The Family of Sir William Young

Johann Zoffany, 1767 - 1769

WAG 2395

About this object

This painting was previously dated to 1770 when Sir William Young (1725 - 1788) obtained his baronetcy and was appointed Governor of Dominica. The family all wear theatrical Van Dyck costume, which was then very popular in family portraits.

It is possible that the black youth steadying the boys on horseback was an enslaved person who had accompanied Young to England from one of his West Indian plantations. He was named John Brook. He does not wear a metal collar which was sometimes worn as a sign of enslaved status. This, together with his familiar manner with the child on horseback, suggests that he may have been regarded by the family as more of a servant than an enslaved person. This sympathetic attitude towards and portrayal of John Brook may be a reflection of the growing change in attitudes towards slavery in the late 18th century.

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 playing a Neapolitan mandolin, which she may have acquired whilst on the Grand Tour of Italy in 1752-53. Their youngest daughter Olivia reaches across to touch the mandolin's 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 Dyck costume. This 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 John Brook, who helps Sir William’s youngest son down from his horse. Brook’s elaborate livery with gold thread and traditional pearl earring is misleading. He was almost certainly still enslaved. Sir William Young owned sugar plantations and died in St Vincent in 1788 on a visit to one of his estates. He was a key figure in the First Black Carib War which took land from the black Caribs. This war was criticised even at the time as a violation of the natural rights of mankind.

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 the viewer that he will go on to inherit from his father.

Object specifics

  • Artist(s)
    Johann Zoffany (German, born:1733, died:1810)
  • Date
    1767 - 1769
  • Materials
    Oil Paint; Canvas
  • Measurements
    canvas/support: 114.3 cm x 167.8 cm
  • Physical description
    A family portrait with groups of family members posing on steps located on the right and on a horse on the left. Two children sit on the horse, the younger boy is supported by a black servant or enslaved boy. The main couple are seated in the centre where the gentleman holds a cello and the lady embraces the youngest child, whilst playing a Neapolitan mandolin.
  • Related people
    Knoedler (Previous owner) ; Sir Philip Sassoon (Previous owner) ; Julian Young (Previous owner) ; Johann Zoffany (Artist/maker)
  • Other number(s)
    WAG Inventory Number: 2395
  • Credit line
    Purchased by the Walker Art Gallery in 1937
  • Location
    Walker Art Gallery, Room 05
  • Collection
    From the Walker Art Gallery collections


Previous owners

  • Sir Philip Sassoon

    Owned from: Unknown or unrecorded
    How acquired: Unknown or unrecorded
    Owned until: 1937
    Disposal method: Sold at Chrisitie's on 2 July 1937, Lot 34. Bought in and sold privately to the Walker Art Gallery
  • Knoedler

    Owned from: 1928
    How acquired: Purchased at Christie's on 14 December 1928, Lot 96
    Owned until: ?-
    Disposal method: Probably sold to Sir Philip Sassoon
  • Julian Young

    Owned from: Unknown or unrecorded
    How acquired: By descent from the Young family
    Owned until: 1928
    Disposal method: Sold at Christie's on 14 December 1928, Lot 96


Item inscriptions

  • Inscription text: Christies Stencil 496 GM
    Inscription method:
    Inscription note:
    Inscription location:
Object view = Fine Art
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