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The Family of Sir William Young, by Johan Zoffany (1733-1810)


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About the artwork

William Young was born in 1725 and was by the time of this picture a successful and wealthy man. This painting was probably made between 1767 and 1770 as confirmation of Sir William Young’s arrival within the elite in England.  The steps to the right of the painting and the parkland in the background indicate that Sir William and his family are in possession of key status symbols: land and an English country house. Sir William bought the manor of Delaford in Iver, Buckinghamshire in 1767. He achieved the other key status symbol of a title when he was created a baronet on 2 May 1769.

Harmony in the painting is achieved through a complex and deliberate placement of the individuals who are linked to each other through gesture and touch. Sir William himself sits at the front of the family group holding a cello as if about to play. His wife Elizabeth is beside him with a kind of lute known as a theorbo. Their youngest daughter Olivia reaches across to touch the theorbo strings.  Behind them stands Sarah Elizabeth holding a music book. This central group look as if they have been momentarily interrupted or are about to play. The little girl looks directly at us as she blocks the strings from her mother’s fingers. The musical instruments are accessories that demonstrate the family’s accomplishment and elegance. The suggestion of musical harmony adds to the effect of unity in the group and is underlined by the dance like gestures of Elizabeth and Portia standing behind their mother.

Everyone is dressed in fancy dress known as Van Dyke costume which was a mixture of styles associated with Tudor and Stuart times. It was worn in the 18th century for masked balls, theatre, and in portraits. Rich satins and lace collars and cuffs with points are typical. The fanciful costume and musical instruments add to the rococo effect of the overall composition with its curving placement of the figures.

Sir William Young’s fortune had been made in the West Indies where he ranked highly as Lieutenant Governor of both Dominica and Tobago. Reference to the West Indies is apparent in the painting only through the presence of a slave-servant who helps Sir William’s youngest son down from his horse. The servant’s elaborate livery with gold thread and traditional pearl earring is misleading: he was almost certainly still a slave. Sir William Young owned sugar plantations and died in St Vincent in 1788 on a visit to one of his slave estates. He was a key figure in the First Black Carib War which took land from the black Caribs. This war was criticized even at the time as a violation of the natural rights of mankind. Yet the servant shown here has been absorbed into a scene so suggestive of affection and harmony it becomes hard to imagine any hardship.

To the left of their parents William and Mary sit on a stone wall holding a letter. William’s pose is almost a mirror of his father’s perhaps reminding us that he will go on to inherit from his father.

The artist was born near Frankfurt in 1733 as Johannes Josephus Zauffaly. In England his name became corrupted into Zoffany. He came to England in 1760. He became known for theatrical pictures painted for Garrick and for the type of family or group portrait shown here. These paintings are known as ‘conversation pieces’ and the Walker Art Gallery’s ‘Family of Sir William Young’ is a very accomplished example.