The German artist Johan Zoffany (1733—1810) had a colorful life. Raised in the court of the princes of Thurn und Taxis, he showed an early interest in drawing and studied art first in Germany, and then in Italy where he spent six or seven years at Rome from the time he was seventeen. When he returned to Regensburg, he was soon appointed court painter. His life took a dramatic turn when he made a sudden, unsuitable, and, indeed, unsuccessful marriage, abandoned Germany and went to London in 1760. The kind of art that was popular in Germany was not to the taste of patrons in London, and Zoffany re-invented himself as a portrait painter, a line in which he became very successful, his sitters soon extending as far as the Royal family. Doubtless he was helped by his court polish and German background. At some point in the 1760s he became friends with Joshua Kirby, but the details are elusive. Mary Webster, in her monumental book on Zoffany, repeatedly affirms their friendship, but does not mention when and how they met. However, the art world in London was small, and the art world at court even smaller, so Kirby and Zoffany would certainly have had many opportunities to meet.
In 1772, Zoffany had planned to go with Joseph Banks as an artist on Captain Cook’s second voyage to the South Seas, but the project foundered on Banks’ excessive requirements for men and equipment. Instead, Zoffany went to Italy with a commission from Queen Charlotte to paint the famous gallery in Florence. Zoffany spent seven years on the task, returning with a picture, and a bill, that did not please the King and Queen. Zoffany stayed in London for a few years before going out to India, where he was enormously successful and made a good fortune. However, life in India was not good for his health, and he returned to England in 1789 and was based there for the rest of his life. He died in 1810 and is buried in the churchyard of St. Anne’s at Kew, along with Gainsborough and Kirby.
One of Zoffany’s portraits from the late 1760s is the rather charming The Reverend Randall Burroughes and his Son Ellis of 1769. Burroughes was a wealthy clergyman from Norfolk and Ellis, his only son was born in 1764.
The book young Ellis is engaged with is Joshua Kirby’s Perspective of Architecture (1761). Zoffany’s copy of this book was auctioned off with the rest of his belongings when he left for Florence in 1772. Zoffany’s portraits were careful compositions arranged to present an idealistic view. In the case of the Burroughes, not only is the setting contrived, but even the representation of the book. Mary Webster notes, “With characteristic pictorial licence, Ellis is shown turning over the frontispiece, designed by Hogarth, but the engraved plate of an arch that can be seen beneath is in reality Plate IV of the second volume of Kirby’s work” (170).
Webster, M. (2011). Johan Zoffany. New Haven: Yale University Press.