Johann Zoffany (1733 1810)

Painter lived in Zoffany House on Strand on the Green

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Johann Zoffany was born in Germany and studied painting in Italy. He came to England about 1760 and at first made his living painting the draperies on other artist’s work and pictures on the faces of clocks. Living in Drury Lane he met the actor David Garrick and painted his portrait. He then painted other actors and scenes from plays usually showing Garrick in his favourite roles also ‘conversation pieces’ showing the 18th century society pursuing their social activities.

He became one of the first members of the Royal Academy in 1768 and perhaps because of his German background was taken up by King George III and Queen Caroline and painted numerous works for the Royal family. He leased a house at London Stile near Kew Bridge (Stile Hall Parade remains) conveniently near the home of the King at Kew Palace and as a protégée of Sir Joseph Banks nearly joined Captain Cook’s second voyage as official artist. He spent several years in Florence where he painted ‘The Tribuna of the Uffiza’ which is still in the Royal Collection.

On his return he found that his type of ‘conversation piece’ picture had become unfashionable and in 1783 went to India where he made his fortune painting Indian princes and expatriate Britons. It’s said that he sold his furniture before setting out and buried bottles of his best port in the garden at London Style. When he returned six years later he found that the house had been demolished and he couldn’t find his port.

He and his family moved to a house on Strand on the Green now called Zoffany House and while living there he painted a picture of Christ’s Last Supper which he presented to St Anne’s Church on Kew Green. It was not accepted. A number of reasons have been suggested that include local fishermen having been used as models for the disciples, that St Peter was a self portrait or that Judas bore a striking resemblance to the Churchwarden at St Anne’s Church. We’ll probably never be sure.

The painting was then presented to St George’s Church in Old Brentford where it formed the altarpiece and was transferred to their new church in 1887. This is the building with the tower opposite Waterman’s Park. When GE Bate was writing in 1948 he pointed out that the painting was dull and dirty probably due to its age and the fact that it was next door to the gasworks and that the building was still lit by gas. He pointed out that it was in need of cleaning, restoring and some protection. When the church was closed in 1959 the picture was transferred to St Paul’s Church where it was cleaned, repaired and re-hung after the restoration and rebuilding of that church in 1991.

Zoffany died in 1810 and is buried in St Anne’s churchyard with his tomb easily visible from the South Circular Road. His paintings have been valued for many years as historical records of life in the 18th century but he is now also appreciated for the charm of his work and recognised as an artist who brought new life to the conversation piece.

Examples of this genre are The Sharp Family who in the picture are holding a musical party on the Thames at Fulham and one of John Wilkes and his daughter, Mary which hang in the 18th century gallery at the National Portrait Gallery. Both pictures feature a shaggy golden dog which it seems was Zoffany’s dog Roamer who accompanied him when he was painting and can be seen featured in some of his other pictures. A good selection of his paintings (copyrighted) can be seen at the National Portrait Gallery

In 2009 a beautifully illustrated book by Penelope Treadwell was published entitled Johann Zoffany. Artist and Adventurer.  I hope they get a copy in the local libraries.

Janet McNamara

January 27, 2010

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