The print depicts a startling yet darkly comic moment: in the center of the print, a male baggage elephant has grabbed its driver from his seat and dangles him from its trunk, as other passengers, including women and children, fall off its back. Meanwhile, Sir John Kennaway, a British diplomat, is calling out to the driver of the second elephant, whose perch also looks precarious. The wry humor comes from the sensory overload of activity around this scene, as an assortment of Indian and European soldiers, travelers, missionaries, Hindu ascetics, vegetable sellers, and beggars share the road, many of them indifferent to the unfolding drama involving the elephant. In an article in The Encyclopedia of Romantic Literature, the authors see Zoffany’s painting as exemplifying “the sublime novelty and terror of an India that will prevail despite its rulers.” Through British eyes, Indian life seemed exotic and fascinating, yet also alien and frightening. The authors assert that the firsthand impressions of India by artists such as Zoffany and his friend William Hodges in the late 18th and early 19th centuries “profoundly influenced first the visual and then the overall culture of British Romanticism.”
Johann Zoffany (sometimes called John Zoffany or Zauffely) was a German-born English painter, known for his portraits, history and genre paintings. The son of a German architect, Zoffany received artistic training in Italy. After arriving in England to escape an unhappy marriage, he made a name for himself as a painter of portraits of actors, artists, and aristocrats, including members of the royal family. He exhibited in London from 1762 to 1800 at the Society of Artists and the Royal Academy, where he became one of the earliest academicians in 1769. He worked for a while in Florence after receiving an introduction from King George III to the grand duke of Tuscany. In 1783 he left for India, joining his friend, landscape painter William Hodges, hoping to find wealthy patrons there. Unlike Hodges, Zoffany was more interested in painting the people than picturesque landscapes. The adventurous Zoffany managed to find passage on a ship by signing on as a midshipman and promptly deserting his post when he arrived. He spent time in Kolkata and Lucknow, and did find commissions from both British and Indian officials, remaining in India until 1789, when he once again returned to England. The works he made in India and upon his return enabled him to finally achieve financial security for the rest of his life. His works today are in museums around the world. Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata has several paintings of Indian subjects.
Richard Earlom was a leading British mezzotint engraver of his time, though he also produced some etchings and plates in the chalk style. His first engravings were for John Boydell, and include Liber Veritatis, 200 plates after landscape drawings by Claude Lorrain. He also engraved prints and portraits after old masters such as Rembrandt, Poussin, Guercino and Rubens. Other major works include flowers after van Huysum, van Os, and Robert John Thornton, for the latter’s famous Temple of Flora (London: 1799-1807).
Subtitle: “From the Vizier of Oude, by the way of Patna, in the Year 1788, to meet Lord Cornwallis.”
Full publication information: John Zoffanÿ Esq’r R.A. pinxit. Rich’d Earlom Sculp. Londini. Published 12th July, 1800, by Robert Laurie & James Whittle, No. 53, Fleet Street, London.
Condition: Generally very good, recently professionally cleaned and deacidified, with the usual remaining toning and wear, and with one remaining discoloration mark upper right image, unobtrusive.
Bénézit, E. Dictionnaire critique et documentaire des Peintres, Sculpteurs, Dessinateurs et Graveurs. France: Librairie Gründ, 1966. Vol. 8, p. 840.
De Almeida, Hermione and George H. Gilpin. “Sublime.” in Burwick, Frederick et al., eds. The Encyclopedia of Romantic Literature. Malden, MA: John Wiley & Son, 2012. pp. 1342-44.
“Embassy of Haider Beg Khan to Lord Cornwallis.” Museums of India National Portal & Digital Repository. http://www.museumsofindia.gov.in/repository/record/vmh_kol-R1740-C985-1131 (13 November 2018).
“Index to the Embassy of Hyderbeck, from the Vizier of Oude to Calcutta, by the way of Patna, to meet Lord Cornwallis.” British Museum. 2017. https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?assetId=637149001&objectId=3156305&partId=1
Nabi, Shri Gholam, ed. “The Paintings of Johan Zoffany (1733-1810) in the collection of Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata.” Victoria Memorial Hall. 12 November 2018. http://victoriamemorial-cal.org/uploads/E-Catalogue%20of%20Johann%20Zoffany.pdf (13 November 2018).
“Richard Earlom,” The Grove Dictionary of Art. New York: Macmillan. 2000. Artnet.com. http://www.artnet.com/library/02/0244/T024430.asp (5 March 2002).
Stewart, Gordon T. Jute and Empire: The Calcutta Jute Wallahs and the Landscapes of Empire. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1998. p. 9. Online at Google Books: https://books.google.com/books?id=Nd1RAQAAIAAJ&pg=PA9 (12 November 2018).