This portrait would appear, on stylistic grounds, to date from circa 1764. One of the artist's most distinguished early works, it exemplifies with its informality, intimacy and warmth of expression the portrait style which had made Zoffany, by the mid-1760s, the most sought after painter of 'family pieces' in London.
Zoffany had moved to England from Germany in 1760, lured no doubt by the greater possibilities open to a young, ambitious and talented artist in late 18th Century London. However, his first years in London were difficult. He was reduced for a while to painting the decorative scenes on clock faces for the Huguenot clockmaker Stephen Rimbault, whose portrait he painted in 1764 (Tate Gallery, London), and then worked in the studio of the portraitist Benjamin Wilson, to whom he had been introduced by Rimbault, as a drapery painter. He was, however, rescued from this servitude by the patronage of the actor David Garrick (1717-1779), who had quickly recognised his talent. Garrick commissioned four scenes of his household which were to be hung in his town house at the Adelphi (see M. Webster, Johann Zoffany, Catalogue to the Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, 1976, nos. 11, 12 and 13) and a number of theatrical scenes which enormously advanced the artist's reputation. Zoffany's subsequent success was rapid and the favour of King George III and Queen Charlotte, who from 1764 commissioned a number of portraits of the royal family, unlocked the doors to the patronage of fashionable England.
In scale, composition and mood the picture is comparable to the two portraits which Zoffany painted of the children of John, 3rd Earl of Bute, circa 1763-4 (Private Collection, see M. Webster, op. cit. nos. 20 and 21) and also to his portrait of the children of the Hon. Lewis Monson-Watson, 1st Lord Sondes of circa 1764-5 (M. Webster, op. cit., no. 27). Compositionally the four portraits are remarkably similar. In each, a group of three children is portrayed, small full-length, assembled beside a tree, or clump of trees in an extensive landscape. While in his portrait of Three Sons of John, 3rd Earl of Bute (M. Webster, op. cit., no. 20) Zoffany uses an incident of a birdsnest found in a tree to impose unity on the sitters, and in his portrait of Three Daughters of John, 3rd Earl of Bute (M. Webster, op. cit., no.21) an incident with a squirrel to the same end, in this picture the see-saw provides the perfect compositional device to integrate the sitters while preserving the picture's overall quality of informality. Zoffany certainly seems to have been pleased with the outcome for he was to re-use this compositional formula once again in his portrait of The Lavie Children of circa 1770 (Paul Mellon Collection, see J.Hayes, British Paintings of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries [in the National Gallery of Art, Washington], Cambridge, 1992, p. 357 ). In that picture he slightly elaborated the idea adding a fourth child who stands on the central part of the see-saw waving his hat.
The exact nature of the commission for this portrait is unknown. The sitters, who have traditionally been identified as members of the Sumner Family, may, on the basis of the stylistic dating of the picture to circa 1764, be the children of William Brightwell Sumner (d. 1791) and his wife Catherine, daughter of John Holme of Holme Hill, Cumberland: George, William and Catherine. George was baptized in December 1760, and William and Catherine were born in 1762 and 1758 respectively.
William Brightwell Sumner was a highly successful member of the East India Company who resigned from the Council of India in 1767 and used the fortune he had built to acquire the estate of Hatchlands, East Clandon, Surrey, originally built by Adam for Admiral Edward Boscawen. He was later appointed High Sheriff of Surrey in 1777. George, his eldest son, inherited Hatchlands on his father's death. He likewise became a member of the Council of India and was successively Member of Parliament for Ilchester (1787-90); Guildford (1790-96, 1806 and 1830-1); and Surrey (1807-26). He married, on 17 November 1787, Louisa, daughter of Colonel Charles Pemble, Commander-in-Chief of the East India Company's forces at Bombay, and assumed the additional surname of Holme on inheriting Holme Hill, Cornwall, from his uncle Thomas Holme, in 1794. William, his younger brother, became a banker but died prematurely in 1796, while his sister, Catherine, is recorded as having married James Laurell in 1776.
The movements of the Sumner family between England and India are unclear. Both George and Catherine are recorded as having been baptized in Calcutta (1760 and 1759 respectively), but their parents were in England at some point in the early 1760s, William Brightwell Sumner returning to India in 1763 and his wife apparently following later in 1764. It may be therefore that their children, having accompanied their parents to England, were then painted by Zoffany, perhaps because they were to remain in England when their parents returned to India.
The setting of the picture gives few clues as to the identity of the family. Zoffany rarely painted topographically accurate views in his portraits and the background to this picture was probably intended to be picturesque rather than descriptive. The dome in the far distance on the left and the apparent spires beside it, certainly seem to suggest St. Paul's Cathedral and the churches of the City of London, but the curvature of the river and its relationship to these distant silhouettes is a little difficult to reconcile with the exact topography of London and the Thames.