Spattered with comic asides: "Colonel Mordaunt's Cock Match" by Johan Zoffany (RA)
Some artists are better suited to black legends than others: Caravaggio, for example, killed a man in a duel; Salvator Rosa supposedly lived with bandits; Théodore Géricault painted still lifes of the severed heads and limbs of executed criminals; and when Goya's body was exhumed his head was missing. The Georgian portraitist Johan Zoffany, 1733-1810, seems an unlikely member of this dark fraternity. Yet he lived not just to see two erroneous announcements of his own death but on his way back to England from India he was reported to have been shipwrecked and forced to draw lots to decide which of the survivors would be killed and eaten. Zoffany was lucky: it was a young crew member who drew the short straw. This gave the painter the unique distinction of being both a Royal Academician and a cannibal.
The story has only been disproved relatively recently but that it was believed at all says something about the way in which this German-born painter to George III was regarded, for all his court connections, as never quite fitting in. The golden age of British art was his age too but while Reynolds, Gainsborough, Turner et al have long occupied centre stage, the hybrid Zoffany has been relegated to the margins. His role in perfecting the particularly British genre of the conversation piece is acknowledged, and social and costume historians mine him for the detail contained in his high-finish pictures, but his variety and accomplishment remain underappreciated.
The Royal Academy's new exhibition of more than 60 of his paintings will show whether he deserves to be overlooked and it will also throw light on this most engaging man. Just as his art is full of incident and colour, so his character and life were far richer than those of many of his peers.
He was born Johannes Zauffaly in 1733 near Frankfurt. In his teens he walked to Rome to further his knowledge of art and trained with the Neoclassicist Anton Raphael Mengs who transmitted some of his pictorial clarity though mercifully not his idealising pallor. Zoffany came to England in 1760 after a stint working for the Prince-Archbishop and Elector of Trier. The painter may have been lanky, pockmarked and with a squint but he was also extremely sociable and charming. He was very fond of pretty girls too and London, he decided, held more prospects for a man of his stamp than a minor German court.
Once in England he was taken up by a remarkable span of British society. He painted musicians and actors (David Garrick many times, both on stage and playing the gentleman in real life); old money and new; George III and Queen Charlotte (the German connection helped); the massed ranks of the Royal Academicians; and well-to-do family groups. He painted allegories too and some remarkable contemporary history pictures, including a pair of grisly scenes of the French Revolution and Captain Cook at the moment of his death.
His two most spectacular canvases, The Tribuna of the Uffizi, 1772-77, and Colonel Mordaunt's Cock Match, 1784-86, show his remarkable gifts for multi-figure compositions. The former depicts a cluster of notable milordi scrutinising the treasures of the Uffizi Gallery, the latter — painted in India where he went in search of money and a change — a rowdy crowd of Englishmen and Indians at a cock fight.