Yesterday an exhibition devoted to examining the life and works of the 18th century painter, Johan Zoffany, opened at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut. Johan Zoffany R.A: Society Observed will run there until the 12th February 2012, and then it will transfer to London to the Royal Academy, where it will be on show from the 10th March until the 10th June 2012.

Mary Webster, who has made a very special study of the life and works of Zoffany has written an amazing book to accompany the exhibit, and this has also been published by Yale.

 

I can’t review the exhibit yet, but I can write about the book, as I’ve been reading it for the past couple of months. Zoffany was born in 1733 near Frankfurt am Maim. His family was associated with the local court and then moved to Regensburg. Zoffany received his art education in Rome, which he visited on two occasions and then became court painter to the elector of Trier. Below, is his self portrait:

After his marriage in 1760 he moved to London to try his luck as an artist. He set up a studio in Covent Garden, where he  came to the notice of the leading actor of the day, David Garrick. Other actors flocked to his studios to be immortalised in oils.The patronage of Garrick brought him to the attention of the powerful and the great, most notably The Earl of Bute who gave him many family commissions. The Earl was the young George III’s prime minister, and so it was probably through this link that Zoffany began to receive court commissions. It also helped that he spoke German as a first language,and he received many commissions and help from Queen Charlotte, George III’s wife, who was, of course, German.

His paintings of the royal family are very familiar- and so I will not comment on them here. What I found interesting, on reading the book, were his portraits of lesser known individuals, as below in his portrait of Charles Francois Dumergue, then London’s most fashionable dentist. Mr Dumergue, who was born in France , was Dentist to the Royal Family. The painting dates from 1780-81:

His official title was  Court Operator of the Teeth. He was also dentist to the Prince of Wales from 1785 until 1814. He was a great friend of Zoffany and their friendship lasted all their lives. He was also great friend with Matthew Boulton and James Watt the inventors and engineers, and also with Sir Walter Scott. This portrait by Zoffany, below, of Sophia Dunmergue , Mr Dumergue’s daughter, dates from the same period:

Zoffany’s great conversation pieces, painted in London, are also well-known and my favourite is of the Sharpe family:

Here they all are, on a musical water party sailing on the Thames near Fulham. The family is shown as the sort of people you would love to meet: talented, musical, interesting, fun. The family included Granville Sharp ,the lawyer : he is shown holding a sheet of music for his sister,Elizabeth Prowse, who is playing the fortepiano. You can see them in the centre of the picture. Granville Sharp was of course,the principal agent in fighting the very famous  case of James Somersett, the black slave, wihc was heard  before Lord Mansfield, and as Mary Webster remarks:

It was in this case that Mansfield in 1772 pronounced his famous verdict that Somersett must go free since no English law sanctioned slavery. Sharp consequently founded the Society for the Abolition of Slavery…

This is all very well, I hear you say, but is there any more to Zoffany to make him an object of interest to we Janeites? The answer is, yes. Empahtically, yes.  For,  in 1783 he travelled to India to paint there. Professional disappointments and a lack of commissions forced him to look elsewhere than England for work. And he looked to the world of Warren Hastings, the Governor General of Bengal, shown below, in a portrait with his second wife, Marian,  and her Indian servant:

Warren Hastings gave Zoffany his enthusiastic patronage. And this is the interesting link, for Hastings had many associations with Jane Austen’s family. He had known Jane’s mother’s family, the Leighs of Adlestrop since childhood. He entrusted the care of his son from his first marriage to Mr and Mrs Austen, when they were first married and living at Deane in Hampshire. Seven year old George Hastings was the Reverend Austen’s first pupil, sent back to England from India to be educated. Sadly, he died while in their care, in 1764 of a “putrid throat”.His death affected Mrs Austen dreadfully. Mrs Austen had become so much attached to him that she always

declared that his death had been as great a grief to her as if he had been a child of her own

(Quoted in Jane Austen: A Family Record by Deirdre Le Faye, page 18)

Mr Austen’s sister, Philadelphia also knew Hastings. A poor but genteel woman, she travelled to India to find a husband in 1752 and married the elderly  Tysoe Hancock in 1753. Both she and her elderly husband were  close friends with him. He was godfather to their only daughter, Eliza, known to us all as the glamourous Countess de Feuillide, and then wife of Jane Austen’s brother, Henry . Sadly, hurtful gossip surrounded this group of friends:

The close friendship between Hastings and the Hancock’s coupled with the fact that the latter had been childless for so long before Betsey’s birth, gave scope for spiteful gossip to suggest that she was not Hancock’s daughter. The rumour was spread by the malicious Mrs Strachey, whose husband was secretary to Lord Clive and her slander was successful in so far as Clive wrote to his wife in the late summer of 1765: “In no circumstances whatever keep company with Mrs Hancock for it is beyond a doubt that she abandoned herself with Mr Hastings, indeed I would rather you had no acquaintance with the ladies who have been in India, they stand in such little esteem in England that their company cannot be of credit to Lady Clive”

(Le Faye, as above,  page 30)

Whatever the case regarding the parentage of Eliza, Zoffany’s works painted while he lived in India give us a rare glimpse into the strange world that Philadelphia Austen moved to in order to survive : and the world the the Crofts in Persuasion inhabited:

“What a great traveller you must have been, ma’am!” said Mrs. Musgrove to Mrs. Croft.

   “Pretty well, ma’am, in the fifteen years of my marriage; though many women have done more. I have crossed the Atlantic four times, and have been once to the East Indies and back again, and only once; besides being in different places about home: Cork, and Lisbon, and Gibraltar. But I never went beyond the Streights, and never was in the West Indies. We do not call Bermuda or Bahama, you know, the West Indies.”

Persuasion, Chapter 8

and the place where Colonel Brandon saw active service;

But can we wonder that with such a husband to provoke inconstancy, and without a friend to advise or restrain her, (for my father lived only a few months after their marriage, and I was with my regiment in the East Indies), she should fall? Had I remained in England, perhaps — but I meant to promote the happiness of both by removing from her for years, and for that purpose had procured my exchange. 

Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 31.

This is a fascinating portrait by Zoffany of the Blair family , painted in 1786-7. Colonel William Blair was originally of Balthayock in Perthshire, but ,when painted with his family, was then Colonel of the Bengal Army and commandant of the garrison of Chunar 20 miles above Benares.

This is another conversation piece of the Impey family dating from 17883. Sir Elijah Impey was a lawyer and judge. Note the Indian band in the background, and just how exhausted poor Mrs Impey looks in the heat.

The chapters dealing with Zoffany’s life and work in India are fascinating.Mary Webster’s exquisite research into the lives of the sitter and the servants provides us with a wonderful and detailed view of word of the English and servants of the East India company in India. I am throughly enjoying savouring this very new topic, espaillaly as it is something that seems to have held a stung hold on the young  Jane Austen’s imagination: she  wrote about life in India  in both her juvenilia and her adult works.

This book is worth  having for the joy of reading  these Indian chapters, but , as you can see from this cursory review, there is  much, much more to be enjoyed. Mary Wester’s prose is very readable and informative. She gives fascinating details of late 18th century life to answer the questions that natually arise when studying Zoffany’s works in detail. It’s a heavy tome, and very expensive at £75, but I can truly  recommend it to you