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Scenes of Fashionable Life

Johan Joseph Zoffany (Frankfurt 1733-London 1810)

Queen Charlotte (1744-1818) with her Two Eldest Sons 1764

Oil on canvas | 112.2 x 128.3 cm (support, canvas/panel/stretcher external) | RCIN 400146

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This painting shows the Princes appearing only fractionally older than the painting of George, Prince of Wales and Frederick, later Duke of York at Buckingham House (Royal Collection), suggesting that both works must have been on the artist’s easel simultaneously. This might explain why the head of the Queen here and in the portrait on the wall of the other painting follow the same pattern. The setting here is also Buckingham House, but this time the King’s apartments on the ground floor garden façade; these were less redecorated and therefore preserved more of the character of the 1702-5 building campaign and can be seen in an anonymous view of the rear of the house painted at this time (Buckingham House, Royal Collection). Zoffany has placed the Queen’s dressing table directly in front of the back door at the centre of the garden façade — the glimpse of formal garden, the height of the aperture and the fenestration of the rooms visible beyond admit of no other explanation. This is clearly a very unlikely position for a dressing table, and suggests either that the Queen was temporarily occupying these rooms while her apartments above were being redecorated or that Zoffany has stage-managed the scene in order to achieve the effect of vistas opening in every direction. The character of the interior is more heterogeneous and in some cases old-fashioned than the other painting: dark-coloured panelling and door surrounds; pier glasses and table in the style of the 1730s; a French clock by Ferdinand Berthoud, with a case designed by Charles Cressent following a model of the 1730s; Chinese figures; an unidentified overdoor (perhaps depicting Ulysses and Nausicaa) resembling the work of Francesco Zuccarelli; a lace cover for the dressing table, supplied by Priscilla MacEune in 1762 for £1,079 14s; and similarly modern silver gilt toilet set.

The image is a conscious tribute to the great names of Dutch genre painting, and in particular the work of Gerard Ter Borch, as can be seen by comparison with his Lady at her Toilet of c.1660 (Detroit Institute of Art, Michigan). Zoffany has created the same miraculous effect of silk so glossy that it seems to be a collage of silver-paper; like Ter Borch he similarly takes an oblique view of the corner of a room with many other rich stuffs and precious objects; he even follows the same devise of repeating the sitters face in profile in the mirror. The perspective of the enfilade, chequered with light, pays tribute to the brightly lit interiors of Pieter de Hooch or Emmanuel de Witte (c.1617-92).

The moral of Dutch seventeenth-century scenes of ladies dressing is that beauty is transient and that it is vanity to concern yourself with it; hence the extinguished candle on the table in Ter Borch’s painting. Zoffany turns the moral around: Father Time appears scythe-bearing on the clock, but the face reads exactly 2.30pm, which means that the Princes have finished their dinner (which since November 1764 they had taken at 2.00pm) and are visiting their mother, after she has dressed (a process which began at 1.00pm), while their governess waits in the room beyond. The Queen will dine with the King at exactly 4.00pm. The splendid and highly formal character of the Queen’s dress would be regarded at this date not as a sign of vanity but of respect for custom and ceremony; strict time-keeping is the sign of an orderly mistress of a household; playing with children is clearly the action of a devoted and dutiful mother. Even the way in which the view opens onto a formal garden suggests an appreciation of fresh air and Nature which were becoming popular at this time.

In September 1764 Lady Charlotte Finch (1725-1813), the Princes’ governess, ordered ‘a Telemachus Dress for the Prince of Wales and a Turk’s for Prince Frederick’; it is assumed that this is what they wear in this painting. This attire may be associated with a famous educational text of the period, the Telemachus of 1699 by Francois Fénelon, which describes the son of Ulysses travelling round the Mediterranean (like his father) with his advisor, Mentor, and seeing examples of good and bad government. It may be that the contrast of Turkish and classical costume is just fancy dress: the eighteenth-century equivalent of cowboys and indians. Certainly there is a humour in the way that Prince George holds the dog like a warrior with his charger. The empty chair at the left side of the painting, with drum and standard, is surely intended to suggest the person and manly inspiration of the absent King.

Both of Zoffany’s images of the royal toddlers were private: neither was engraved or exhibited at the Society of Arts, though Zoffany must have wished to advertise such a prestigious commission; both seem to have been given to the elder Prince. Both paintings are examples of the artitst’s love of layered reality; of a confusion of real, reflected, painted, carved and embroidered images of the world (something which reaches its apogee in his Tribuna in the Royal Collection). In this dressing-room scene there is more than a suggestion that we may view the world with the eye of a child, lost in wonderment at the phantasmagoria of reality and reflection.

Text adapted from The Conversation Piece: Scenes of fashionable life, London, 2009
  • 112.2 x 128.3 cm (support, canvas/panel/stretcher external)