Johan Zoffany – questions about his life

In one of our previous blogs we took a look at the famous painting by Johan Zoffany, ‘Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match.  His name cropped again in our research so we thought we’d find out more about the man and his family and came across this book online, which would definitely recommend – John Zoffany, R. A., his life and works. 1735-1810 by Lady Victoria Manners and G.C Williamson.

Zoffany self portrait 1761
Johan Zoffany – Self-portrait 1761

His life and his works appear to be have been very well documented but, in brief, Zoffany was born in Germany, moved to London and married twice. His first wife, Anthonie Theophista Juliane Eiselein, whom he married in the late 1750s, left him at some stage to return to Germany and died shortly after, after which he married for the second time and the couple had 4 daughters. He died 11th November 1810.

So that’s the basic facts of his life in a nutshell … but needless to say we have come across a few anomalies for which we have no answers, perhaps our readers can offer some help.

Everywhere we’ve looked states that he was born on 13 March 1733 near Frankfurt am Main, Germany, and baptized on 15 March at St Bartholomew’s Cathedral (including the ODNB). If you ‘do the maths’ on this, he would have been aged 77 when he died.

Tomb of Johan Zoffany

So who got it wrong? The entry in the burial register, although a faint copy, quite clearly records his age at the end of the line as 87, a full 10 years older than stated everywhere, added to this, his gravestone also gives his age as 87.

Zoffany burial register St Anns Richmond upon Thames
Zoffany burial in the register of St Anns Richmond upon Thames

We are unsure why no-one has ever questioned this. We know it is quite common for entries to be a year or so out, but it’s very unusual for them to be a whole 10 years out – so someone got it wrong, was it his wife who arranged for the tomb to be erected, did she simply get it wrong or was it historians, who over the years just assumed that what they had read about his date of birth was correct without checking any further?

Zoffany and his children

Zoffany with children info 1

zoffany family portrait 2

Self-Portrait with His Daughter Maria Theresa, James Cervetto, and Giacobbe Cervetto, c.1780 Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

He had 4 daughters, all four of whom he mentions in his will – Maria Theresa Louisa who was born on 4th April 1777, but who was not baptized until 1801.

Maria baptised 27 March 1801, born 4 april 1777

Cecilia Clementina Elizabeth (baptized  10th December 1780).

10th Dec 1780

Claudina Sophia Ann, (no sign of her baptism, but census returns confirm that she was born c1793) and finally Laura Helen Constantia who was reputed to have been born 1795 (RIP July 11 1876), making Johan quite elderly when she was born (62 or 72).

The strangest thing of all though is, despite his 4 daughters, his marriage to Mary Thomas, didn’t take place until 20th April 1805 making him either 72 or 82 at the time. He was reputed to have married Mary in Florence c1771/72 and it is said that they had a son whilst living there. However, Mary married as a spinster in 1805 so either the Italian wedding was not legal in England, or no marriage had previously taken place.

Zoffany marriage at St Pancras chruch 1805 to Mary Thomas

It begs the question as to why he left it so late. It can’t have been an attempt to legitimize his daughters before they were of an age to marry, as the two eldest, Maria and Cecilia, were married 1801 and 1799 respectively. Perhaps it was to give his wife security for when he died given that she was some considerable years younger than her husband? Mary died in 1832, aged 77.

We end this post with more questions than answers, perhaps someone in the future will be able to solve this mystery, so in the meantime, we will continue to enjoy his works.

The Academicians of the Royal Academy 1771-72
The Academicians of the Royal Academy 1771-72 Courtesy of The Royal Collection
Portrait of Ann Brown in the Role of Miranda (c. 1770)
The Garden at Hampton House, with Mr and Mrs David Garrick taking tea, 1763


Featured image – The Tribuna of the Uffizi  1772-77 Courtesy of the Royal Collection


5 thoughts on “Johan Zoffany – questions about his life

  1. Pingback: Johan Zoffany – questions about his life — All Things Georgian | Art History blog

  2. Researching a bio of a Regency courtier I found heaps of inconsistencies that I’ve never been able to explain. Nothing that changed the course of history, but still perplexing. Perhaps people had different priorities, and accuracy was not always one of them. Even in the 1990s I was told it was rude to research local history that had already been ‘done’ by a living author.


    1. All Things Georgian

      As you say it doesn’t change the course of history, it’s just one of those anomalies that raises questions. As technology evolves and with it access to data that was previously unavailable we are now, more than ever before able to find new information, it’s rarely meant as a criticism of existing work, more often than not it’s simply adding to the existing knowledge.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.