New discovery heralds 'Zoffany' at the RA

March 7 2012

Image of New discovery heralds 'Zoffany' at the RA

Picture: BG

Well, where to begin? The classy layout? The excellent catalogue? The varied and invigorating selection of works? The virtuoso display of the dying art of curation? For me, there aren't superlatives enough to describe the new Zoffany exhibition at the RA. Yes, Zoffany may never be in the top rank of artists from his ultra-talented generation. But there are few artists who tell us more about painting and painters in the 18th Century.

Born in Germany, studied in Italy, celebrated in England, and, at the end, almost abandoned in India, this perpetually peripatetic artist and his unprecedentedly varied network of patrons from German kings to Indian maharajahs gives us an unparalleled view into how art was valued and commissioned in the 18th Century. We can see in Zoffany the desire for large formal portraits, for conversation pieces, for subject pictures, for landscapes, for still lifes, for historical pictures, and even religious ones. He could paint the lot. True, the studied control of his paintings may bely a lack of fluency, and even genius in handling oil paint. But he was still capable of producing great paintings, such as the Tribuna [Royal Collection]. What he may have lacked in talent, he made up for in labour.

And in this exhibition, excellently curated by Martin Postle, we can see the whole range of Zoffany's work. Proof of how varied he could be in his approach comes in an exciting new discovery of the above landscape The South Gate of Lal Bagh, Dhaka, dated 1787. This picture was at auction in Sotheby's only last December, where it was catalogued as by Robert Home. I remember standing in front of it and being sure it wasn't by Home (on whom I'm something of an anorak), but I never made the connection to Zoffany. The figures are so unlike his usual figures, more sketch-like and elegant. But there, hanging next this landscape at the RA is another very similar scene by Zoffany which confirms the attribution beyond doubt. The picture was estimated at £60-80,000 at Sotheby's, and seemingly didn't sell (I'd value it at about £250,000 now). It's a great coup for the exhibition, and an important discovery, being one of only three surviving landscapes from Zoffany's time in India. 

But perhaps the most pleasing thing about the show is that it is happening at all. This kind of single artist, scholarly exhibition is seen, at least amongst those who now control  many of our exhibition spaces in the UK, as unfashionable. Now, funders and marketing people want 'thematic displays', onto which you can tag on topics of (dread phrase) 'contemporary resonance'. It should forever be to Tate's shame that they cancelled this exhibition ('too idiosyncratic' apparently), not least when we see the piss-poor effort - 'Migrations' - they have put on in its place. And it should be to the Royal Academy's perpetual credit that they have stepped in and rescued it. I suspect that most of all, however, we have to thank the Yale Center for British Art, who first sponsored the exhibition. Ultimately, of course, we must be grateful to the late Paul Mellon, whose largesse is now almost single-handedly keeping good old-fashioned art historical research in the UK going, not least through the Paul Mellon Centre in London. If it wasn't for his money, these kind of exhibitions, with their spin-offs of new research and discoveries, would most likely not take place any more. So please support the exhibition by going to see it. I promise you won't be disappointed. 

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