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Garrick with Burton and Palmer in 'The Alchymist'

Garrick with Burton and Palmer in 'The Alchymist'
oil on canvas
41 7/8 x 40 1/8 in. (106.5 x 101.9 cm.)
Sir Joshua Reynolds, P.R.A. (1723-1792), offered the artist 100 gns. for the picture at the 1770 Royal Academy exhibition, but resigned his intended purchase to the following,
Frederick Howard, 5th Earl of Carlisle (1748-1825), Castle Howard, and by decsent to the following,
Major George Howard, Baron Howard of Henderskelfe (1920-1984), Castle Howard, and by descent; Sotheby's, London, 29 November 2001, lot 11 (£861,500), when acquired.
J. Northcote, The Life of Sir Joshua Reynolds, London, 1818, II, p.178.
The Literary Gazette, 8th July 1826.
J.T. Smith, Nollekens and his Times, London, 1828, I, pp. 65-66.
C.R. Leslie and T. Taylor, Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds, London, 1865, I, p. 359.
Lady Victoria Manners and G.C. Williamson, John Zoffany, R.A., London, 1920, pp. 26-27 and 186.
W.T. Whitley, Artists and their Friends in England 1700-1799, London, 1928, I, pp. 262-263.
G.C. Williamson, English Conversation Pieces of the 18th and Early 19th Centuries, London, 1931, p. 22, pl. LXIV.
M. Webster, 'The Eighteenth Century', The Genius of British Painting, D. Piper, ed., London, 1975, p. 191, illustrated.
N. Penny, ed., Reynolds, exhibition catalogue, London, 1986, p. 341.
M. Postle, ed., Johann Zoffany RA: Society Observed, exhibition catalogue, New Haven and London, 2011, pp. 54-55, fig. 48.
M. Webster, Johann Zoffany 1733-1810, New Haven and London, 2011, pp. 206-210, figs. 169 and 170.
London, Royal Academy, 1770, no. 212.
London, British Institution, 1814, no. 80.
London, British Institution, 1840, no. 81.
London, New Gallery, Exhibition of the Royal House of Guelph, 1891, no. 316.
London, Grafton Gallery, Exhibition of dramatic and musical art, 1897, no. 97.
London, Whitechapel Gallery, Shakespeare and Theatrical Memorial, 12 October-20 November 1910, no. 32.
London, 45 Park Lane, English Conversation Pieces, March 1930, no. 1.
Birmingham, Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery; and Port Sunlight, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Art and the Theatre, 2 July-4 September 1949, no. 200.
London, Morley Gallery, Pictures from Castle Howard, 1970, no. 36.
London, National Portrait Gallery, Johan Zoffany 1733-1810, 14 January-27 March 1977, no. 59.
York, York City Art Gallery, Masterpieces from Yorkshire Houses, 20 January-29 March 1994, no. 29.
Sale Room Notice
In addition to the lots marked in the catalogue with the relevant symbols this lot has a guarantee fully or partially financed by a third-party who may be bidding on the lot and may receive a financing fee from Christie's. Please see the conditions of sale for further information.

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Clementine Sinclair
Clementine Sinclair Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

Lot Essay

Zoffany’s witty and engaging painting of David Garrick in Ben Johnson’s The Alchymist is widely regarded as one of his greatest theatre pictures, a genre pioneered by William Hogarth in the 1740s and one that Zoffany became the undisputed master of in the second half of the century. It immortalizes the most famous actor of the day in one of his most celebrated roles and showcases Zoffany’s extraordinary talent for capturing the personalities and expressions of the different characters and their interaction on stage, as well as his supreme skill at rendering costume and still life details.
Born in Frankfurt, Zoffany spent time studying and working in Italy before travelling to England in 1760. He found employment initially painting clock-faces for the clockmaker Stephen Rimbault and then executing drapery for the portrait painter Benjamin Wilson. He was saved from this drudgery by David Garrick, who commissioned his first theatrical picture, David Garrick in The Farmers Return’ (New Haven, Yale Center for British Art), in 1762. This picture represented a new departure for the artist, who had specialised in mythological subjects before his arrival in London. Garrick’s discovery of Zoffany (possibly recommended to him by Hogarth) transformed the artist’s fortunes and also supplied the actor with the painter he had been looking for. As the most famous actor of the age, Garrick was acutely aware of the ephemeral nature of his achievements and found in Zoffany an artist who could immortalise his triumphs on stage with extraordinary vividness and precision. As an artist trained in Europe, Zoffany was familiar with the rules of history painting and the maxim that any history painting should be based on a few words or lines of text. In adapting himself to painting the London stage, Zoffany retained this crucial element of academic practice, as Hogarth had done before him. As Robin Simon observed, in the exhibition catalogue to the 2011 Zoffany exhibition at the Royal Academy: ‘Zoffany’s paintings borrow a kind of respectability from their reflection of this central tenet of academic practice, but at the same time they follow Hogarth’s very British precedent of focusing on the particular likeness of the actors portrayed. They are history pictures of a kind, but they are also portraits’ (R. Simon, ‘Strong impressions of their art: Zoffany & the Theatre’, in M. Postle, ed., op, cit., 2011, p. 52).
David Garrick was not only an actor, but also a playwright, theatre manager and producer, who influenced nearly every aspect of theatrical practice in eighteenth-century Britain. When considering his legacy as an actor, Peter Thomson declared: ‘More than any other single actor, Garrick changed the acting style of the nation, above all because he engineered a shift in the expectations of audiences. In place of accuracy and control … Garrick gave them energy and engagement’ (P. Thomson, ‘David Garrick’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online). Garrick’s celebrity status was a reflection of the central place held by the theatre in London society at this date: it was the most important shared cultural experience in the capital. Taking the season 1761-62, when Zoffany came onto the scene, there were around 533 theatrical performances given in London, an average of more than 10 a week. Most of these were held at one of the two ‘patent theatres’, Covent Garden and Drury Lane, which enjoyed a monopoly imposed by the Licensing Act of 1737. The fact that the government had moved to control the activity of theatres is itself indicative of their power and influence. In addition, unlike most other European courts (France in particular) the English royal family had no private theatre; King George III and Queen Charlotte, both keen on drama, therefore had to attend the public theatres in the centre of London, which lent the performances added glitz and glamour. There were also many more newspapers and journals in Britain than in any other country, and they were packed with critiques and gossip about the stage and its star performers.
The Alchymist provided Garrick with one of his most enduring parts, that of Abel Drugger: he first played the role at Drury Lane in 1743 and continued to play it on and off – in total eighty-five times - until 1776. The play recounts the cunning and deceitful antics of a servant named Face who has been left in charge of his master, Lovewell’s London house in Blackfriars. Face teams up with Subtle, a phony alchemist, and his mistress, Doll Common to deceive naive visitors with their spurious alchemy. The callers include Sir Epicure Mammon, two Puritans from Amsterdam called Tribulation and Ananias, and the tobacconist Abel Drugger. The original play was written by Ben Jonson in 1610 as a satire on greed and its immense popularity at the time was credited with helping to rid London of alchemists. When Pepys saw it in 1661, he described it as ‘a most incomparable play’, and Coleridge later described it as having one of the three most perfect plots in all literature. Garrick reduced the original three thousand words by a third, omitting some of the more obscure references to alchemy. His immense success in the role was due to his masterly underplaying. His friend and biographer Thomas Davies wrote that: ‘the moment he came upon the stage, he discovered such awkward simplicity, and his looks so happily bespoke the ignorant, selfish and absurd tobacco-merchant, that it was a contest not easily to be decided, whether the host of laughter or applause were loudest. Through the whole part he strictly preserved the modesty of nature’ (cited in Webster, op. cit., p. 209).
The episode in the play that Zoffany has depicted here is from Act II, Scene 6, when Abel Drugger has requested a device for his shop sign and Subtle has proposed a bell, for Abel, and beside it a figure of Dr Dee, the astrologer, in a rug gown, making up Drug, and next to this a dog snarling ‘Er’, to make up Drugger. The German scientist and satirist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, who saw Garrick perform the role in September 1775, described the effect Garrick added to this moment in the play: ‘When the astrologer spells out from the stars the name of Abel Drugger, henceforth to be great, the poor gullible creature says with heart felt delight: ‘That is my name’. Garrick makes him keep his joy to himself, for to blurt it out before everyone would be lacking in decency. So Garrick turns aside, hugging his delight to himself for a few moments, so that he actually gets those red rings round his eyes which often accompany great joy, at least, when violently suppressed, and says to himself: That is my name. The effect of this judicious restraint is indescribably, for one did not see him as a simpleton being gulled, but as a much more ridiculous creature, with an air of secret triumph, thinking himself the slyest of rogues’ (ibid.).
Zoffany captured this subtlety brilliantly in this picture. Garrick is not placed centre-stage, but stands facing the wings, looking round towards the two central characters of Subtle on the left (played by Edmund Burton) in the black robes of a learned doctor and Face in the centre (played by John Palmer) in the flamboyant red uniform of a captain. Attention is drawn to Garrick as the principal subject of the painting by the broad shaft of light from the window on the left. All three actors are linked by their poses, gestures and expressions: Drugger smiles in self-congratulation believing himself to have the upper hand, while Face and Subtle smirk with enjoyment having successfully deceived another customer. All three actors are dressed in period costume, as became the custom from the mid-eighteenth century when acting in Jacobean plays: Drugger in Jacobean breeches and the dark stockings of a humble tradesman; Face in a white ruff, red doublet and breeches, and a red hat with black feather, with a sword at his waist; and Subtle in a black academic hat and black fur-trimmed gown over a black slashed doublet, with his spectacles, moneybag and a key hanging from a girdle at this waist. Two oil studies in the Ashmolean (fig. 1) show that Zoffany experimented with the positioning of Drugger: in one he has taken off his hat and is bending his knees in humble greeting to Subtle; in the other he digs in his pockets for the piece of gold to offer to Subtle.
Zoffany has delighted in rendering the multitude of curious and wonderful objects that make up the carefully staged cabinet of curiosities on the draped table and ledge to the left – incorporating an armillary sphere, a dried fish surmounted by a large bat, jars containing a foetus and a lizard, a human skull, an hour glass and a flying fish – all designed to assure and impress prospective customers of Subtle’s credentials as an alchemist.
Zoffany may already have begun this painting in December 1769, eager to produce an exceptional picture for the Royal Academy’s next annual exhibition, now that he had been retrospectively elected a founding member of the Academy by King George III. When it was included in the Academy’s second exhibition, in 1770, it was greeted with universal acclaim. Walpole wrote in his copy of the catalogue: ‘This most excellent picture of Burton, J. Palmer and Garrick, as Abel Drugger, is one of the best pictures ever done by this Genius’. Garrick’s friend Joseph Cradock considered it one of the best likenesses of the actor. Mary Webster describes its subsequent sale at the exhibition as: ‘one of the most celebrated incidents in Zoffany’s life’ (ibid.). The incident was relayed by Mary Moser, a fellow Academician, in a letter to Fuseli, who was then in Rome: ‘and Zoffany superior to everybody, in a portrait of Garrick in the character of Abel Drugger, with two other characters, Subtle and Face … Sir Joshua agreed to give an hundred guineas for the picture; Lord Carlisle half an hour after offered Reynolds twenty to part with it, which the Knight generously refused, resigned his intended purchase to the Lord, and the emolument to his brother artist’ (ibid., p. 210). A writer in the London Chronicle reported the same story, adding: ‘This picture is so much esteemed that we hear Lord Ossory would have given fifty guineas more for it’. The Alchymist has remined among the most admired of Zoffany’s theatrical pictures.
Frederick Howard, 5th Earl of Carlisle was an important patron and collector, whose collecting began when as a young man he visited Italy on the Grand Tour. He owned important works by Gainsborough and Reynolds, and became a director of the British Institution. In May 1796, he bought two further theatrical pictures by Zoffany from the dealer Michael Bryan Mr Foote in the character of Major Sturgeon, in The Mayor of Garrattand Mr Foote and Mr Weston in the characters of the President and Dr Last in The Devil Upon Two Sticks.

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