James Thomas Northcote RA (1746-1831)
James Northcote RA was an English painter and writer. He was born in Plymouth and worked as an apprentice to his father, a watchmaker. In 1769 he decided to start his career as a portrait painter and was admitted as a pupil into the studio and house of Sir Joshua Reynolds in London four years later. He also attended the Royal Academy during this time.
After making money with portraiture, he left the studio in 1775 for Italy where he worked and painted for three years. On his return to England he was elected associate of the Academy in 1786 and a full academician in the following spring. He had a healthy rivalry with the painters John Opie and Henry Fuseli over his lifetime. During his career he painted over 2000 works, including historical and animal subjects next to portraiture. He was a well-respected painter and portraitist and no doubt he was an honourable choice for the portrait of Sir Charles Brisbane.
This magnificent work, painted by James Thomas Northcote RA, was most likely commissioned after Sir Charles Brisbane (1769 - 1829) received his Knighthood and a Gold Medal for the victory over the Dutch at Curacao in 1807.
During the Napoleonic war major British campaigns were launched against Dutch possessions and naval bases in the Caribbean. Curacao had been a Dutch colony since the mid-17th Century and benefitted from one of the most enclosed and easily defended harbours in the world; the Saint Anna Bay, on which the island’s capital Willemstad is located.
At dawn on January 1st 1807 – by which time many of the defenders might be nursing hangovers – Brisbane’s force sailed through the channel under a flag of truce, with HMS Arethusa leading three frigates. Strong parties had been mustered on all of them for boarding and landing duties. The Dutch, surprised, opened a hot but ineffectual fire. The British ships sailed into the port. Here they found a 36-gun frigate Halstaar, a 20-gun corvette Suriname, and two large armed schooners, which can be seen on the right in this painting.
Brisbane sent a summons to the governor, to the effect that the British squadron had come to protect, not to conquer the inhabitants, but that if a shot was fired, he should immediately storm the batteries. The governor was given five minutes to make up his mind and when none was received Brisbane ordered fire to be opened on the Dutch ships. Assault parties were now landed to attack Fort Amsterdam and resistance ceased after ten minutes. Storming of the town’s citadel and several outlying batteries went just as quickly and as successfully. Only Fort République now remained and was still strong enough to smash the British ships. Faced however by an assault party of 300 seamen and marines, the Dutch commander lost his nerve and surrendered without further resistance. By 10:00 hrs all fortifications had surrendered and by midday a capitulation of the entire island was formalised. It was probably one of the easiest victories of the British Navy and by the Commander Sir Charles Brisbane. There were also very few casualties on the British side: three seamen killed and fourteen wounded, compared with over 200 Dutch casualties both ashore and afloat.
After receiving his Knighthood, Brisbane was to see little further service. Much of his later life was spent as governor of the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, where he was to die, aged 60, in 1829.