The odd master

Johan Zoffany, a German working for the English court on location in Italy, spent seven years composing his masterpiece, “The Tribuna of the Uffizi” (1772-78): a dizzyingly detailed representation of dozens of Old Masters in the celebrated Florence gallery. He enlivened it with ribald jokes and local gossip: young men ogling the buttocks of the Venus de Medici; a gaggle of known homosexuals, including one just expelled from Rome, subtly indicating the homoerotic sculpture “The Wrestlers”. Enjoying himself enormously, Zoffany then manoeuvred to get Titian’s “Venus of Urbino” moved out of its frame and into the room for him to copy. He placed that nude centre stage in his composition, outraging prudish Queen Charlotte and offending George III, who paid for the painting reluctantly and hid it away. Zoffany lost his royal patronage; soon afterwards, he fled Europe for India.

Zoffany is the obscure, odd, fourth man of 18th-century British painting. Lacking the gravitas of Joshua Reynolds, the frothy lightness of Gainsborough, the easy virtuosity of Thomas Lawrence, he is also more subversive and unpredictable than his better-known peers. In teeming tableaux such as the pyramid of tumbling figures, musical instruments, sails, dog, commemorating the riverside performances of “The Sharp Family” of musicians on their yachts and barges, Zoffany addressed a Georgian society that was crystallising into public life as we recognise it today – showy, pleasure-seeking, garrulous, obsessed with celebrity. But Zoffany also underpinned his acute observations with wit and an ambivalent sensibility, which can be read as a sustained critique of a milieu where he was always an outsider.

The Royal Academy’s retrospective is the first in nearly four decades and features most of Zoffany’s major works, including one that should hang in Burlington House for ever: “The Portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy”, depicting 36 founding members of the institution in peacock finery lolling, pontificating, peering, huddling together, as a life model is set up. Such a scene never took place – Zoffany, portrayed as a bland figure with palette, seated unceremoniously at the edge of the group, painted the work speculatively, invented the scenario and “clapped in artists as they came to him, and yet all are easy and natural, most of the likenesses strong”, according to contemporary critic Horace Walpole. Zoffany sold the work to George III for 500 guineas.

That mix of informality and contrived theatricality is apparent from the start of Zoffany’s career in his depictions of London actors, which made his name in 1760s London. His theatrical portraits of theatrical portrayals – David Garrick as Macbeth, William Powell as Posthumous in Cymbeline, Thomas King as Touchstone – are the height of staginess; even “Mr and Mrs Garrick by the Shakespeare Temple at Hampton”, showing the actor relaxing outside his home, is a conversation piece framed as a stage set.

‘David with the Head of Goliath’ (1756)

Zoffany’s comedy of manners is Hogarthian, but without the didactic sting. The cast of “The Dutton Family” play cribbage, the son casually asking his mother’s advice, the stiff daughter declining her father’s, but the exaggerated postures suggest that their real game is image-making – played out in an interior that affects to be their home but is in fact a careful construct of gilt-framed paintings, mirrors, rugs, designed by Zoffany to confer status.

As soon as he started painting the court, Zoffany became a master of masquerade. In his first venture, “Queen Charlotte with Her Two Eldest Sons”, one prince is dressed as Telemachus, son of Odysseus, the other in Turkish costume, and the room is packed with exotica such as chinoiserie figurines and a huge Turkish carpet, a prop Zoffany imported into Buckingham House. The work’s elegant playfulness earned him 20 further royal commissions, including “George III and Queen Charlotte with Their Six Eldest Children”, where the entire family is dressed in archaic Van Dyck costumes; a homage, in its sparkle and sumptuousness, to the earlier court painter, but also a dramatisation of the pretence and spectacle of aristocratic life. Walpole noted the work as “ridiculous”.

Zoffany’s wit spared no one – certainly not himself. In his arresting “Self-portrait” he is cloaked in dense fur, with its implications of worldliness, but holds a skull and hourglass – classic memento mori – and faces us with a melancholy grin, as if musing on life’s frailty. At his side is Pliny the Elder’s “Historia Naturali”; its preface, containing the famous phrase “homines enim sumus”, “for we are only human”, was relevant for Zoffany, who was trailed by scandal as a womaniser and possible bigamist. (He may have married his English wife, a 15-year-old glove-maker’s daughter who followed him to Italy as a stowaway, while his German one, from an innkeeper’s family, was still living; he also acquired a mistress and son in India.) Here he gives himself a fleshy countenance and wryly apologetic expression, but what is most unsettling about this portrait is the double forced grin: Zoffany’s hand presses down the lower jaw of the skull as if to make it laugh at mortality, just as he fixes his own rigid smile– with which he must charm his rich clients.

Nowhere is his ambivalence more pronounced than in the Indian paintings. Most compelling of these is Tate’s “Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match”, another lavish society piece depicting around 60 people in Lucknow, centred on English army officer Colonel Mordaunt and local ruler Asaf-ud-daula, who kept a menagerie of fighting animals, an extravagance cited by the British community to prove his dissolute character. Traditional readings have seen the work as an allegory of imperial power play – Asaf is fat, indolent, and his body language towards the Englishman is submissive and ingratiating, while the colonel is tall, taut, statuesque. But their friendship was rife with rumours, and Zoffany may just as well be hinting at their complicity.

Unquestionably, though, the Indian characters in flamboyant turbans who busy themselves with the battling cockerels give the work its dynamism, and are more sympathetically drawn than the audience of languid expatriates. So precisely nuanced is Zoffany’s command of gesture and gait that throughout the Indian group portraits – “The Auriol and Dashwood Families”, “The Blair Family” – he manages to attribute to the Indian servants a naturalness and fluidity that contrasts with the tight artifice of their masters, and suggests that Zoffany the nomadic foreigner identified with those on the margins. This bright, energetic show re-interprets him as a 21st-century historian’s dream: a man of the people illuminating high society at precisely the moment when its manners and morals first became the subject of modern media attention.

‘Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed’, Royal Academy, London, from March 10 to June 10,

Video: Jackie Wullschlager visits the RA’s Zoffany show

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