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The Pirates of Penzance’s Major General pompously sings of how he can ‘tell undoubted Raphaels from Gerard Dows [sic] or Zoffanies’. Good for him, but for the average art-lover, Johan Zoffany (never mind Gerard Dow [sic]) remains a closed book. Opening this one will change all that, not least thanks to the familiar sumptuous Yale production values.

In his heyday in the mid to late 18th century, Frankfurt-born Zoffany enjoyed huge popularity in Britain as a society and court painter, his portraits and family groups displaying consummate polish and good taste. He was also renowned for his theatrical scenes and actor portraits, but music pops up regularly.

Anyone with the remotest interest in period instruments will be entranced not just by the deliciously exquisite way they’re painted, but by the naturalistic manner in which they’re being played, betraying the painter’s own passionate interest in music. Zoffany is known to have owned violins, guitars and a harpsichord. He was a friend to many musicians, including Johann Christian Bach, and apparently met the Mozarts on their 1760s London visit.

Nothing is more ravishing than the famous, fabulous painting of the ineffably musical Sharp Family, around which a small orchestra of instruments is scattered, rendered with an almost photographic realism – not least two horns (which today reside in the Bate Collection in Oxford) and a gleaming serpent. Is there a more delightfully musical 18th-century painting?

Zoffany captures the eagerness and intimacy of domestic music-making in such works as the painting of wealthy gentleman cellist Charles Gore, leaning as he plays over the shoulder of daughter Emilie as she accompanies him on the square piano. But it’s not all high society stuff. The wonderfully freely painted representation of folk musicians in La Scartocciata carries such a sense of being in the room and sharing the sheer uncomplicated delight in playing.

You inevitably have to search around for the musical references in the text, but this a volume to enjoy first and foremost as a visual feast.

ANDREW GREEN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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