Tag Archives: Royal Academy

Zoffany’s Resignation Letter

The late 1760s was a bad time for the Society of Artists. Riven by factions, it was failing. A dissident group, including most of the prominent artists broke away and persuaded the king to found a Royal Academy. In a vain attempt to forestall this, the Society of Artists made Kirby its President, presumably on account of his good relationship with George III. George did not stand with Kirby, however, and he was forced to deal with the defections of many of his friends to the new academy. Among those who left the Society was Kirby’s friend, Johan Zoffany, who submitted the following letter of resignation, in one epic sentence.


Sensible of the Regard shewn me by you, and the directors & fellows of the Incorporated Society of Artists, by their Unanimity in re-electing me a director of the Society for the present year, as well as in their Choice of me into the Committee for the Governance of the Academy: it is with Great regret that I am Constrain’d to Acquanit you, that my business requires me, very soon, to leave England for some time, & consequently must deprive me of all Opportunities of attending on the Affairs of the Society, & also being Sensible, that there are many very ingenious Gentlemen Amongst us who are equally desirous to give all possible attention for the promoting the welfare of so Useful an institution, & that my Continuance in the direction & in the Committee, during my Absence, will be attended with inconvenience to the Body by keeping such other Gentlemen from giving the necessary Assistance, I must beg leave of You & the Society to resign my Appointments. Assuring that I am with the Greatest Respect for you & the Society in General,


Your most hble servant

Johan Zoffany

November 22nd, 1769.

The letter has none of Zoffany’s characteristic linguistic eccentricities and certainly was not written by him, although he did sign it (Webster, 248). Whatever Zoffany’s plans were in November 1769, he did not leave the country for several years, which exposed him to a certain amount of criticism, especially when the King nominated him for the Royal Academy on December 11.




Webster, M. (2011). Johan Zoffany. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Charles Catton

Charles Catton the elder (1728—1798) subscribed to the first edition of Kirby’s Method of Perspective, where his name is starred as a member of the Academy of Painting. Catton in some ways had a career that paralleled Kirby’s. Where Kirby was from Suffolk, Catton was from Norwich in Norfolk. They were both coach painters, Kirby leaving that work when he moved to London, while Catton went on to become coach-painter to George III, although sadly not in time to work on the famous Gold State Coach. Coach painters had to paint the coats of arms on the doors of the coach, and Catton introduced an innovation to this kind of heraldic painting with naturalistic animals such as lions as the supporters, instead of the simpler ‘heraldic’ style of animals (note the lion in his self-portrait).

In the 1760s he was a regular exhibitor at the annual exhibitions of the Incorporated Society of Artists, but the political in-fighting of the late 1760s that saw the foundation of the Royal Academy saw him as a founding member, nominated by George III. He also went on to become Master of the Painter-Stainers Company in 1783.

Norwich Museum recently acquired a bound sketchbook of Catton’s containing 143 drawings.

One significant difference between Catton and Kirby, is that Catton was reportedly one of 35 children.

Here is a Norfolk landscape of Catton’s, now owned by the National Trust.

A self-portrait by Catton is at the Yale Center for British Art.

Yale also has a less-serious, but rather fun, late print of his called The Margate Hoy.

Kirby and the Carthaginians

In the hierarchy of art as understood in the 18th century, at the pinnacle was history painting. From the 1740s to 1760s, English portraiture developed rapidly and became popular, however, those who could afford history painting (which tended to be large) mostly still looked to the Continent for their artists. In 1768, George III commissioned a series of history paintings from Benjamin West (from Pennsylvania). One of these was The Departure of Regulus, painted in 1769.

This was a time of turbulent politics among London artists. Kirby had been roped in as president of the Society of Artists, but a rival group led by Sir William Chambers (Kirby’s boss) was in the process of founding the Royal Academy (without Kirby’s knowledge). Reynolds was to be its first president, followed by West.

The anecdote below occurs in a number of forms, this one is taken from Northcote’s Life of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Many such anecdotes are burnished over time, but the dates are plausible and this picture was shown in the first 1769 exhibition. If the identification is correct, the participants, who would have known their history, doubtless appreciated the irony.

It was just about this time that Mr. West had finished his picture of the subject of Regulus, which was painted by the command of the King, and, on the morning appointed by his Majesty, he went with it to the palace in order to shew it to him, when the King was graciously pleased to approve of it highly: and at the time, whilst his Majesty was looking at the picture with Mr. West in the room, they were informed by a page, that Mr. Kirby was without waiting for his Majesty’s commands. He was immediately sent for, and, on his entrance, the King directed his (Mr. Kirby’s) attention to the picture, asking his opinion of it; Mr. Kirby commended the picture much, and particularly that part which fell under his own province, to wit, the perspective as in that science Kirby had been the King’s instructor. Kirby asked who was the painter of so good a picture, when the King pointed to Mr. West as the artist who had done it. Mr. Kirby then observed, that such a work ought most certainly to be seen by the public at large, and hoped his Majesty would permit it to be in the exhibition of the incorporated society of Artists. The King answered, that it was his pleasure that it should be exhibited, but it most certainly should be at his own Royal Academy Exhibition. At these words poor Kirby appeared to be like one thunder-struck, and just ready to drop on the floor; it was the first confirmation he had received of the report, which before he had considered as unfounded, and did not believe. It has been said, and supposed by many, that this circumstance so much affected his mind, that he actually died soon after, of the extreme mortification it gave him.

Poor Kirby. He did survive the mortification for five years, though.

To brush up on your history of Regulus, click here.