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About the artwork

The School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan is a comical play centred on the lives of wealthy Society people. It was first performed on 8 May 1777 at the Drury Lane Theatre. Zoffany’s picture takes its subject from Act IV scene I where Charles Surface is auctioning his family portraits to pay the debts he has with the Jewish moneylender, Moses (shown). Moses has brought along a buyer, ‘Master Premium’, who is in fact Surface’s Uncle Oliver; the subject of the portrait on the wall behind Moses. Moses was based upon a real moneylender, Jacob Nathan Moses, to whom Sheridan owed money.

Robert Baddeley (1733–1794) was the first and best known actor to play the part of Moses, a role he played over 200 times. Baddeley began life as a cook and valet but soon gained a reputation for performing low comedy roles. In 1794 Baddeley fell ill while dressing for the part of Moses and died the following day.

He had a turbulent relationship with his wife Sophia, also a performer. They separated, but still acted together, after a well-reported bloodless duel in Hyde Park. The duel was between Baddeley and George Garrick, brother of David, and centred on allegations made by Baddeley about Sophia’s behaviour with a Dr Hayes.

Even more than his success on the stage, Baddeley is remembered for his will. In it he left a house and £650 in trust to the Drury Lane Theatre Fund which looked after actors fallen on hard times. The house becoming known as “Baddeley’s Asylum”. He also left a sum of money to the Theatre to provide cakes and ale on Twelfth Night; a tradition that is still upheld today.

There is no evidence that Baddeley commissioned Zoffany’s picture, though it is certainly of Baddeley (it has been compared to known portraits of the actor). It is interesting that Zoffany has chosen to paint his picture just of Moses, and not the other characters from this scene in the play. Moses plays a minor part in the scene but Zoffany has given him the role of auctioneer - in the play this is the task of Careless, Surface’s assistant. Under his arm Moses holds a rolled parchment of the Surface family tree that is used as an auction hammer, and he seems to be ticking off pictures in the catalogue. Zoffany is perhaps depicting Baddeley’s own interpretation of the character of Moses. His costume, for example, is fairly lavish, but Baddeley had a reputation for being something of a dandy. Zoffany probably based his picture both on Moses in The School for Scandal and on Baddeley’s version of the character. On seeing the painting members of the public would have instantly recognised Baddeley as Moses and been impressed with Zoffany’s skills of capturing the likeness.

This picture, or a slightly earlier version, was exhibited and well received at the Royal Academy in 1781. The St James’s Chronicle said:

“I am glad to see this artist come back again to his old favourite stile and draw from the English Stage subjects from his pencil.”

The Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser wrote that:

“Baddeley…is full of expression and humour, as well as correct painting, in which department and close imitation Mr Z has no rival”.

One critic did however comment that the pictures on the wall behind Moses were “too strong”.

Robert Baddeley as Moses was the last theatrical picture that Zoffany painted before he left the country in 1783. He spent six years in India where he took advantage of the opportunity of colonial portrait commissions. When he returned to England he found that his style of painting was unfashionable, and he had been replaced by Samuel de Wilde as the leading theatrical artist.

Johann Zoffany was born in 1733 in Frankfurt. His father, Anton Franz Zauffaly, was court cabinet maker and architect to Alexander Ferdinand, Prince von Thurn und Taxis. When the Zauffaly family moved to Regensburg with the Prince, Johann showed an early talent for drawing and was apprenticed to Martin Speer, a local painter. After a few years in Rome under the fashionable portrait painter Agostino Masucci, he returned to Regensburg where he obtained some local commissions, secured through his father’s court connections. Johann married Antonie Theopista Juliane Eiselein, a daughter of a court councillor, and used her dowry to take them to England in 1760 where his surname was altered to Zoffany.

Zoffany would have been hoping to gain fame and fortune in prosperous England, but he struggled with badly spoken English and was at first forced to paint scenes for clock decorations. He met the renowned actor David Garrick while working as a drapery painter at Benjamin Wilson’s studio. Garrick recognised his skills and commissioned Zoffany to paint four conversation piece pictures of his household. Garrick then had Zoffany paint him in theatrical pictures that were exhibited at the Society of Artists, advertising Garrick’s acting talents as well as Zoffany’s artistic capabilities. Mezzotints of the pictures were also published further increasing the reputations of both actor and painter.

18th century London was wealthy. Leisure pursuits flourished among high Society, particularly the theatre. The genre of painting theatrical subjects was created and popularised by William Hogarth, with pictures such as David Garrick as Richard III, painted in 1745 and now on display in the Walker. Unlike other artists, who painted the actors in costume but with a blank background, Zoffany developed Hogarth’s way of depicting the actors as if they are performing real scenes in a stage setting. His sitters are lively characters with theatrical gestures. These paintings did extremely well leading to other portrait commissions, most importantly the patronage of King George III and Queen Charlotte who were keen to be seen as supporters of the arts and learning during the period of the Enlightenment.