My Love Affair Continues – Zoffany at the Royal Academy

7 Mar

Aged 16, on work experience at Tate Britain, I was lucky enough to hang an 18th century gallery called Portraits and Perspectives.  I’d always had a strong fancy for the period but this marked the start of another of my enduring love affairs with the 18th century.  It was during this placement that I first properly encountered Johan Zoffany through a pair of portraits that we hung flanking the door at the far end of the room.  One of the works included the most gorgeous water-dog, covered in ringlets staring animatedly at the three boys in the picture.

So, I was ecstatic when I heard that the RA were mounting an exhibition of Zoffany’s works and was excited to see if these portraits were included.  Once again, the RA’s Sackler Wing programme shines and this exhibition does not disappoint.

Johan Zoffany, The Tribuna of the Uffizi, 1772-7. Image via www.arthistory.about.com

The first room has been split into lots of smaller galleries.  This does mean that there is quite a tight entrance in gallery one, that I imagine will become jammed, but it provides a good introduction to the artist.  Because of this split the first and last rooms are back-to-back and I imagine people will hurry past the last three works.

Room one of the exhibition. Own photograph.

Born in Frankfurt, Zoffany boldly decided to move in 1760 to England, a country experiencing rapid social change and growth.  (The exhibition is arranged thematically and room three begins to explore his work in England.)  Soon after his arrival, Zoffany met David Garrick, his first major patron, who achieved great success as an actor in the 1760s.  Zoffany was able to encapsulate Garrick’s success on stage, producing numerous works that perfectly portray the atmosphere of the moment.  In most of his theatre portraits, he artificially compresses the performance space to intensify the sense of intimacy with the actors.

One such striking work is William Powell as Posthumus in ‘Cymbeline’; Powell was one of the rising stars of Georgian theatre and, here he is seen at the opening of Act Five, Scene Two where he enters with a bloody handkerchief.  Zoffany’s portraits maintain a striking air of dignity while his subjects seem natural and at ease.  He uses the same style regardless of the class of the sitter and his detail and vivacity is always vibrant as he expresses his unique humour through social commentary.

Johan Zoffany, William Powell as Posthumus in ‘Cymbeline’, c. 1767. Own photograph.

The exhibition progresses to look at Zoffany’s interest in art academies that began when he painted artists attending a life class at the St Martin’s Lane Academy.  In 1770, he started an ambitious behind-the-scenes portrait of the Royal Academicians.  The Portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy shows 36 individuals, 34 of whom were RAs; Thomas Gainsborough, George Dance and his brother are absent, possibly due to their discontent with the ideals of the Academy at the time.  It was not yet deemed appropriate for women to be included so female Academicians, Kauffman and Muser, are shown by their portraits.  The work is fundamentally a large conversation piece showing the Academicians setting the model for the life class.  This is not an actual record of practices at the Academy as research reveals that the life model was never set by the Academicians or the Keeper, as shown here.  Instead, it is a record of those who held membership of the Academy, highlighting the aesthetic programme that they supported.  Zoffany himself is seen on the left, closest to the front, with a palette and brushes in hand.  From this position he can survey the whole scene and all who stand before him – perhaps it is even one of the most important positions here.

Johan Zoffany, The Portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy, 1771-2. Own photograph.

In 1764, Zoffany was introduced to George III and Queen Charlotte who liked his meticulous painting style.  His earliest Royal portraits are striking conversation pieces showing the domestic aspect of the court.  The portraits show the Royals relaxed; the works are memorable and real.  Zoffany’s career flourished and he was in much demand.

Royal Portraits at the RA. Own photograph.

The same year, Zoffany purchased Stile House near Chiswick, situated near to the Estate of John Stuart, Third Earl of Bute.  Accounts of how they met vary greatly but John Stuart was a significant painter and collector and had commissioned Zoffany the previous year.  These are the works that I mentioned at the start – a gorgeous pair of portraits of the children of the Third Earl of Bute.  It is in this sort of work, his informal domestic or landscape scenes, that we really see how great Zoffany is.  The paintings are the same size and each is dominated by a tree against a low horizon with the figures in a broadly triangular grouping.   The tree, which was common in Zoffany’s landscapes, helps to root the sitters in the space as well as providing symbolic overtones of the family tree.  The works share a touch of playfulness; the painting of the boys emphasises important masculine qualities and pursuits appropriate to their future as leaders or heroes.   The work concentrates on themes of elite masculine privileges.  The image of the girls, however, is more feminine in style showing ideas of responsibility.  The girls are engaged in activities that suggest their nurturing and motherly qualities.  The wall label here is far too low, or maybe these boots are far too high, but it is very rare that I have to bend down to read something.

Johan Zoffany, Three Sons of John, Third Earl of Bute and Three Daughters of John, Third Earl of Bute, 1763-4. Own photograph.

Until this point the wall colours had varied so frequently that parts of the gallery resembled a darkened rainbow but from here on in the lighting improves and the gallery aesthetic seems more coherent.  Don’t get me wrong, this is a stunning exhibition of works by a stunning painter and the exhibition is uplifting.  Zoffany travelled extensively throughout his life and the penultimate room looks at his passage to India and the six years he spent there from Spring 1783; he had an astounding interest in global commerce and was always on the move.

A Passage to India. Own photograph.

This exhibition is long overdue as Tate Britain cancelled their planned Zoffany show in 2010, worried that there wouldn’t be enough public interest.  Zoffany may not have the fame of Reynolds, Gainsborough or Hogarth but he is a fascinating artist whose life deserves the attention it is now receiving.  He may well always be an outsider but maybe it is this that should interest us the most.   The journalist with me yesterday morning was not a Zoffany fan but I was not deterred by his initial despondency and I’m pleased to say that, partly thanks to my infectious enthusiasm, by the end of the exhibition he was a convert.

Zoffany’s works are about human behaviour, covering all aspects of 18th century society.  Not enough people know about Zoffany but through these 60 or so paintings and a selection of drawings and prints it becomes easy to argue his importance to the artistic culture and heritage of the 18th century.  The catalogue is a beautifully designed book providing an in-depth look at his career.

I came out feeling calmer and ready to tackle the day, immersed into Zoffany’s 18th century society.

Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed is at the Royal Academy from Saturday 10th March until 10th June 2012, www.royalacademy.org.uk.

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