Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Royal Academy: Johan Zoffany RA :Exhibition “Society Observed”

** Update 7/4/2012

Zoffany's paintings capture much of society at the time.  It is interesting that Zoffany records lectures given by Professor William Hunter on anatomy to the Royal Academicians.  In the 18th century, the distinction between arts and science may have been less clear cut.  Here is an exchange I had with Athene Donald on her blog concerning Erasmus Darwin and Dr Johnson:

The Zoffany exhibition also covered the role of women or rather the lack of it in gatherings of the Royal Academy for a life-class.  Next door to the RA is the Royal Society of Chemistry, whose new president will be Professor Lesley Yellowlees -

** end of update

The Royal Academy still has the David Hockney exhibition “A Bigger Picture” running and it has proved to be very popular.  ( My post on this exhibition can be found on

With the Hockney taking over the 1st Floor there is a more intimate exhibition on the 2nd Floor in the Sackler Wing of paintings of Johan Zoffany, who was famous as a society and court painter in the late 1700s.

A friend met me at an Underground station and we went to Green Park by Tube.  With my crutch and cane combination I find going down steps a major problem. (I have to manage 39 steps at home) I found getting on an escalator was not too awkward though getting off an escalator is very tricky.  I can do this normally but with a crutch trailing it is painful on stepping off. 

That said we entered the Royal Academy in Burlington House in Piccadilly.  One of the stewards asked me at the steps if I needed any help in the galleries, a kind gesture which I much appreciated.  We took the lift to the 2nd Floor and having been kitted out with audio guide, entered the exhibition.  At this point I was beginning to resemble a scarecrow as I had my sunglasses round my neck, headphones on head, cane in left hand, crutch on right hand, audio controls round my neck and my straw hat on head! 

The audio guide has 5 selected paintings for a detailed geometrical description.  These are aimed at the visually impaired visitor and if you can recognise a large mark by the caption or ask for some help in hitting the right buttons, conveniently push buttons starting with number 5, you have the option of an introduction to the geometry followed by the usual options on art history, curator Martin Postle’s notes and notes by other art historians.  

Zoffany catalogue - a portrait

The first painting in this group was David and Goliath (No 51) The introductory commentary was useful in setting the scene for Zoffany and his earlier commissions from the Archbishop of Trier and an Elector Palatine in Germany.  Classical Greek themes and Old Testament stories were staples of some commissioned work and there is a painting of the Sacrifice of Iphigenia in Aulis.  I studied this play by Euripedes and “saw” it with my father in the National Theatre in London not long after I lost my sight.  Greek plays are ideal for visually impaired people as there are few speaking roles at any one time on the stage. This painting was more crowded but my friend read out the caption and we moved to David and Goliath. The geometry of this painting is very well explained.  It shows David with his torso twisted and his left shoulder twisted to the viewer and the left arm bent at the elbow forming a V shape.  Goliath is slain and David is holding a pebble?

( On my laptop I can just about make out the V-shape on this site:

The next theme is theatrical as Zoffany was on good terms with David Garrick and some of the paintings on display are on loan from the Garrick Club. Garrick was said to be a nightmare as far as sitting for a portrait is concerned.  There are scenes from various plays.  Some are well known some are rarely if ever played today.  There is a scene with Lady Macbeth and her dagger.  The play needed no introduction as all Scottish schoolchildren had to study “The Scottish Play”.  We missed number 52 and had to find it for the description. 

Zoffany had the knack of getting the dramatic, if overacted, point of a drama.  What I found fascinating was that I could make out both the candlelit lighting apparatus and the light shining on the actors on the stage in an almost frozen moment.  This is similar to what I remember of strobe lighting, which was all the rage in my younger days (an advance on the 1960s revolving mirror). Zoffany manages to freeze a moment of action and the audio played a section of the text (husband about to strike wife with dagger).

There are sections with Zoffany in the Royal Academy and with the Royal Family.  There is a painting of a talk with Professor William Hunter from the RA on anatomy.  Another painting shows the RA gathered in a life class, though 2 women are represented by their portraits shown on the wall.   

Zoffany was in demand as a portrait painter and his works also include conversation pieces as well as family groups. There is a portrait of Gainsborough and family groups of the boys and girls of the Earl of Bute; as well as one of the famous Sharp family, who were musicians and celebrities of the time.

A described painting was that of Lawrence Dundas with his family, house and possessions on display.  Dundas had collected 17th Century Dutch paintings and these are shown in the wall in the background and on an adjacent wall.  Zoffany had meticulously painted the paintings on the wall of the painting.  This resembles the new Dutch Galleries at the Wallace Collection or the Torrie Collection of Dutch Paintings on show in the Georgian Gallery in Talbot Rice in Edinburgh.  The painting gives an inventory of the accumulated wealth of some families.  Another painting exhibiting wealth was that of Charles Townlee. 

 Self portrait of Zoffany, surrounded by postcards, inspired by the Dundas painting.

The next theme of the exhibition was Zoffany in India.  There are many paintings of British Colonial officials and some of the East India Company.  Warren Hastings is featured as are some local royals. 

The final paintings show looting in Paris during the French Revolution and the destruction of Paris. No doubt some of the treasures found their way into the collections of some of the more magpie collectors.


A very enjoyable visit.  The Royal Academy are to be congratulated for clear descriptions of the geometries found in each painting of the 5 paintings selected.  I would encourage this development in unescorted visits.   These explanations also stop one becoming a pest if viewing with friends, which forms half the fun in going to the gallery. 

The friend who took me has known me for 32 years and this was the first time we had been to a gallery together since I lost my sight. He also tuned into the visually impaired selections and learned a lot more. The size and aspect of the dimensions are clear as is the navigation of the subjects in the painting.  Lighting is an important feature of the works and Zoffany illustrates lamps of the period.  My sighted friend tuned into the audio descriptions himself and discovered more than he had found on his first visit. While I enjoyed these 5 selected paintings I also enjoyed the others once the captions had been read. 

The Royal Academy offers assistance if you ask for it. This exhibition has a few bottlenecks in common with many exhibitions. It may be a result of timing or an engrossing audio but I found the only hazard was my hat which I ought to have checked and my sunglasses which got tangled with the audio. I bought some postcards and treated myself to a catalogue.

Paintings with full titles

David with the Head of Goliath

Martyrdom of St Bartholomew

Thomas King as Touchstone in ‘As You Like It’

Mr and Mrs Garrick by the Shakespeare Temple at Hampton (today this temple still exists and in the River Thames is a houseboat owned by David Gilmour of Pink Floyd!  Access by local bus R68)

Venus Marina – “recalls frolicsome allegories of French Master Francois Boucher”

David Garrick and Mrs Pritchard in ‘Macbeth’

Dr William Hunter Teaching Anatomy at the Royal Academy – big lamp, stage, audience including Sir Joshua Reynolds

The Portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy – includes Zoffany

David Garrick and Mrs Cibber as Jaffier and Belvidera in ‘Venice Preserv’d’

Three Sons of John, Third Earl of Bute

Three Daughters of John, Third Earl of Bute

The Sharp Family

Sir Lawrence Dundas with his Grandson – paintings by David Teniers the younger and Jan van de Cappelle in the background

Prince Jawan Bakht (Jahandar Singh)

Warren Hastings

Hasan Reza Khan

Royal Academy related posts:

My post on the RA Summer Exhibition 2012 can be found on:

My posts on the David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy can be found on:

My post on the From Paris - a taste for Impressionism exhibition can be found on: