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Henry Stafford Northcote GCMG GCIE CB PC

George James Coates (1869-1930), Henry Stafford Nothcote (detail), Historic Memorials Collection, Parliament House Art Collection. View full image

1st Baron Northcote
Governor-General, 21 January 1904 to 9 September 1908

Henry Northcote (1846-1911) became Australia’s third Governor-General after a long career as a diplomat, politician and colonial administrator, experiences which proved invaluable in navigating Federation’s tumultuous early years. Throughout his term he undertook his constitutional and ceremonial responsibilities cheerfully and prudently and was ‘trusted and warmly liked’ by the public.1

Born in London, Northcote studied at Eton and Oxford before joining the Foreign Office as a clerk in 1868. Five years later, he married Alice Brooke, the adopted daughter of Canadian railroad tycoon Lord Mount Stephen.2 They had no children.

Northcote served as private secretary to Lord Salisbury in 1876 before performing the same role for his father – the Chancellor of the Exchequer – from 1877 to 1880. He then entered parliament himself, representing Exeter in the House of Commons until 1899, serving as financial secretary to the War Office and surveyor-general of ordnance in the Salisbury governments. In 1899, he was appointed Governor of Bombay, his term coinciding with ‘a famine of unprecedented severity, incessant plague, an empty exchequer, and bad business years generally’.3 Accordingly, his administration was active in the areas of land reform, education, health and charitable relief.

Sworn in as Australia’s Governor-General in January 1904, Northcote brought a degree of stability to the office following his two predecessors’ brief terms.4 He entertained generously and visited every state, travelling over 10,000 miles each year. He also dealt skilfully with a succession of political crises, where shifts in the Parliament’s political allegiances saw four changes of government during his first two years in office. He was the first Governor-General to refuse (twice) a Prime Minister’s request to dissolve the House of Representatives and call a general election. That these decisions were received without rancour clearly indicated Northcote’s respected standing. He played an active role in Australian politics, including delaying his assent to the 1904 Arbitration Act due to (well-founded) concerns about its constitutionality. His endeavour to centralise nominations for royal honours led to a broader dispute about communications between Britain and the states.

Northcote’s retirement as Governor-General in 1908 was met with regret and warm appreciation for his ‘judgement and ability, zeal and courtesy’.5 He returned to England and took his seat in the House of Lords, being made a Privy Counsellor the following year. He died in Ashford, Kent in 1911, with High Commissioner and former Prime Minister Sir George Reid representing the Australian Government at his funeral.

George James Coates
Melbourne-born George Coates (1869-1930) was apprenticed at age 15 to the stained-glass firm, Ferguson and Urie. He studied art at the North Melbourne School of Design and later took evening classes at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School. Regarded as one of the School’s best draughtsman, Coates ran drawing classes at his Swanston Street studio, where his students included George Bell, Norman Lindsay and Max Meldrum. In 1897, he travelled to Europe, studying at Académie Julian in Paris with artist Dora Meeson who later became his wife. Moving to London, the pair supplemented their income by working as illustrators. Coates exhibited regularly in London and Paris, becoming a member of the Royal Academy; the New Salon, Paris; the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers; and the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. In 1915, he enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Discharged in 1919, he continued to work unofficially as a war artist for the Australian and Canadian governments. Coates visited Australia briefly in 1921, returning to London soon after to work on further commissions for large historical paintings from the Australian War Records Section. His work is represented in national, state and many regional galleries across Australia.6

Henry Stafford Nothcote
by George James Coates
Oil on canvas
227.5 x 136.5 cm
Historic Memorials Collection, Parliament House Art Collection

1. Information in this biography has been taken from: C Cunneen, ‘Northcote, Henry Stafford (1846–1911)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed 25 August 2021; C Lucas and H Matthew, ‘Northcote, Henry Stafford, Baron Northcote (1846–1911)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, accessed 27 October 2021; C Cunneen, King’s Men: Australia’s Governors-General from Hopetoun to Isaacs, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1983; B Carroll, Australia’s Governors-General: From Hopetoun to Jeffery, Rosenberg Publishing Pty Ltd, Kenthurst, NSW, 2004.
2. A Reford, ‘Stephen, George, 1st Baron Mount Stephen’, Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003, accessed 4 May 2021.
3. ‘Lord Northcote’, The Mercury, 1 March 1905, p. 6, accessed 25 August 2021.
4. Cunneen, King’s Men, p. 48.
5. ‘Lord Northcote’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 17 September 1908, p. 6, accessed 12 October 2021.
6. Information in this biography has been taken from: R Haese, ‘Coates, George James (1869–1930)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 1981; A Gray, ‘George Coates’, Design & Art Australia Online, 2011; ‘George Coates’, National Portrait Gallery;
7.‘Coates, George James’, A McCulloch, S McCulloch and E McCulloch Childs, eds, The New McCulloch’s Encyclopedia of Australian Art, Aus Art Editions in association with The Miegunyah Press, 2006, p. 328; ‘George Coates’, The Argus, 4 July 1931, p. 10; A Streeton, George Coates: An Appreciation’, The Argus, 1 August 1930, p. 8; Notable Artists’ Return: Mr and Mrs George J Coates’, The Register, 23 September 1921, p. 7. Websites accessed 25 May 2021.

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