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From the Royal Academy to The Queen


The Academicians of the Royal Academy


Oil on canvas | 101.1 x 147.5 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external) | RCIN 400747

Zoffany’s image similarly shows the ‘back-of-house’ clutter and the intellectual dignity of working artists, where fine gentlemen sit on packing cases and converse with polish and good-humour. He depicts the Academy’s life-drawing room at Old Somerset House, with casts round the walls, a simple platform for the model (with chalk to mark out the pose), a single oil lamp suspended from the ceiling and a circular table running round the room with individual shaded candleholders for each of the artists. A painting attributed to Zoffany of c. 1761 of the life-school at St Martin’s Lane (Royal Academy of Arts, London) shows the same arrangement more clearly. Here Zoffany depicts the circular table in a very summary and interrupted way, with only one candle-holder visible towards the left edge, presumably because it would otherwise have inhibited the picturesque grouping of this very animated conversation.

The artists are clearly setting up the life-class, and perhaps discussing its importance, rather than actually drawing from the nude. Zoffany uses the scene to convey the importance of the intellect in art and to suggest by a series of visual clues what these artists might find to talk about. They might discuss the importance of the antique and its survival in the sculpture of the Italian Renaissance, pointing to the objects displayed around the walls; or the need to find that beauty for oneself in nature, pointing to the boy unconsciously adopting the pose of the ‘Spinario’, a famous antique statue, as he undresses. They might discuss the relative merit of sculpture and painting, observing the fragment of marble torso and Zoffany’s prominently displayed palette balancing each other at either side of the composition. They could observe the complex outlines of the shadows on the wall or the Newtonian spectra visible in the flames of the oil lamp reminding them that all colour derives from light. Even the hourglass timing the duration of each pose held by the models must remind us of the idea that life is short and art is long.

The ideas about art implied by these elements derive ultimately from Italy; however there is a difference between the concept of artistic nobility as envisaged by the Italian Renaissance on the one hand and the English Enlightenment on the other. This London academy has no place for saturnine Michelangelesque brooding; English artists are cheerful, clubbable, fraternal, polite, gentlemanly and chatty. Their have esprit in the sense of wit as well as (in some cases) genius. Zoffany’s group is conceived as a pastiche of the most famous intellectual conversation in art, Raphael’s School of Athens, with Reynolds and William Hunter playing the parts of Plato and Aristotle. The reference is not quite an outright parody; nor is it a solemn tribute. Zoffany’s painting is more a good-humoured mock-heroic version of the School of Athens. The members of the ‘School of London’ are as resistant to subordination as any Greek: Sir Joshua Reynolds, the President, recognised by his ear-trumpet, with which he is listening to the ideas of his fellows, is not the most central or prominent figure in the group, but rather a ‘first among equals’.

Chinese artist Tan-che-qua (fifth from the left), happened to be in London during the period Zoffany was working on the painting. On the 7 May 1771 the Leeds Intelligencer reported that 'Mr Chitqua, the celebrated Chinese Artist... was conducted to the Royal Academy at Somerset House, where he not only met with a polite reception, but had the honour to have his portrait introduced by Mr Zoffanii, into a captial picture of the Members of the noble institution...'. In 1770 Tan-che-qua exhibited  a portrait bust at the annual Royal Acadmey Summer Exhibition. His inclusion here may also be a reminder of the writer of the Royal Academy’s Professor of Ancient History, Oliver Goldsmith (?1730-74), who published a series of letters, with the title 'The Citizen of the World', written by an imaginary Chinese man visiting England. Letter no. 104 (26 January 1761), discussing learned societies, seems relevant here, especially when we remember the conscious decision of the Royal Academy to restrict membership to practising artists, excluding gentleman connoisseurs:

‘A philosophical beau is not so frequent in Europe [as in China], yet I am told that such characters are found here. I mean such as punctually support all the decorums of learning, without being really very profound or naturally possessed of a fine understanding . . . Such men are generally candidates for admittance into literary clubs, academies, and institutions, where they regularly meet to give and receive a little instruction and a great deal of praise. . .But where true knowledge is cultivated, these formalities begin to disappear; the ermin’d cowl, the solemn beard and sweeping train are laid aside; Philosophers dress, and talk, and think, like other men’

Although depicted as part of a royal commission celebrating the formation of a royal academy, this is a group of artists who dress, talk and think like other men.

Text adapted from The Conversation Piece: Scenes of fashionable life, London, 2009

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