Johann Zoffany, cockfighting, a transvestite magistrate and that “Last Supper”

Johann Zoffany was one of those men who fulfill every suspicion ordinary people might have about the freewheeling nature of artists in general. He was a German artist who moved to England in 1760 as a 27 year old. His patrons included the nobility and the royals for a while . He had an amazing ability to paint his blue blooded subjects going about their business in daily life in a way that everyone could relate to; a life devoid of the pomp that was the face presented to the public, perhaps playing with children and sharing a quiet moment with a beloved pet as in his famed Queen Charlotte and Her Two Eldest Children. He had a film maker’s eye for detail. But sometimes this got him into trouble. In fact his luck as a Royal artist came to an end when he returned from Florence with The Tribune Of The Uffizi, a painting in which he had included a number of British residents of Italy who were not exactly approved of by the establishment. This included the painter Thomas Patch who was a known homosexual and thus not an appropriate inclusion in a painting for the queen.


“Queen Charlotte and Her Two Eldest Children”

After this debacle he found it hard to find a patron for his work and planned to join Captain Cook on a voyage. But in a piece of extraordinary luck for Indians, he ended up going to India where he found himself in Lucknow during the same time that Warren Hastings was the British representative. He began painting scenes from the lives of the Indians as well as the British residents of the time. Crisscrossing India often, he painted in Lucknow, Delhi and Calcutta as well as while travelling between these cities. These paintings formed what are best described as ‘conversation pieces’, scenes of day to day life; whether during the planning of menus as in his painting of Colonel Polier, the Swiss engineer to the Nawab who had a number of Indian wives or biwis; a child playing music as in the painting of Colonel Blair and the infamous Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match, all designed as art in the form of theatre.

Col Blair

“Col. Blair with his Family and an Ayah in an Interior”

The cockfighting scene in Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match was painted on a fifteen hundred pound commission by Hastings, a man who was in some strife already in Britain while it was being painted. This may account for his absence from the painting although he was present for the occasion on the 5th of April, 1784. The piece includes a number of the other British and Frenchmen who frequented the court of Nawab Asaf-ud-daulah. Claude Martin who had four biwis and several mixed race children is seen seated on the couch while the Nawab himself is shown arguing with Colonel Mordaunt, who was head of security for Hastings but also the man in charge of the Nawab’s entertainments. The British had an insidious way of undermining the authority of the Nawab which was tenuous at best anyway by surrounding him with men who had the same character flaws. Mordaunt shared the same taste for coarse entertainments and brought British fighting cocks to India although cockfighting was frowned upon in Britain. In the middle of the painting behind the Nawab, a young boy is being fondled by a man much to the anger of another in a red turban. In one incredibly detailed painting, Zoffany manages to capture the essence of the battle between Europeans over India that was being played out in the court of the Nawab and the decadence of the setting. The rest of the painting is peopled by nautch girls, biwis or Indian wives of the Europeans such as East India Company employees including Robert Gregory to the far right of the painting in a blue coat with a white bird in hand. Gregory had been disowned by his father in England for taking part in the very same sport.

Colonel Mordaunt's Cock Match c.1784-6 by Johan Zoffany 1733-1810

“Col. Mordaunt’s Cock Match”

After Hastings was recalled to England in 1785, Zoffany lost his position as artist of note again as people associated him with the dishonoured Hastings. During this period, he painted the most unusual altar piece for St John’s Church or Pathurey Girja in Calcutta. This version of the Last Supper might have been another of Zoffany’s satires as it depicts 13 members of fashionable Anglo-Indian society as Christ and his disciples, including a transvestite police magistrate W.C. Blacquiere as St John, a Greek priest Father Parthenio as Christ and the auctioneer William Tulloh as Judas. This did not sit well at all with the new middle class proprieties of the Cornwallis administration. Zoffany stayed in Calcutta only till 1787. He then returned to Lucknow and left India for the final time in 1789.


“Last Supper” with an Indian touch

“The painting is not an exact replica of Leonardo’s masterpiece,” one modern-day Indian scholar has noted.

On his way back, he was shipwrecked in the Andamans.

As William Dalrymple tells us in White Mughals, he survived through an act of cannibalism; “Lots having been drawn among the starving survivors, a young sailor was duly eaten.”

Thus Zoffany also holds the honour of being the first and hopefully the last British painter to have turned cannibal.

Sources: The net.

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