The sitter was the elder son of Francis, 3rd Lord Guilford and 7th Lord North, later 1st Earl of Guilford (1704-1790) and his second wife Elizabeth (1707-1745; see lot 59), only daughter and heir of Sir Arthur Kaye, 3rd Bt., and widow of George Legge, Viscount Lewisham. He was also the younger brother of Frederick, Lord North, 2nd Earl of Guilford, K.G. (1732-1793; see lot 60), Francis North's son by his first wife Lady Lucy Montagu (d. 1734; see lot 56). Brownlow North was educated at Eton and Oxford, and ordained in 1766. Because of his family connections he accumulated preferment quickly, becoming Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, in 1768 and Dean of Canterbury in 1770.
On 17 January 1771, North married Henrietta Maria (d. 1796), daughter and co-heir of John Bannister, a merchant of the West Indies. Henrietta Maria was a spendthrift and gambler, who suffered from frequent bouts of ill health. On 8 September 1771, North was consecrated as Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry on the recommendation of his half-brother Frederick, the Prime Minister. In 1774 he was given the see of Worcester and in 1781, Winchester, where he remained for the rest of his life and as which he appears in the present portrait. In 1773 North was elected FSA and in 1800, an honorary member of the Linnaean society in recognition of his botanical interests. He died in 1820, survived by two sons (both of whom took holy orders) and three daughters.
North was also painted by Romney (the Deanery, Canterbury). There are two other versions of the present portrait by Howard, at All Souls, Oxford (exhibited, Royal Academy, 1818) and a larger, three-quarter-length version (lot 65).