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This September sees the arrival at the Holburne Museum of another wonderful painting by the German-born portrait painter Johan Zoffany.


Johan Zoffany (1733-1810)
The Auriol and Dashwood Families, c. 1783-7
Oil on canvas, 142 x 198 cm

His informal conversation piece of the Auriol family with their friends and servants is a fascinating glimpse into the private world of colonial life in 1780s Bengal. Five children of James Auriol, a Huguenot merchant from Hampstead, travelled to Calcutta in the 1770s and 80s to seek their fortunes. This tea party under a jackfruit tree is probably set in the garden of James Peter Auriol, the first brother to arrive, in 1770. By the time of this portrait, he had risen through the ranks of the East India Company to become Secretary of the Governing Council of Bengal, and had earned enough to return home to England on a very comfortable income. Charles was a Captain in the King’s army, and John also became a civil servant. Their sister Sophia (in pink) found her fortune in John Prinsep (seated on the left), who established the indigo and cotton-printing industries in Bengal and became immensely rich. Meanwhile, Charlotte Auriol married Thomas Dashwood (depicted playing chess), who was in charge of stationery supplies.

In India the family was able to live in great comfort with a huge number of household servants, just a few of whom are depicted here: one is refilling Mr Prinsep’s hookah with tobacco, while a second pours hot water into the ladies’ silver teapot, which is held by a young boy. This boy may have been a slave of John Auriol’s known as Nabob. On the right, a courier brings a letter to James Auriol, watched by an accountant.

The painting commemorates the marriage of Charlotte and Sophia Auriol in 1782, and the return of James and Charles to England in 1783, leaving their sisters safe in their friends’ hands. It shows us how the fashionable British way of life, cultivated in Bath and other cities, carried on as normal in the heat of the subcontinent: the gentlemen smoke and play chess in their wigs and breeches and the tight-laced and powdered ladies enjoy their tea and gossip in the shade of parkland trees. Charlotte is wearing a pair of bracelets set with miniatures, perhaps portraits of the sisters she has left behind in England.

Zoffany must have begun the portrait very soon after arriving in Calcutta in September 1783. His work was going out of fashion in London and he hoped to do better among the British in India. In Bengal he was abundantly welcomed with commissions from officials of the East India Company, beginning with Governor General Warren Hastings. He later travelled further afield to paint both Indian princes and local landscapes and wildlife. Zoffany’s success overseas enabled him to return to London and the prospect of a comfortable old age in 1789.

The loan of the Dashwood conversation piece will bring the Holburne’s number of paintings by Zoffany to seven, the largest public collection of Zoffany’s work outside London.


Published on: 29/08/2013