by Penelope Treadwell
Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 8 (1999)
On 23 August 1973, a blue plaque was placed on the wall at the front entrance of Number 65 Strand-on-the-Green, known as Zoffany House. The plaque reminds us that the artist Johan Zoffany lived there from 1790-1810, but, as many passers-by are heard to comment, ‘Who was Johan Zoffany’? In the 20th century, his paintings are familiar to a rather small circle of art lovers, collectors and exhibition visitors, but in late 18th-century England, his work made him rich and famous.
Zoffany was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1733. His childhood was spent at the Court of the Prince of Thurn and Taxis in Regensburg where his father was Court Architect. Here, in this ancient city on the banks of the River Danube, Zoffany was apprenticed to a local artist, Martin Speer, and in 1750 made his first visit to Rome where he came under the influence of the important German painter, Anton Raphael Mengs. About seven years later, he returned to Germany to work as Court Painter to the Archbishop Elector of Trier. On 3 March 1760, records show that the artist was paid for decorations at Trier, but it would appear that his earnings at that time did not keep pace with his ambitions – a history that would repeat itself more than once during his time in Chiswick – and he decided to try his fortune in England.
Zoffany, newly married, arrived in London accompanied by his wife, Antonie Eiselein, the daughter of a court councillor from Würzburg. Her modest dowry had provided the means for the voyage and for the purchase of ‘a suit a la mode, a gold watch and a gold-headed cane’, an extravagance which hid for a time the dire poverty of those early months; but the Zoffanys’ arrival in 1760 coincided with the accession to the throne of George III and his German queen, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz and it was her patronage that quickly made Zoffany one of the most fashionable painters of the day.
Before the artist was brought to the attention of the Court, however, David Garrick, anxious to promote his position as the nation’s leading actor, recognised in Zoffany a worthy successor to his old friend, Hogarth, who had painted his portrait in the role of Richard III in 1745. Now with Hogarth ill and four years from death, Garrick found an artist who could develop and expand Hogarth’s great ‘experiment in theatrical “history” painting’ and display him in a variety of his most famous dramatic roles – and Zoffany did not disappoint. His theatrical paintings are among his finest achievements.
London Stile House
In January 1763 Zoffany was living in the Great Piazza, Covent Garden while attending Hogarth’s St Martin’s Lane Academy. The influence of the Sergeant-Painter to the King upon Zoffany’s work is plain to see. It may be that the German first learned about Chiswick through Hogarth’s residence there because a year later – the year of the great artist’s death – he became a near neighbour of the Hogarth household renting London Stile House, a substantial property on the main road to Brentford with a large garden and meadow of almost eight acres, set back from the north bank of the river east of Kew Bridge. We have some idea of the property from Thomas Rowlandson’s watercolour, ‘Zoffany’s House in Chiswick’ which shows the house across the river from the opposite bank.
The location of the property was perfect! Zoffany was a man with an acute eye for the main chance and with the Court at Kew almost in sight he could remain close to his Royal patrons and to Garrick’s riverside home in Hampton.
In the year Zoffany moved to London Stile House he painted two of his finest Royal portraits, The two young princes, George, Prince of Wales and Frederick, later Duke of York and Queen Charlotte – with her two eldest sons. Both are in the collection of HM The Queen at Windsor. But these and many other important commissions completed in 1764 did not apparently keep him free from debt for during his first year in Chiswick; an entry in the Churchwardens’ Deficiency Accounts reveals that ‘Mr Zaphney owed four shillings’.
Zoffany was extravagant, flamboyant and a lavish entertainer. Despite the money made from his work during the years at London Stile House, by 1772 the records show that once again he owed money on the property – eleven shillings and sixpence. Partly to overcome his mounting debts, he accepted a commission from the Queen to travel to Florence to paint the masterpieces in the picture gallery in the Uffizzi known as ‘The Tribuna’. On Monday, 17 August 1772 ‘all the genuine and neat Household Furniture, Wines, Plate, Linen, Pictures, Prints, China, a Bay Gelding, and other Effects of John Zoffany, Esq.’ were sold at auction by Mr Christie.
Strand on the Green
Seven years later Zoffany returned to England. This time he was accompanied by his second wife, Mary Thomas, and their daughter, Maria Theresa. They moved into an address in Albermarle Street, where their daughter, Cecilia Clementina was born. In the summer of that year, Zoffany returned to Chiswick with his family to rent Number 69 Strand-on-the-Green, and here Mary continued to live whilst her husband was away in India for seven years, making his second fortune. When he returned in 1789 he bought the copyhold of the house together with the adjacent properties, nos 65, 66, 67 and 68. The Zoffanys’ reunion also added two more daughters to their family.
Strand-on-the-Green brought back to Zoffany echoes of a childhood lived on the banks of the Danube. His boat – a ‘shallop’ painted green, pink and drab – lay moored close to his property. Zoffany’s grand-daughter, Mrs Oldfield, described it to his biographers, Lady Victoria Manners and Dr G Williamson, in 1920 as ‘a decked sailing vessel, elegantly and conveniently fitted up’ while the servants were put into a magnificent livery of scarlet and gold with blue facings – the heraldic colours of the coat-of-arms that had been granted to him by the Empress Maria Theresa – while on the shoulder-knots appeared the Zoffany crest of a sprig of clover in silver between buffalo’s horns rising out of a baron’s coronet. Mrs Oldfield remembered Zoffany’s summer-house built opposite the house, fastened onto a tree and projecting partly over the river, and that there was an overhead passage made from across the footpath in order to reach it.
But Zoffany’s grand lifestyle did not represent Strand-on-the-Green as a whole. It was also a thriving fishing village which the artist celebrates in his monumental painting of The Last Supper by painting the portraits of local fishermen as the Apostles. The painting now hangs in St Paul’s church in Brentford. Tradition has it that Zoffany has painted himself as St Peter while Judas is the image of a lawyer with whom the artist had a violent quarrel. The young St John is supposed to have been taken from a portrait of Mary Zoffany as a young woman, but this is doubtful and further research is likely to reveal a much more interesting story.
Sometime during the earliest months of their marriage, Zoffany’s first wife Antonie had left him and returned to her family in Germany. Mary was not a woman to give up so easily. Discovering that she was pregnant, she made certain to include herself amongst his baggage as he set out on the journey to Florence. Rumour has it that the couple were married by a Catholic priest in Genoa. If this was the case, the gossips reasoned, then Zoffany was a bigamist because did he not still have a wife living in Germany? Zoffany claimed that Antonie was dead and took great pains to produce papers to prove his case. However, there are still doubts.
The Zoffanys were not married in the Church of England until 1805, only five years before the artist died. The ceremony was conducted, not in the Brentford and Chiswick churches of St George or St Nicholas as might be expected, given Zoffany’s standing within the community and the fact that his daughter Cecilia’s father-in-law, the Reverend Dr Horne, was a prominent member of the Vestry, but instead, the couple were married at St Pancras, where they are recorded as being of that parish, while Zoffany himself is described as a ‘widower’. The witness was a close family friend, Arthur Angelo Newcommonds, who shared, and kept their secret.
It was indeed a substantial secret. Zoffany had been baptised in the Roman Catholic church of St Bartholomew in Frankfurt and on his arrival in London gave the impression of being exceptionally devout, but he must have realised very quickly that to be a Roman Catholic in England at the time would have severely restricted his progress. He therefore publicly turned his back on his church and adopted the lifestyle – and, it was generally presumed, the religion – of a thoroughly English gentleman.
It is not surprising, perhaps, that the gifts Zoffany made of paintings to St George’s Brentford (The Last Supper which is now in St Paul’s) and to St Nicholas (a painting in which King David plays the harp whilst a putto points to the seventh commandment) lacked a certain spirituality. The Daily Chronicle (23 February, 1904) remarked of King David: ‘A more inappropriate subject for an altar-piece could hardly be imagined, and that it should have been either selected by the artist or accepted by the then vicar seems inexplicable’. Zoffany’s standing both as an artist and as an important member of the local community made his gift one which St Nicholas could hardly refuse and it remained hanging in the church until the church was rebuilt in 1892.
Penelope Treadwell used to live at Zoffany House, Strand-on-the-Green. She is currently writing a biography and preparing a catalogue raisonné of Johan Zoffany and his work.