Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed
Royal Academy of Arts, London 10 March-10 June
What is British art? Well, one thing is certain - it is not necessarily art made by artists born in Britain. From Hans Holbein in the 16th century to Anish Kapoor in the present day, some of the country's most renowned artists have been immigrants.
When the Royal Academy was founded in 1768, 10 of its 34 members were not natives. A year later, their number was swelled by another immigrant, the German-born Johan Zoffany (1733-1810), who almost immediately started work on a group portrait of his fellow academicians (pictured below), which was bought by the institution's patron, George III. Currently on loan from The Royal Collection to the Academy's exhibition of Zoffany's work, the painting provides further testimony to the internationalism of the Georgian art world since it includes, alongside portraits of the likes of Sir Joshua Reynolds and Benjamin West, that of a visiting Chinese sculptor, Tan Chitqua.
No 18th-century artist was more international, however, than Zoffany himself. Having already moved from Germany to Britain via Italy, he was engaged in 1771 to accompany the naturalist Sir Joseph Banks on Captain Cook's second voyage to the South Pacific, but in the event these plans fell through, leaving Zoffany saddled with significant debts. He sought to recoup his finances by returning to Italy to execute a commission from Queen Charlotte to paint The Tribuna of the Uffizi (1772-77). In 1783, he travelled to India, where he hoped - so his fellow academician Paul Sandby reported - "to roll in gold dust", although financial need alone cannot explain his decision.
Both at the time and later, Zoffany's peripatetic career made him a suspect figure in the eyes of some commentators. Widely supposed (on no evidence) to have been of Jewish descent, he was on occasion criticised in distinctly anti-Semitic terms. Now, however, some 200 years after his death, Zoffany is being celebrated for the adventurous spirit, the "wanderlust", that used to count against him. Tellingly, the current exhibition coincides with one at the Tate Britain, London, exploring the relationship between art and migration (Times Higher Education, 26 January). The catalogue makes a virtue of his outsider status, including an essay on the European context of his career as well as two on his Indian sojourn.
Paradoxically, however, he is also characterised as the heir to that most resolutely British of artists, William Hogarth. It is in Zoffany's theatrical scenes - which contemporaries regarded as his finest achievement - that the connection with the older artist emerges most clearly. He owed his first real success in London to the great actor David Garrick, whom Hogarth had painted both in and out of character. Zoffany's painting of Garrick in The Farmer's Return, an "interlude" written by the actor and published with an illustration by Hogarth in 1762, was exhibited to great acclaim at the Society of Artists the same year. Regrettably, the picture has not travelled from Yale (where the current show was first staged) to the Royal Academy, but it is represented by a print.
The inclusion of a number of prints in the exhibition is very welcome, because it helps to convey how Zoffany's career, like Hogarth's, depended on the commercialised culture of London. There is no doubt that it was the new opportunities opened up by this great trading metropolis that attracted so many immigrant artists during this period. The theatre was the great commercial entertainment of the age and, as such, central to British national life, thanks in large part to the freedom of the press and the publicity it provided. The Farmer's Return is a case in point: it revolves around a farmer who has been up to London for George III's coronation and, while there, has seen the current media sensation, the Cock Lane ghost. Zoffany's theatrical scenes owed their popularity to the way that they tapped into this kind of shared cultural experience.
For exhibition visitors today, however, depictions of long-forgotten stage hits are likely to have less appeal than Zoffany's portraits. Here too, he followed in Hogarth's footsteps by specialising in small-scale group portraiture of the kind known as conversation pieces. Of course, many other artists also painted such pictures, but the lively informality and quirky humour of those in the exhibition, notably The Sharp Family (1779-81), certainly call to mind works by Hogarth. Whereas such qualities have traditionally been defined as distinctively British, the catalogue instead draws attention to continental sources and parallels. The playful, indeed stagy, character of many of Zoffany's group portraits suggests that the reasons for any local peculiarities should be sought not in the private domain of British domestic life, as has tended to be assumed, but rather in the public culture of the period, dominated as it was by the theatre.
In any case, the comparison with Hogarth gets us only so far. Zoffany's work is typically on a somewhat larger scale than his predecessor's. Despite a shared concern with detail, his forms are broader, his surfaces smoother. Both at the time and since, these characteristics have led to his being dismissed as a mere reproducer of appearances rather than an artist of any real distinction. When he was in Calcutta, for example, the miniaturist Ozias Humphrey jealously attributed his success to the fact that "people here are ignorant of everything but likeness and smooth finishing".
As the current exhibition makes clear, however, Zoffany's work is in fact highly sophisticated and self-consciously artful. As well as conveying the sheer desirability of luxury goods, the reflections in polished tabletops and other gleaming surfaces reveal a virtuoso exploitation of the qualities peculiar to oil paint. Similarly, the frequent presence of works of art in a depicted interior functions as a meta-level of commentary on the behaviour of the figures, sometimes to subversive effect. His portrait of The Gore Family with George, Third Earl Cowper (c. 1775), for example, shows the 16-year-old Hannah Gore standing in front of an elaborate allegorical painting, which seems to hint at the disreputable past of her much older fiance, Lord Cowper.
Whether all the sexual innuendo that modern scholars have discerned in Zoffany's work was registered by his contemporaries is a moot point. Nevertheless, it is clear that he could sail pretty close to the wind, disastrously so in the case of The Tribuna of the Uffizi. Queen Charlotte was scandalised by the inclusion of a large number of British travellers, most of them engaged in ogling the female nudes in the gallery, and even more by the presence in this all-male company of at least two notorious homosexuals. Himself known to have an eye for pretty women, Zoffany seems to have been at ease in this kind of society, but such predilections set him at odds with the increasingly high-minded and sentimentalised culture of the late 18th century.
Here, surely, lies the fundamental reason why he decided to set out for India at the age of 50 in search of new patrons. Once there, he seems to have felt most at home in Lucknow, among the Europeans in the service of the nawab, Asaf-ud-Daula, its ostensibly autonomous ruler. Many of these men became immersed in Indian life, sometimes developing a serious interest in Mughal culture and often taking native wives and mistresses, as did Zoffany himself. He commemorated Lucknow's hybrid community in Colonel Mordaunt's Cock Match (c. 1784-86), which, in its minute detail, bright colour and flattened space, recalls a Mughal miniature. It is, as Maya Jasanoff puts it in her catalogue essay, "like The Tribuna 'gone native'". Acquired by the Tate in 1994, it also exemplifies British art in the expanded sense now current.
Emma Barker is senior lecturer in art history at The Open University. She is also the author of Greuze and the Painting of Sentiment (2005).