Was Johan Zoffany Chiswick’s most Colourful Artist?

The National Gallery’s Matthew Morgan treated us to a very colourful talk on the subject of royal artist Johan Zoffany. Born in Germany, Zoffany established himself as an artist in London and became a great favourite of King George III, and a founder member of the Royal Academy. He lived in Chiswick for long periods, and his former home at Strand on the Green is easy to spot, thanks to it’s blue plaque.
Starting at the beginning of Zoffany’s career, Matthew explained that his arrival in London in 1760 could not have been better timed for success. The rich and the famous were keen to commission portraits to show off their wealth and status. Zoffany was a prolific networker, and he based himself in Covent Garden, the artistic centre of London at the time. He started painting stage sets and met the leading actor of the day, David Garrick. Garrick commissioned Zoffany to paint portraits of his family and home, and was delighted with the results. Zoffany did not like the classical poses of the day, and instead painted his subjects in a more informal manner.

This new style of painting made Zoffany a success very quickly, and he was able to buy himself a grand house in the ‘countryside’ of West London. He befriended one of his new neighbours, the 3rd Earl of Bute, who introduced him to King George III. Soon, Zoffany was painting the royal family and became a great favourite of Queen Charlotte with whom he conversed in German. This royal patronage gave a huge boost to both Zoffany’s popularity and his bank balance, and he bought three grand houses at Strand on the Green.

Zoffany and his informal portrait style eventually fell out of favour with the royal family, and he found himself in debt to several creditors. He decided to make a quick exit and departed for India where he painted the Raj. After falling ill in India, he returned to the UK, but the boat was shipwrecked off the Andaman Islands. Legend has it that the survivors of the wreck drew lots to eat a crew member! Thankfully, they were soon rescued and Zoffany arrived back in London, but he was unable to ever paint as well again. Zoffany died at home in Strand on the Green in 1810, and his body was laid to rest at St Anne’s Church in Kew. At the end of the talk, Matthew showed the audience a photograph of Zoffany’s tomb… and revealed it’s glaring mistake. Zoffany’s age at death is recorded, in stone, as 87, a decade older than his real age of 77. Somehow Zoffany managed to remain controversial to the very end!

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