Images above: Johann Zoffany, self-portrait c.1776; blue plaque on his house at Strand on the Green
18th century high society painter, who lived at Strand on the Green
Johann Zoffany (1733-1810) was a German Neoclassical painter, whose works are on show in a number of British Collections such as The National Gallery, The Tate Gallery, and The Royal Collection. He lived at 65 Strand on the Green from 1790 – 1810, where a blue plaque commemorates him.
Originally from Frankfurt, he earned the patronage of royalty not only in Germany, but in England, Austria, Tuscany and India. He travelled widely over two continents but he was an Anglophile and settled here in Chiswick, where he lived for the last twenty years of his life. His success enabled him to buy up four houses at Strand on the Green, one for him and his family to live in and three to rent out.
He was an innovative painter but also a very interesting man. Phrases like ‘a colourful character’ and a man ‘who lived life to the full’ hardly begin to do justice to the life he led.
He had two wives and at least other one long term partner (German, English and Indian) as well as other lovers. He was quite possibly a bigamist. His first wife returned to Germany and he claimed she had died before he married the second, but historians have their doubts about this.
The wife of his first teacher, Frau Speer, described him as “a man entirely free from the prejudices of superstition… with little power of resistance to feminine charms whenever he encountered them”.
Image above: Johann Zoffany’s House, 65 Strand-on-the-Green, where he lived for the last 20 years of his life; photograph by Alanna McCrum
A man of ‘consummate charm’
‘Though marked by an ugly visage and a squint (he) was also a man of consummate charm’ wrote John Brewer in an introduction to an exhibition of his work at the Royal Academy in 2012.
‘He also had a knack for friendship. This served him well in London – where he mixed easily with actors, musicians and men of science – in Italy, where he hobnobbed with nobles and Grand Tourists as well as artists, and in India, where he was admired by Britons and Indians alike’.
Johann Zoffany was Catholic, but realising this wouldn’t help his career in England, kept that quiet. He became an English ‘denizen’ under the royal prerogative of George III. Though he lived for long periods in England from the age of 27, he travelled widely, basing himself in Italy for seven years and later on spending a period of seven years in India.
‘Zoffany was extravagant, flamboyant and a lavish entertainer’ writes his biographer Penelope Treadwell. She notes that he was in debt even when at the height of his success.
‘Zoffany had a penchant for the material world, and an inveterate playfulness and lewd humour that may have been temperamental but also smacked of Epicureanism’ wrote John Brewer. ‘Not many artists painted themselves donning a masquerade costume, surrounded by sexually suggestive objects and images, including two condoms tacked to the wall, as can be seen in his Self-Portrait with a Friar’s Habit, of 1779′.
Image above: Johan Zoffany, Self-Portrait with a Friar’s Habit, 1779. Galleria Nazionale di Parma/Photo Galleria Nazionale di Parma.
A favourite of Queen Charlotte’s
When he first came to England in 1760 with his first wife Antonie Eiselein, it took him a while to establish himself as an artist. He worked painting clock faces and drapery before he was able to get commissions for portraits.
He was lucky that his arrival in England coincided with the accession to the throne of George III and his German queen, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. When she came to England she couldn’t speak a word of English, so no doubt she was delighted to welcome a German painter to court.
According to Matthew Morgan of the National Gallery, who gave a talk about Zoffany for Chiswick Pier Trust, it was the 3rd Earl of Bute, one of Zoffany’s neighbours in Chiswick, who introduced him to King George III. He quickly became a great favourite of the Queen and conversed with her in German.
Once he found favour with the royal household that would automatically have made him one of the most fashionable painters of the day. Zoffany painted this informal portrait of Queen Charlotte with her two eldest sons in the year he first moved to Chiswick. By our standards this is hardly ‘informal’ but by eighteenth century standards it was. The style of his work was part of a new trend for greater informality in portrait painting.
Image above: Johann Zoffany. Queen Charlotte with her two Eldest Sons, 1764-65. The Royal Collection, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II/The Royal Collection © 2011, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Living in Chiswick
When they first came to London the Zoffanys lived in Covent Garden while Johann attended William Hogarth’s Academy in St Martin’s Lane. Hogarth was a friend of David Garrick, the actor, playwright, theatre manager and producer who dominated the London theatre scene in the mid eighteenth century. Hogarth painted several portraits of Garrick and his family, and in the early 1760s, when Hogarth was old and ill, Zoffany took took over the job of promoting him.
Garrick commissioned a series of theatrical portraits, including some of his most successful roles, such as Macbeth. Zoffany’s theatrical paintings are considered to be among his finest achievements.
‘It may be that the German first learned about Chiswick through Hogarth’s residence there’ wrote Zoffany biographer Penelope Treadwell in the Brentford & Chiswick History Society Journal, ‘because a year later – the year of the great artist’s death – he became a near neighbour of the Hogarth household renting London Stile House, a substantial property on the main road to Brentford with a large garden and meadow of almost eight acres, set back from the north bank of the river east of Kew Bridge.
‘The location of the property was perfect! Zoffany was a man with an acute eye for the main chance and with the Court at Kew almost in sight he could remain close to his Royal patrons and to Garrick’s riverside home in Hampton’.
He never spoke English all that well, but he loved living in England. Many of the portraits he painted were of the King’s friends, such as Lord Bute. He exhibited at the Society of Artists from 1762 to 1769 and was a founding member of the Royal Academy, nominated for membership by King George III in 1769.
Image above: Johann Zoffany -The Acamedicians of the Royal Academy, 1771 – 1772. Royal Collection Trust.
Moving to Florence
‘By the 1770s Zoffany was a star’, wrote John Brewer, ‘acclaimed not just for his bold theatrical portraits, but also for his conversation pieces that vividly staged the intimacy of families and friends’.
When asked in Florence about his nationality, his responded that he had been born in Ratisbon, “but I am an Englishman, because in that Country I found protection and Encouragement”.
Brewer thinks it was a troubled personal life and an innate restlessness which made him leave England for Florence. Penelope Treadwell suggests debt and the need to earn more money was a factor. He was commissioned by the Queen to travel to Florence, to paint the masterpieces in the picture gallery in the Uffizzi.
The way John Brewer tells it:
‘Zoffany was planning an escape to the South Seas with Sir Joseph Banks on Cook’s second voyage. When that fell through, he skipped by ship to Italy in 1772, followed by the teenage grisette he had recently made pregnant and who was to become his second wife’.
While based in Italy he was elected to a number of Italian academies, as well as securing important commissions from the Grand Duke and his imperial relatives in Vienna.
Image above: Johan Zoffany, The Tribuna of the Uffizi, 1772-77. The Royal Collection, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II/The Royal Collection © 2011, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Travelling in India
The Queen, reportedly, was not best pleased with his painting. John Brewer writes that the relationship with the royals flourished until 1779 when:
‘the royal couple fell out with Zoffany, in part because the Queen was shocked by the artist’s inclusion of prurient young men and two notorious “finger-twirlers” (homosexual men) among the figures in his masterpiece The Tribuna of the Uffizi (1772-77). They never employed him again’.
That goes some way to explaining why he set off on his travels again in 1783 to the East Indies. He painted portraits of the Governor-General of Bengal, Warren Hastings, and the Nawab Wazir of Oudh, Asaf-ud-Daula and he created an altarpiece of the Last Supper (1787) for St John’s Church of England in Calcutta.
Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match (c.1784-88) is his best known painting from this period. He portrayed himself, seated top right, with his friend Ozias Humphry’s hand on his shoulder.
Johan Zoffany, Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match, c. 1784-88.Tate, London, purchased with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the National Art Collections Fund, the Friends of the Tate Gallery and a group of donors, 1994/Photo © Tate, London 2011.
Finally settling down in Chiswick
When he returned to England he married Mary Thomas in a Church of England ceremony. Mary had gone with him to Italy, but remained in Chiswick while he was off travelling in India.
‘Rumour has it that the couple were married by a Catholic priest in Genoa’ wrote Penelope Treadwell. It’s unclear whether his first wife was dead at that point, but he claimed to have been a widower.
They married in a church in St Pancras in 1805, five years before his death in 1810.
‘The ceremony was conducted, not in the Brentford and Chiswick churches of St George or St Nicholas as might be expected, given Zoffany’s standing within the community and the fact that his daughter Cecilia’s father-in-law, the Reverend Dr Horne, was a prominent member of the Vestry, but instead, the couple were married at St Pancras, where they are recorded as being of that parish, while Zoffany himself is described as a ‘widower’. The witness was a close family friend, Arthur Angelo Newcommonds, who shared, and kept their secret’.
Find out more about the cultural history of Chiswick
Johann Zoffany’s house is one of 19 sites of artistic interest in Chiswick on the Chiswick Timeline Art Trail created by Karen Liebreich and Sarah Cruz of Abundance London. There is also a Trail of Books & Writers, produced by Torin Douglas, Director of the Chiswick Book Festival, a trail around the sites of Georgian Chiswick: In Georgian footsteps, produced by the Brentford & Chiswick Local History Society and William Hogarth Trust, and a guide to Chiswick House and Gardens, produced by Chiswick House and Gardens Trust.
Download the trail maps here:
You can read the Royal Academy article on Johann Zoffany by John Brewer, Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences at the California Insititute of Technology, here.
You can read the Brentford & Chiswick History Society article on Johann Zoffany by Penelope Treadwell here.
The Chiswick Calendar would like to thank the Royal Academy and the other organisations listed in this article for their permission to republish images of the paintings.
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