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The Zoffany exhibition has now opened at the Royal Academy and I shall be (D.V.) going to see it in the next few weeks, and will, of course,  be reporting back to you here. The catalogue/book accompanying the exhibition  arrived with a thump on my door mat a few weeks ago and I thought you might like to hear my thoughts on it. Mary Webster’s magnificent monograph  on Zoffany has to be the main reference point for those wishing to delve into the minutiae of his life and works, but it is rather an expensive volume. If you have less cash to spare you might want to consider  this book as a more than acceptable alternative.

The book is, as you would expect of a Yale publication, superbly illustrated throughout. But the essays that make up the first part of the book are, in my very humble opinion, outstanding. Martin Postle’s opening essay on Zoffany’s life and reputation is fascinating, beautifully written and appropriately illustrated, and draws this  interesting comparison with Hogarth:

Zoffany’s art is often appreciated for its technical accomplishment and keen eye for detail. As with Hogarth it  is also distinguished by its incisive social commentary and irrelevant brand of humour. It provides a sophisticated and often guileful commentary, which challenges the parameters of hierarchical structures, national boundaries and social mores. Zoffany, was like Hogarth, temperamentally unsuited to follow the conventional career of the compliant “society” painter. However, like Hogarth, Zoffany proved two be a consummate painter of society 

Robin Simons’ chapter on Zoffany and the theatre is fascinating, providing the reader with tremendous detail of the workings of the 18th century theatres in London and the provinces,, which, with its patent theatres and performances censored by the Lord Chamberlain, was so different from our theatrical experience today. One of Zoffany’s earliest patrons was the actor David Garrick and this association guaranteed him many, many theatrical commissions. These theatrical portraits now can seem rather stilted and staged, to excuse a pun, but by careful study of the them and the scenes they are meant to represent it is clear that Zoffany took this genre by the scruff of its neck and developed it, becoming one of its greatest exponents and chroniclers. His portrait of Thomas King as Touchstone in As You LIke It from 1780, below, is a tour de force.

Zoffany’s great conversation pictures, like this one below of the Sharpe family, have become so ubiquitous we now rarely notice the details. But if you look closely enough there seem to be indications of something other than mere representations of family life being recorded. Kate Redford’s chapter on Zoffany and British Portraiture is, as ever, a wonderfully considered piece of writing, and places Zoffany’s work in its proper context, explaining that his conversation pieces were exception pieces of work, often employing subtle narrative devices which,when decoded, illuminate the witty,sometimes bawdy nature of 18th century society in England.

The Sharp Family, painted between 1779-81 shows the comfortably-off family  during one their Water Scheems, when they performed on their boats and barges. This family, one of whose members was Granville Sharp the abolitionist,  were renowned among society for both the expertise of their musical performances and  their conviviality.

However, in this central section, Zoffany plays visual jokes, an “in-joke” if you like, something that the Sharps, in common with many 18th century families indulged in. For example, they often signed letters using the musical notation for  “sharp” instead of writing their names .This word play was taken up by Zoffany, and interpreted visually.  Below, we can see Granville Sharp holding  his double flageolet, a difficult instrument to master, behind his brother’s, James’ head, so that it resembled the form of a cuckold’s horn.

James’ nickname was Vulcan, the farrier to the gods and husband of Venus, who cuckolded him after she fell in love with Mars.

Sitting above  are the wives of two of the brothers. James wife, Catherine wearing  a lilac dress and a black shawl and William Sharpe’s wife. Neither were very fond of music, and can be seen comforting each other rather in the manner of golf widows: they had musically obsessed husbands and paid the price ! This is all very clever, and the in -joke  was hopefully enjoyed by the Sharp family but as Kate Redford keenly remarks, this is an artistic approach that also had its dangers:

The appeal of these narrative devices probably relied on raillery; equivalent to a light-hearted banter that showed the sitter’s modest ability to laugh at themselves and that fitted the relatively more informal and lively milieu of the conversation piece tradition .Zoffany’s patrons no doubt enjoyed the wit of his clever juxtapositions and narrative conceits, although, on occasion, he must surely have sheen sailing close to the wind….

Luckily for Zoffany he was a friend of the Sharpes and  most probably enjoyed their clever company and conversation. He was also a keen musician who also took part in similar water parties and knew many professional musicians. The joke, which was at James Sharpe’s expense in a possibly offensive way, was probably allowable because Zoffany was part of their circle- a fact indicated by the presence of his dog, Roma, sitting in the foreground of the picture, to represent the artist. He was not so lucky with other, very prestigious clients and compositions. More on this after my visit to the exhibit.

So, to conclude, if you are unable to visit the Royal Academy to see the exhibition for yourself, tout are fascinated by these portraits and what they reveal about the nature of late 18th century society  in Britain (and beyond), I do hope you will purchase this fascinating, beautiful and very readable book. Zoffany’s appeal for me lies more in the canvasses he completed in late 18th century India, with all its Austen associations, and I am so looking forward to seeing many canvass that  are normally only on show in India.  Society Observed indeed.

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