Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Georgian India: Finding Inspiration in the Paintings of Johann Zoffany

Wednesday, February 25, 2015
Isabella reporting,

This week marks the release of my latest historical romance, A Sinful Deception, and as promised, I'm going to be writing several posts featuring the background for the book.

Paintings are a major influence on my writing. The German painter Johann Zoffany (1733-1810) is best known today for his portraits of the British royal family, but he also traveled to India and created a number of fascinating paintings that document Georgian life in that farthest corner of the Empire. This was not the later India of Kipling, and interaction between the English and Indians was much less rigid.

The two girls with a cat, above left, are a detail of a larger family group, and I thought of it often while writing about my heroine and her half-sister, both born in India. The girl on the left is shown not only in fashionable clothing that follows London styles, but her pose, with one leg crossed, is a favorite in elegant English portraiture. In sharp contrast is the girl on the right, most likely a servant, whose posture is more straightforward, and her clothes likely much more comfortable, too.

The unfinished group portrait, lower left, shows English Major William Palmer of the Bengal Artillery with his jewel-covered wife, Bibi Faiz Bakhsh Begum, their children, and other members of their family. His pride and devotion are clear, standing protectively over the little group, and another inspiration for my heroine's father and his extended household.

Above left: Detail, Colonel Blair and his Family with an Indian Ayah, by Johann Zoffany, 1786, The Tate.
Bottom left: Detail, The Palmer Family, by Johann Zoffany, 1785, The British Library. For much more about The Palmer Family painting, please see the British Library's blog post here.


Karen Anne said...

Drat :-) This post is probably a spoiler, no?

Wonderful painting, though. Any idea why it was not finished?

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

No, not really a'll have to read the book to find out. ;)

Don't know why the second painting wasn't finished. Most likely the usual reasons: someone changed their mind or didn't pay the artist. It's still wonderfully evocative, finished or not.

Lucinda Brant said...

Zoffany's Palmer family portrait is wonderful for inspiration! :) Did you read White Mughals by William Dalrymple as part of your research, too?
According to the British Library, the reason the family portrait remained unfinished is because it was painted between Zoffany’s arrival back in Lucknow in April 1785, and Palmer’s departure in July for Calcutta.
I'm so glad it's back on display! :)

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Thanks for the word on the painting, Lucinda - I did know that it was once again on display since so many visitors wanted to see it.

OF COURSE I read "White Mughals" by William Dalrymple! One of my absolute fav books; he's such a wonderful writer & historian, and so good at making complicated history fascinating and readable.

Anonymous said...

Does the book opm White Mughals deal with mixed race families and children? A member of an academic list was looking for referecnes to the treatment of children ( and wives) of mixed marriages.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Anonymous, that issue is very much at the heart of "White Mughals." Woven throughout the book are the love story, marriage, and ultimate tragedy of James Achilles Kirkpatrick, the British Resident at Hyderabad, and Khair un-Nissa, the grand-niece of the prime minister of the Nizam of Hyderabad. There are lengthy references and bibliography, too, so it would make an excellent reference for your colleague. :)

Unknown said...

The Palmer conversation piece is not by Zoffany but by AW Devis - the baby Hastings Palmer was born in Calcutta

Two Nerdy History Girls. Design by Pocket