Johan Zoffany: Artist and Adventurer

  • LONDON, United Kingdom
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  • November 30, 2009

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Johan Zoffany: Artist and Adventurer

Published in December 2009 to mark the bicentenary of the artist’s death.

Paul Holberton Publishing is pleased to announce the first comprehensive biography of the portrait painter Johan Zoffany, one of the leading figures of 18th-century British art. Illustrated in full colour with approximately 250 works, many from private collections, this is a major new study of an artist of great importance in his day but largely ignored by current art historical literature.

In his early years in England, Johan Zoffany (1733-1810) was as much in demand as a portrait artist as Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. Following in the footsteps of Hogarth, for whom he had the greatest admiration, he developed the art of the ‘conversation piece’ – the group portrait – and made the genre uniquely his own. As a painter at the court of King George III, he became a particular favourite of the Queen, Charlotte of Mecklenburg, who felt at home with this talented German-born artist who spoke her own language and who depicted her growing young family in a way that was both touching and unusually informal.

From early apprenticeships in Ellwangen and Regensburg, studying under Martin Speer, and Rome where he fell under the spell of Piranesi, Zoffany moved to London, finding work painting pastoral vignettes for the clockmaker Stephen Rimbault. From there he joined the studio of Benjamin Wilson whose passion for the theatre opened the door to London’s leading thespian, David Garrick. Under Garrick’s patronage, Zoffany popularised and perfected the art of the theatrical ‘conversation piece’ which captured the actor on stage in character, thereby acting as his publicist and provider of prints for his doting fans.

After being nominated by the King himself to membership of the Royal Academy of Arts, the artist – dogged by the want of money and need for escape – was offered the chance to accompany the naturalist Joseph Banks on the second Cook expedition to the South Seas, but their ship was deemed unseaworthy and the voyage was cancelled. In desperation, Zoffany turned to the Queen who agreed to send him to Florence to paint the Grand Duke’s renowned collection of paintings in the gallery of the Uffizi known as ‘The Tribuna’.

Seven years and many diversions later, he returned to England as Baron von Zoffany, a title awarded him by the Empress Maria Theresia of Austria for services rendered in the form of a series of portraits of members of her family and grandchildren.

Back in London, he found himself out of favour at court and deserted by the fashionistas whose patronage was now directed towards Thomas Gainsborough, George Romney and Thomas Lawrence. Lured by the possibility of lucrative commissions from Indian rulers and wealthy members of the East India Company, Zoffany voyaged to Calcutta. The painter spent six years in the subcontinent, travelling widely and capturing the lives of the elite of British India.

It is extraordinary, then, that given his key role in the history of 18th-century British art, Zoffany should have been so overlooked by art historical literature. His works hang in our most important private and public collections, yet few know much about this artist whose works they recognise and admire. With this timely and entertaining biography, published to mark the bicentenary of the artist’s death, author Penelope Treadwell redresses the balance, highlighting the significance of Zoffany’s work and revealing the fascinating life of this artist and adventurer.

About the author

Penelope Treadwell has worked as a journalist, television presenter, teacher and art historian, gaining her Masters degrees in 18th-century English Literature (University of London) and Art History (The Courtauld Institute of Art, London). During the 1990s, she lived in Johan Zoffany’s former house on Strand-on-the-Green in Chiswick, London, where she started on a ten-year journey that traced Zoffany’s artistic (and actual) footsteps, painstakingly reassessing existing scholarship and bringing to light important new discoveries of her own.

Johan Zoffany: Artist and Adventurer by Penelope Treadwell
Published by Paul Holberton Publishing, in December 2009

240 × 170 cm, 480 pages, approx. 250 colour illustrations
ISBN: 9781903470 93 0, hardback, £50
ISBN: 978 1907372 04 9, paperback, £30

Sue Bond Public Relations. Tel: +44(0)1359 271085. Fax: +44(0)1359 271934. Email:

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