,

Unfortunately the best image currently available is the one that is online. Romney is perhaps a possibility but there is no mention of this portrait or the sitter in Ward & Roberts 1904 catalogue (https://archive.org/details/romneybiographic01ward).

What I find striking is the directness of the pose, particularly the posture of the right arm. I have yet to come across any other portrait of the period that presents the sitter in quite this manner. It may be an idiosyncrasy of the sitter himself but if it is the artist's invention I would imagine that it would also appear in other examples of their work.

Bruce Trewin,

The posture is partially what suggested Romney to me. Certainly none of Northcote's sitters look you in the eye like that. On the other hand there are some features which point to Northcote, such as the slightly smaller body to head ratio in some of his portraits. I also checked my Ward last night and the closest I came was a Mrs Rouse.

Bruce Trewin,

One artist who did paint the odd straight on face was Sir William Beechey (Rear Admiral John Jervis). I only mention him because he is known to have painted at least two portraits for the Rous family (page 214, William Roberts).

Paul Kettlewell,

The script at the bottom left of the portrait appears to say G Rous followed by 4 letters/numerals, the last two of which may be MP.

George Rous (1744-1802) was the younger brother of Thomas Bates Rous, and he was MP for Shaftesbury from 1776. He was a Barrister at Law, and also a member of the East India Company. He had a son called Thomas Bates Rous.

George and Thomas Bates Rous appear regularly in the 18th century newspapers, and I can put together a fuller timeline for them both if it would help. I have not so far noticed any military involvement for either of them which would suggest either being a captain.

Dave Evans 01,

Thanks Paul . I must admit that I only spotted the inscription yesterday evening after I tried using some image editing software to see if more details showed up. A slightly enhanced version of the inscription is attached below.

I agree on the new identification as being George Rous based on the initial G although out of three Rous brothers he was the only one not to command an EIC ship and so not to have actually been a captain. I am though pretty confident that we have the right Rous family, the picture was bequeathed to the museum in 1949 and the identification was made by following the family connections. I don't think these are the same family of Rouses that Beechey painted.

The other letters in the inscription are indistinct and I'll be contacting Plymouth Museum this week to see if I can clarify exactly what they say. The first appears to be a 'J' followed by a 'C' or 'O' the next few are indistinct. Finally there's an 'R' apparently followed by the upward stroke of what may be an 'N' or 'A'.

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Dave Evans 01,

Thanks for the suggestion Tim. As far as I know there's no Irish connection for George Rous (or his brothers) so I think it's unlikely to be Hunter. I've come across a reference to John Hoppner using a monogrammed form of 'J' & 'H' in his signature ('John Hoppner R.A'. McKay & Roberts, London, 1909) and I'm wondering if that might fit. The colour is remarkably muted for Hoppner however and it's probably wishful thinking. I'm intending to talk to Plymouth Museum tomorrow so may know more after that.

Dave Evans 01,

I have heard back from Alison Cooper at Plymouth Museum who has been able to supply some more images (attached below). The first is a close up of the inscription which I think ends any speculation about a possible signature as it simply reads 'G Rous QC MP'. The mystery here is the 'QC' as Rous was a barrister under George III and would therefore have been 'KC'. It may be that the inscription was added at a later date in Victoria's reign by somebody ignorant of the 'QC/KC' distinction. The rather odd yellow colouring of the lettering would seem to support it not being contemporary.

The second is a closer view of the face which may aid in identifying the artist. The painting is currently in store and not easily accessible hence the use of flash.

The third is of the nameplate on the frame identifying Northcote as the artist. This is clearly not contemporary to the picture's creation and is the only known link to Northcote found thus far.

I may also have solved the 'Captain' mystery which appears to have been a piece of journalistic misunderstanding (or invention) when the painting's bequest to the museum was originally reported in the Western Morning News in November 1949.

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Paul Kettlewell,

Dave - with the strange pose of the right arm, does it suggest that there was something going on further down (perhaps a hand on a scroll or book) and perhaps the picture was cut down, and it was then that the inscription was added?

Dave Evans 01,

I think there's a distinct possibility that the picture has been cut down. From a compositional point of view it would be an odd decision to cut off the right elbow and truncate the arms at the cuffs without showing the hands. The space above the head also seems to be too large to suit the current aspect ratio of the image. I doubt that it was originally a full length portrait but I believe it may have been longer and slightly wider than it currently is. There also appears to be something supporting the left elbow which may be the arm of a chair or could be intended to suggest that he's leaning 'at the bar' (in the legal sense).

Does anyone have any thoughts as to Henry Howard (1769 -1847) as possible artist?

Having a look at the reverse of the painting, unfortunately the canvas has been relined which has made it difficult to draw a conclusion as to whether or not the canvas has been cut down.

Dave Evans 01,

I'll admit that I'm not overly familiar with Howard's work (he seems to have been a somewhat reluctant portraitist largely in his early career) however it was the Watt portrait that drew him to my attention. I was looking for portraits of Rous's acquaintances and Rous is known to have represented Boulton and Watt in court (which is perhaps a tenuous connection although I could, if pressed, supply an even more slender connection to Sarah Trimmer, who also sat for Howard).

The Watt picture is small and briskly executed, almost a sketch, whilst some of Howard's other portraits are larger and have a more 'polished' finish, one can see both approaches in his two paintings of John Flaxman http://ichef.bbci.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/images/paintings/npg/624x544/npg_npg_674_624x544.jpg and http://ichef.bbci.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/images/paintings/uclac/624x544/lducs_uclac_pc5525_624x544.jpg and it may be that the smaller work informed and was reference for the larger. It's probably wishful thinking but I see similarities, particularly in the treatment of the nose and mouth, between the Watt and Flaxman portraits and the picture of Rous. I don't think I'm quite ready to dismiss the possiblity that it might be Howard.

Bruce Trewin,

I agree that there are strong similarities in style and composition and the Rous / Watt connection is interesting. I had not looked at the size of the Watt portrait as a factor.

R. Stephens,

Was just wondering, is it French?

Dave Evans 01,

I think it unlikely that it was painted in France, I've not come across any reference to the sitter travelling there (or elsewhere in Europe). That doesn't mean that it couldn't be the work of a French artist, perhaps a refugee in London during the 1790's.

William Molesworth,

Your first step is surely to go into the Heinz Archive and look up Northcote's Sitter's Book. If you are not in London, they may have it digitized by now or you could email the portrait and ask them if they could look it up?

Martin Hopkinson,

Northcote's 120 page account book for c.1776-1830 [NPG ms 91] has been published in a long article by Jacob Simon, Walpole Society, 58, 1995-96, pp. 21-125

Dave Evans 01,

Thank you both, I wasn't aware that Northcote's own records had survived in such a (hopefully) complete form. I'll see if the published version is available locally or via Inter Library Loan.

Dave Evans 01,

Thanks once again for the information on Northcote's account book, I've been able to access the Jacob Simon, Walpole Society article via JSTOR. Thus far I've not found any Rouses listed as a sitter for Northcote. I will double check the list in its entirety but I've already checked up to 1807 which should mark the cut off point for this portrait (all the potential sitters being deceased by then and it being the year I believe the picture was bequeathed to the Peter family from whence it came to the museum). The Northcote attribution is currently looking even more unlikely.

And apologies to Al Brown for not responding to the Danloux suggestion earlier, it's certainly worth looking into.

Martin Hopkinson,

For Danloux one could consult Helen Smailes at the National Gallery of Scotland and Dr Stephen Lloyd at Knowsley

Bruce Trewin,

Danloux kept a journal of his exile in Great Britain, which was published in Paris in 1910. If anyone has access to the journal it might comment on sitters. He was greatly influenced by Romney. This composition reminds me strongly of Romney's, although perhaps not the execution.

Rous does not appear in the index of Jacob Simon's transcription of Northcote's account book (Walpole Society, 58, 1995-96, pp. 21-125), unfortunately. This includes "some 740 entries, [but] it is not a complete listing of the artist's output because about two dozen paintings, mostly family portraits but also a few Royal Academy exhibits and engraved pictures, went unrecorded."

Kieran Owens,

In the Western Morning news, of Tuesday 7th March 1950, an article appears under the title "Oils and Water-colours at Plymouth Gallery." Recording the exhibiting of new additions to the collection, it states that "In the oils section is a portrait of Capt. Rous, one of Drake's executors, painted by an unknown artist." The Captain Rous referred to in this article is Sir Anthony Rous (c.1555 - 1620), of Halton St. Dominick, Cornwall, who was a friend of Sir Francis Drake and, in 1596, was one of the original executors of the latter's will. This discussion's portrait is, most obviously, not of him. Additionally, the is no evidence that Sir Anthony was ever a Captain, in the military sense, though he is regularly described as "an adventurer".

George Rous, Barrister (QC) and counsel for the East India Company, was born in c.1744 and died on the 11th June 1802. He is buried in Temple Church, in the City of London. James Northcote was born c.1745 and died in 1831. As contemporaries, therefore, the former certainly could have been painted by the latter.

Rous was M.P. for Shaftesbury from 1776 - 1780. If the writing on the canvas is contemporary with the painting, then it must have been completed after 1776, in which year Rous would have been 31 years old. The man in this painting looks more like someone in their forties or early fifties.

Dave Evans 01,

As Kieran has revived this thread with his post I should perhaps provide a short summary of what has so far been determined and what remains to be discovered about this work.

A positive identification of the sitter has been made as George Rous born c.1744 d 1802, barrister and sometime MP for Shaftesbury.

The inscription on the portrait was added at a later date, presumably at some time in the reign of Victoria. Rous as a barrister practiced solely in the reign of George III and the honorific postnominals K.C. rather than Q.C. would have applied.

The picture appears to have been cut down but this cannot be confirmed without physical examination and removal from its current frame (which is probably Victorian). It is currently in storage while Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery undergoes an extensive rebuilding which is due to be completed in time for reopening in Spring 2020.

As the article Kieran has quoted states the painting entered Plymouth's collection and was first exhibited without an attribution. I can only conclude that the label identifying it as a Northcote was either added later by a Plymouth curator (although there is no record of this happening) or when the painting was re-framed and the attribution was subsequently discounted but the label allowed to remain (again there is no record of this). Whichever was the case the current consensus appears to be that there is no evidence to back the Northcote attribution and that the artist remains unknown.

The spurious identification of the portrait as Captain Rous an executor of Sir Francis Drake's will derives from the will of Mrs Agnes Priestly Thomas-Peter who bequeathed the painting to Plymouth in 1949.

"(i) To the Lord Mayor Aldermen and Citizens of the City of Plymouth the portrait of Captain Rous the executor of Drake and to whom Drake gave the Drake Cup which at one time belonged to the Peter Family and has been presented by the National Art Collections Fund to Gallant Plymouth."

Kieran has correctly identified Sir Anthony Rous of Halton, St. Dominick as the subject of such a portrait. Sir Anthony was a common ancestor of both George Rous and the Thomas-Peter family. George Rous's portrait came to the Peter family (as they then were) via the marriage of his sister Anna-Maria to Henry Peter.

It is tempting (but probably too fanciful) to think that there were perhaps two Rous portraits in Mrs Thomas-Peter's possession and that somehow Plymouth ended up with the 'wrong' Rous. It may be nearer the mark that Thomas-Peter family lore automatically associated the name Rous with their earlier, more glamorous, ancestor and the story was thereby attached to this portrait.

Intriguingly however Mrs Thomas-Peter did have other portraits which she left to her unmarried sister in law, Edith.

"(j) To my sister-in-law Edie Thomas-Peter the remainder of my portraits my Queen Anne embroidered bedspread and my Queen Anne picture (a ship cut out in paper by Queen Anne) together with the ring and parchment given by Queen Anne to Martha Farthing"
(Martha Farthing had been wet nurse to the infant Queen Anne and later married into the Peter family).

Edith passed away without issue in Bath in 1976 and the ring mentioned above was later auctioned at Christies (Lot 19/Sale 5458, 11th Oct 1995, London, King Street) realising £2,530.

Kieran Owens,

Dave, many thanks for the synopsis. I hope the revival of the enquiry is not unwelcome, but sometimes archival and technological developments can offer new routes to relevant information, especially after a period of three years and more.

Osmund Bullock,

While the erroneous 'QC' obviously indicates a post-1837 date for the inscription, I can find no mention anywhere that George Rous was a KC either (though one cannot be sure without checking the Law Lists). Being a King's Counsel in the C18th was far less common than it became during the 19th, when by mid-century one would expect many, perhaps most of the leading barristers of the day to 'take silk'. Perhaps the family later just assumed he was a Queen's/King's Counsel - he was a distinguished and much admired lawyer - or they confused the title with his position as Standing Counsel to the E. India Co.

I'm not sure it *is* too fanciful to think that there were two Rous portraits in Mrs Thomas-Peter's possession (and Plymouth got the wrong one) - in fact I think it's the least unreasonable explanation. Descendants commonly misidentify family portraits by one, two and even three generations; but unless the picture were so discoloured that practically nothing could be made out, I'd be extremely surprised if anybody of an aristocratic background could (if compos mentis) mistake a Georgian gentleman for an Elizabethan/Jacobean one.

To confuse things still further, there was actually a naval Captain George Rous fairly contemporary with Sir Anthony - possibly a relation, though apparently of Westminster (at least when he wrote his will). And to add another possible layer of family misunderstanding, he was like Drake in a Cadiz expedition - though in his case the disastrous 1625 one, in which he commanded one of the ships and died on the way home.

Dave Evans 01,

Hello Osmund

Regarding KC/QC it is my understanding that prior to the custom being discontinued in the early 20th century (1920s IIRC) any practising barrister elected to parliament was entitled to use KC/QC as an honorific whether or not they had formally taken silk. Rous was probably more properly a 'Serjeant at Law' (he was certainly referred to as 'serjeant' by James Watt in his correspondence).

The 'wrong Rous' scenario is by no means impossible but it does seem unlikely that it wasn't questioned at the time of the original bequest, which as far as I know didn't happen. Having said that there is a label on the rear of the portrait from 'Reading County Depository' (a removals and storage company) which looks to be from the late 40s and it is plausible that the picture was stored there following Mrs Thomas-Peter's death (she was widowed and lived in Basingstoke) and released once the will had passed probate. If there were two (or more) Rouses in storage it could well be that George was the only one with an identifying inscription or nameplate and the 'switch' happened there. In which case, should a previously unknown portrait turn up at auction (or has already done so) it may well be as 'portrait of an unknown gentleman' and a 'Reading County Depository' label might be our only (vague) evidence to suggest the sitter's identity.

As far as I know the only likeness we have of Sir Anthony Rous is the double tomb effigy of himself and his son Ambrose in St. Dominca's church in St. Dominick (which is about 2 miles as the crow flies from where I live, or about 30 by road, I'm on the wrong side of the Tamar). In the absence of an inscription on our hypothetical portrait that would be our only visual reference, unless the artist was kind enough to depict Sir Anthony's arms, 'Or, an eagle displayed Azure, pruning his wing, with feet and bill Gules'.

What the discovery of such a portrait would mean in terms of legal ownership I have no idea, I suspect I'd just be thankful that it wasn't my problem.

Josephine Price,

I am by no means an expert but am researching James Northcote self-portraits, because I may have a study for one of them. I have therefore seen a lot of his work and I cannot help thinking that the portrait you think is of Captain Rous is that of Captain Sir Walter Sterling, who was (also) painted by James Northcote. This painting is in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Caird Collection and bears great resemblance in facial characteristics and expression to the portrait you are dealing with. It still doesn't solve the mystery of who painted it though.
I was attracted to the painting of Capt. Sir Walter Sterling because of his sympathetic face and I find the same in 'your' portrait. I hope this is of help and if you could help me with my search, please let me know.

'Likenesses', unfortunately, are always tricky unless one portrait is a strict 'version' which is not the case here. The Stirling (note the spelling) portrait is down as c. 1780 but is more likely 1781-plus following Northcote's return from Italy, and Stirling died in 1786. Any other reasons aside it is unlikely he would have had Northcote do two different 30 x 25's (which is what they are) within about 4 years, and Royal Naval officers are almost always painted in uniform.

A good exception demonstrating both points are the practically identical oval-format portraits of Captain William Locker by Gilbert Stuart (also in the NMM), both about 1785: one shows him in civilian dress and is possibly a finished study for the other, which shows in uniform. Locker however is a little unusual, in that he was a patron/ art collector, so commissioned more than most.


There was a John Rous who was a Naval captain from 1745 and an Hon. Henry John Rous who was one from 1823: the unknown possible 'Rous' in question here (as previous comments have shown) and the dress suggests he is likely to be somewhere between and not naval (although Northcote went on to 1831).

Dave Evans 01,

Thanks Josephine and Pieter, the sitter's identity has I believe been established beyond reasonable doubt as George Rous (c1744 - 1802), barrister, counsel to the East India Company and one time MP for Shaftesbury. The 'Captain' confusion appears to have arisen thanks to the wording of the bequest by which the painting entered Plymouth's collection (see my previous posts above).

We are however no nearer establishing the identity of the artist (assuming that the consensus view that it's not by Northcote is correct).

Sorry: I should have looked more closely at earlier stuff. If Plymouth is yet back on the grid as far as communication with Art UK is concerned (if not yet actively in discussions) perhaps the identity of the sitter here could at least be updated, as above.

Thank you all for your comments on the above. We are not yet formally back in communication as far as Art Uk is concerned, but we can confirm that we have amended the identity of the sitter on our catalogue as above.

26 April 2019
Plymouth City Council, thank you for confirming that you have amended the sitter's identity. We have updated our record, although the change may take a few days to appear on Art UK.

With regard to the remaining question of an attribution, I suggest serious consideration should be given to Lemuel Francis Abbott (c.1760-1802). From the mid-1780s to the late 1790s he specialised in male portraits of ‘three-quarters’ format (30 x 25 in), as here. There are many examples on Art UK. His sitters are usually posed against a plain dark backgound.

Picking up points in the discussion, Abbott was not shy of presenting his sitters in a fully frontal pose:
https://www.artuk.org/discover/artworks/william-woodville-17521805-192320/search/actor:abbott-lemuel-francis-17601803/page/4/view_as/grid

And there is often an awkwardness in his sitters' limbs when they move away from the body – suggesting the canvas has been reduced in size when it probably has not:
https://www.artuk.org/discover/artworks/admiral-alexander-hood-17271814-1st-viscount-bridport-172480/search/actor:abbott-lemuel-francis-17601803/page/4/view_as/grid

In addition, the treatment of hair/wig is similar here:
https://www.artuk.org/discover/artworks/sir-william-herschel-155094/search/actor:abbott-lemuel-francis-17601803/page/4/view_as/grid

'Attributed to Abbott' is less unreasonable than firmly 'by Northcote', even though a bit bluer than usual: here are a couple more practically full frontals: first Abbott's of Captain William Locker in the 1790s, second two versions of his portrait of Admiral Sir Thomas Pasley (painted 1795-96), though the first of these (in Langholm Town Hall) currently says 'unknown artist', so that also needs a change:

[Locker]
https://www.artuk.org/discover/artworks/captain-william-locker-17311800-172482/view_as/grid/search/works:captain-william-locker-17311800/page/1

[Pasley]
https://www.artuk.org/discover/artworks/admiral-sir-thomas-pasley-17341803-bt-213568/view_as/grid/search
/keyword:thomas-pasley/page/1

https://www.artuk.org/discover/artworks/sir-thomas-pasley-17341808-admiral-of-the-white-172481/view_as/grid/search/keyword:thomas-pasley/page/1

Dave Evans 01,

I have to say that, to my eye, I would agree that Abbott looks to be the most likely suggestion so far received. Does anyone know if his account books or similar documentation has survived?

Jacinto Regalado,

A number of Abbott portraits exist in two or more versions, which can be of varying quality, and it is not clear (to me) if they were all done by Abbott or not. His well-known portrait of Lord Nelson would naturally have been copied, but even the portrait iron manufacturer John Wilkinson has three versions on Art UK, only one of which is listed as a copy. The other two are below:

https://www.artuk.org/discover/artworks/john-wilkinson-17281808-the-ironmaster-181985/view_as/grid/search/keyword:lemuel-abbott/page/4

https://www.artuk.org/discover/artworks/john-wilkinson-17281808-53221/view_as/grid/search/keyword:lemuel-abbott/page/4

Note that the hands are also "cut off" as in the Rous picture. The quality (or condition) of the Rous portrait is not the best for Abbott, but it might not be the original version and, conceivably, it could be a copy by someone else.

Jacinto Regalado,

The numerous versions of Abbott's Nelson portrait, only some of which are listed as copies on Art UK, clearly show variable quality.

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