Sunday, 19 April 2015

The power of the footnote: the cannibal legend of Johann Zoffany (1733-1810) St Anne's, Kew

Zoffany's grave in St Anne's churchyard, Kew
Once patronised by royalty, high society and the Georgian literary and artistic establishment, Johann Zoffany’s reputation declined in the 200 years following his death to the point where he was considered little more than a minor portrait painter. His star had sunk so low that in 2010 Tate Britain humiliatingly cancelled a scheduled exhibition of his works because they did not believe there would be enough public interest to justify it. Two years later the Royal Academy (of which Zoffany was one of the original members) felt that the tide of public opinion had turned sufficiently for them to risk putting on an exhibition of his portraits and conversation pieces called ‘Johan Zoffany – Society Observed.’ And the reason for the renascent interest in this hitherto obscure Anglo-German painter? A footnote in a book in which Zoffany otherwise merited only a couple of mentions.

Early Zoffany self portrait as David with the
head of Goliath
The book was William Dalyrmple’s “White Mughals” and the footnote, on page 289, reads “The Frankfurt-born Zoffany (1734-1810) lived in Lucknow for two and a half years, staying much of the time with Claude Martin. On his way back to England (where he had settled in the 1750’s) he was shipwrecked off the Andaman Islands. Lots having been drawn among the starving survivors, a young sailor was duly eaten. Zoffany may thus be said with some confidence to have been the first and last Royal Academician to become a cannibal.” Dalyrmple’s footnote is unsourced and the story of Zoffany’s anthropophagic adventure was apparently little known. If Dalyrmple did not have such an impeccable reputation as a scholar many may have suspected that he had made the story up.  True or not it was a good story and by the time of the 2012 exhibition at Tate Britain was so well known that the headlines on print and on-line reviews of the exhibition could not resist alluding to it; the Daily Telegraph “Johan Zoffany: The lovable artist who ate a sailor” for example, or Bloomberg’s “Cannibalism, Bigamy Spice Up Zoffany London Show.”
Zoffany was born Johannes Josephus Zaufallij in Frankfurt in 1733. As a 17 year he walked to Rome where he became the pupil of the fellow German artist Mengs (Zoffany’s earliest known self-portrait, of himself as David leaning casually on the head of Goliath and showing the pebble that felled the Philistine in his hand was attributed to Mengs until the 1980’s when thorough cleaning of the picture revealed Zoffany’s signature).  He spent 12 years in Italy before returning to Germany just long enough to contract an unhappy marriage and taking off for London shortly afterwards. With little or no English he lived in straightened circumstances in Drury Lane and perhaps would have starved to death if someone had not introduced him to the clockmaker Stephen Rimbault for whom he produced painstakingly detailed landscapes on clock faces. He was later taken into the studio of Benjamin Wilson, a painter, where he outshone his master and came to the attention of David Garrick. He was eventually introduced to the Royal Family who were delighted with the charming and urbane painter who like them spoke German. He became a great royal favourite. Always restless Zoffany’s wanderlust took him back to Europe, to Vienna and Italy, almost drove him to the South Seas with Captain Cook in the company of Sir Joseph Banks (he withdrew from the expedition, along with Banks, because of inadequate shipboard accommodation) and spent the best part of three years in British India. It was on this last trip that the cannibalistic episode supposedly took place.
The newspapers of the time noted Zoffany’s return from India – the Oxford Journal for example, on 22 August 1789; “Zoffany, the Painter, arrived a few Days since from India with more Wealth than Health. — He sailed from Calcutta in an Imperial Ship, but put himself on Board the Sir Eyre Coote, at St. Helena.” No mention of shipwrecks and cannibals though. Zoffany’s second wife happened to be a girlhood friend of Mrs Papendiek, Assistant Keeper of the Wardrobe to Queen Charlotte and one of the late eighteenth century’s most incorrigible gossips. She knew the Zoffany’s well, was a neighbour of theirs in Chiswick and mentions them frequently in her memoirs “Court and private life in the time of Queen Charlotte." Mrs Papendiek remembered Zoffany’s return from India – he appeared at her house for a concert by the mulatto violinist George Bridgetower. “No one else in any way peculiarly remarkable was at this meeting except Mr. Zoffany, who surprised us at dinner. He had only recently returned from India, whither he had gone so many years before. We could but be rejoiced at his return, although sorry to see him so changed. For during the voyage home he had been seized with an attack of paralysis, from which he certainly never thoroughly recovered.”

In their 1920 privately printed book (limited to 500 copies) “John Zoffany, R.A.: his life and works 1735-1810,” Lady Victoria Manners and G.C. Williamson draw very heavily on Mrs Papendiek’s account of Zoffany’s return from India, quoting in full her account of the Bridgetower evening. The authors break off in the middle of Mrs Papendiek’s account to interpolate an incident apparently never publicly revealed before and which is related “according to the traditions in the family, which are said to rest upon fact…” The incident is the first account in print of the Zoffany cannibal legend and is presumably where William Dalrymple came across it. The Manners/Williamson version of the story reads:

Of that journey home we have heard of but one incident, and that relates to a terrible experience the travellers had in the Indian Ocean. The vessel was wrecked and the passengers escaped in boats, but that in which Zoffany was, came short of food, and according to the traditions in the family, which are said to rest upon fact, lots were cast on the boat as to who should be killed; and eventually one sailor, who was in a very weak state, either succumbed to his injuries or was put out of his misery and the others had to eat his flesh, roasted in some primitive fashion, in order to keep themselves alive.

Whether this horrible occurrence took place on the boat, or on an island is not clear, but it is generally said to have happened on one of the Andaman Islands; and it is stated that the experience had such an effect on Zoffany that he from that time had a melancholy cast of countenance, and was very different in every respect from the jovial, enthusiastic, gay man he had been in India.

A late self portrait by the alleged anthropophage surrounding himself with various memento
 mori including the skull, hour glass and a book on the brevity of life and the longevity of Art 

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