In the various mixed exhibitions I’ve seen over the years that dealt with 18th- and 19th-century British art, Johan Zoffany (1733–1810) has always seemed to stand out. Yet there hasn’t been a museum show devoted to his work in this country since the National Portrait Gallery’s survey of 1977, so Martin Postle must be congratulated on organising the current exhibition (supported by Cox & Kings), already seen at the Yale Center for British Art in Connecticut, especially since plans to hold it at the Tate were scuppered. I wonder why? The show has proved successful: it was very busy the day I went, though I did wonder what proportion of visitors had turned up to see the Hockney show, baulked at the queues and gone upstairs to see Zoffany instead…
The exhibition is a revelation of a major talent, and shows Zoffany to be an artist of much vigour and subtlety. The introductory section features several portraits of the man himself, including a rather dry and emotionless rendition by George Dance. Luckily there are a couple of much more engaging Zoffany full-face self-portraits in black chalk to give us an idea of the person behind the pictures. Born near Frankfurt, he trained in Rome and early on worked for German patrons, producing history paintings in the Grand Manner.
In the second section of the exhibition there’s a remarkable homoerotic ‘David with the Head of Goliath’ (1756), packed with innuendo, and ‘Susanna and the Elders’ (1760) next to it, as if to prove that when it came to luscious nudity Zoffany could cater for all tastes. If the direct treatment of these subjects is unexpected among the studies of dead game and allegories, it serves to demonstrate the versatility and character of this undervalued artist.
Zoffany arrived in London in 1760, and subsequently made it his base of operations. But he was ever the outsider in his adopted country — which no doubt gave him the edge in observing its customs and manners — and continued to travel widely, to Italy and India (where he spent six years), to Austria and his native Germany.
The third section of the exhibition focuses on his theatre paintings, in particular his portraits of Garrick in various roles. A number of the paintings here come, appropriately enough, from the collection of the Garrick Club, including the small but beautiful portrayal of Thomas King as Touchstone in As You Like It. There’s a marvellous unfinished portrait of Garrick, and next to it the cool and immensely civilised ‘Mr and Mrs Garrick by the Shakespeare Temple at Hampton’. Notice also the splendidly costumed Sophia Baddeley and Thomas King in ‘The Clandestine Marriage’, a play by Garrick and George Colman.
The main wall of the fourth section, Zoffany at Court, is dominated by the substantial single portraits of George III and Queen Charlotte, flanked by paintings of family groups. ‘Queen Charlotte with her two Eldest Sons’ (1764–5), in which the gorgeous carpet becomes almost as important an element in the pictorial design as the royal personages, should not be overlooked.
The fifth section is given over to London society, with special reference to the Royal Academy. Here we have an oval representation of Dr William Hunter teaching anatomy, an earlier and livelier unfinished study of a life class at St Martin’s Lane Academy, and that famous group, ‘The Portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy’. Among those present Zoffany painted himself, Benjamin West, the Sandby brothers, Reynolds and Sir William Chambers. Among the absent was Gainsborough, who appears in a lovely little profile study elsewhere in the room, with a couple of moderately interesting genre scenes and the magnificent and strangely modern-looking double portrait ‘John Cuff and his Assistant’.
Why does this painting of an optician and his attendant look so up-to-date? It’s partly I think to do with the quality of light. Zoffany has depicted the optician’s workshop flooded with light in a way that suggests a modern, psychologically inclusive approach. This is not an image of shadows and corners, but a straightforward depiction in the broad light of day. Zoffany was a dedicated student of facial expressions and mannerisms, and was not in the habit of painting idealised or overtly flattering portraits. That said, his depiction of the rabble-rouser John Wilkes, to be found in section 6, reputed to be one of the ugliest men in the kingdom, is rather surprising. Wilkes is shown in the role of loving father with his elaborately dressed daughter Polly, and is made to seem almost handsome. Can paternal feeling so transform a countenance? Anyway, it’s another side to Wilkes from the compulsive womaniser of legend.
This section is dominated by the large upright painting ‘Henry Knight of Tythegston with his Three Children’ (c.1770), a powerful work, but not nearly as intriguing as the much less ornate but more moving portrait of Zoffany’s bigamous second wife, Mary Thomas. She looks as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth and yet she was determined enough to pursue the painter when she fell pregnant and he went off to Italy. There are too many family groups here for my taste, though the crowded composition of ‘The Sharp Family’ is quite brilliantly organised, with much brio and joyousness. Observe the superb characterisation — Zoffany at his best.
There are more genre paintings in the seventh section, which give the impression of the artist-traveller going through the motions of recording the unfamiliar. Two self-portraits here offer more information about Zoffany: note the slightly forced smile of the 1778 painting, with skull and hour-glass, and the touching informality of the later one in which he’s about to gown up as a friar. Here, too, is the over-opulent ‘Tribuna of the Uffizi’, rather magnificent but indigestible, and not a patch on the group portrait of the Academicians. The admirable painting of Charles Townley’s library loses much of its impact by being hung next to the ‘Tribuna’ — I’d have preferred to see it on another wall where it could breathe. But there are obvious space constrictions in the Sackler Galleries, and a great deal has been packed in — including another whole section on Zoffany’s Indian paintings, which I found of limited interest, and a conclusion of Goya-esque late paintings. A cramped but fascinating exhibition.