Johan Zoffany RA, 'The Sharp Family', 1779-81. By courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London, and the Lloyd-Baker Trustees. Bad boy behaviour, the whiff of scandal, weird sexual antics. No, it’s not ‘Sensation’, it’s Johan Zoffany RA, whose colourful life (1733–1810) and art demonstrate that the Georgian age was not always gracious and the path to artistic success never did run smooth. As Professor John Brewer writes,
‘Zoffany was something of a libertine… Not many artists painted themselves… surrounded by sexually suggestive objects and images, including two condoms tacked to the wall.’
As this revelatory exhibition shows, there is more to Zoffany’s work, particularly his group portraits of polite society – known as conversation pieces – than meets the eye. Unlike Reynolds or Gainsborough, who focus on idealised beauty, Zoffany zooms in on real-life expressions, quirky behaviour, humorous vignettes and the tangled web of relationships in works such as The Sharp Family, and the art-loving Grand Tourists in the Uffizi. Co-curator Martin Postle guides us
through Zoffany’s group portrait of fellow founding members of the Royal Academy, a composition that wryly evokes Raphael’s School of Athens and provides a who’s who of the eighteenth-century British art world.
When the RA was founded in 1768, its first President, Sir Joshua Reynolds, sought to achieve two goals: to provide a dedicated public showcase for contemporary British art and to create a professional art school to nurture future generations of British artists. Neither of these existed at the time. Today we are surrounded by museums, galleries and art schools, but the RA still serves as an important independent champion of the arts. Our new President, the painter Christopher Le Brun (whose work can be seen at the London Original Print Fair)
believes the RA should be recognised as a place where art is made as well as shown, and he will discuss this further in our summer issue. The RA Schools are a case in point. Now among the country’s most important art schools, they are unique in remaining free and offering a three-year postgraduate course. Their 'Premiums'
exhibition of work by second-year students provides a rare opportunity to glimpse their activity.
As for showcasing contemporary British art? Well, David Hockney RA’s blockbuster exhibition of paintings of his beloved Yorkshire landscape looks set to become the most popular show ever staged at the RA. Co-curator Marco Livingstone gives us a behind-the-scenes look
at how it was put together.
The Hockney show seems to have become essential viewing for the nation, which suggests that it is appealing on a level beyond art to something deeper in the collective British psyche, perhaps a desire to return to some prelapsarian state where we bask in the pleasure of looking at landscape. He invites us to see a bigger picture, to immerse ourselves in nature. Eve may have bitten the apple, but stand in the midst of Hockney’s Arrival of Spring in Woldgate and it might never have happened. This is not Eden or Arcadia, it is Yorkshire in 2011 – we know that people and traffic, global warming and financial meltdown might be around the corner, but their clamour has no place here.
Walking through the galleries, I am reminded of R.S. Thomas’s poem 'The Bright Field', which urges us not to hurry on but to turn to notice small moments of grace: ‘I have seen the sun break through to illuminate a small field/for a while, and gone my way/and forgotten it. But that was the pearl/of great price, the one field that had treasure in it.’ In Woldgate, Hockney has found his treasure and illuminates us with his vision.