I was asked to look at a painting and pronounce whether it is an authentic work by Zoffany, an 18th-century portrait painter.  Is it really his autograph work? As I write his name, my memory conjures up visions of gentlemen and women, in formal or informal poses, in uncarpeted rooms with carefully placed mahogany drop-leaf tables and matching chairs, presenting themselves as they wish to be seen – and judged. The public self. A great painter will also hint at inner layers of personality. I can relax a bit. The painting I am about to see is not for sale. Neighbours of a friend of mine, who bought the portrait at an auction, want to find out more about it.

Johan Zoffany was born in Germany, studied in Rome and settled in England in 1760 when he painted the famous actor David Garrick and members of his circle. The portrait I was looking at could have been of an actor, one of Garrick’s circle. Zoffany was taken up by George III and became famous for his ‘conversation pieces’. He spent some years in Florence in the 1770s painting the work I enjoy most, The Tribuna at the Uffizi. It’s almost a visual satire on the behaviour of the young British on their fashionable Grand Tour to Italy. Florence was the place to look at and buy paintings, while in Rome it was sculpture. Zoffany travelled to India in 1783 and made a conspicuous amount of money painting Indian princes and expatriate Britons before returning to England in 1789.

This portrait looked unexciting but authentic enough. The actor was dressed soberly with what appeared to be a piece of material draped over his right arm which was pushed a bit too far towards his left elbow to be a comfortable pose. It wasn’t clear why the cloth was over his arm. It didn’t look like a cloak. A tricorn – or bicorn – hat was just visible behind his left upper arm, a rather strange position. Perhaps the painting was originally longer and had been cut back into the more conventional portrait size, to fit in with others in the room where it was originally displayed. But was it authentic, or churned out by one of the assistants a successful painter usually employed? Someone had written in what looked like 18th-century script ‘Johann Zoffany’ on a strut at the back, but that could have been added by a dealer.

One is left looking at the way the work is painted – the smooth, even brush strokes were typical of Zoffany’s way of painting. What about its ‘feel’? That’s more difficult to explain.

Not long ago I wandered into a shop with a jumble of mahogany and oak furniture – the ‘brown’ furniture now out of fashion – and saw an oil portrait pushed into a corner. I asked if I could put it on top of a chest of drawers to examine it at eye level. The shopkeeper obliged.

‘Who is it?’ she asked.

‘Raphael’s self portrait in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.’ ‘She was amazed.

‘How do you know?’ I could picture its actual position in a room with one of the same artist’s great papal portraits, this time the Medici pope Leo X, son of Lorenzo il Magnifico, surrounded by sinister-looking cardinals. I have seen it with my students and returned on my own. The shop-keeper was intrigued.

‘It’s a 19th-century copy,’ I added, wondering how I knew – or rather sensed it. There was a Victorian feel about it, difficult to explain. A touch of sentimentality rather than a glimpse of the sitter’s sensibility. Just an indefinable but instant sense of that era’s way of seeing. However minutely the copyist tried to recreate Raphael’s self-portrait he, or she, could not escape the influence of their times. Prince Albert loved the Italian renaissance and collected works from that period, particularly ones by Raphael still in the Queen’s collection. A cultured person in the Victorian era would travel to Italy, pausing in Florence to look at paintings before continuing to Rome in search of sculpture. I wanted to buy it but she raised the price beyond my reach.

Without any documentation to back my judgement, I had to trust my eyes and recall the many works I had seen by the same painter, Raphael or Zoffany, and their contemporaries. This is, I suppose, how one gets a feeling in one’s guts that the work is authentic – or not.

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