Monday, 26 August 2013


The Last Supper from Milan to Calcutta:

The most famous and ferociously talented artist Leonardo Da Vinci painted “The Last Supper” on the refectory of Convent of Santa Maria Della Grazie, Milan around 1495 based on the Gospel of John 13.21, which depicted the consternation that occurred among the twelve disciples when Jesus announced that one of them would betray him. The painting remains as a treasure of Christianity and a mystique question to the observers till date.

Some have identified the person to Jesus' right (left of Jesus from the viewer's perspective), not as John the Apostle, but as a woman, often purported to be Mary Magdalene. This speculation was the topic of the book The Templar Revelation (1997) by Lynn Pickett and Clive Prince, and played a central role in Dan Brown's fiction novel The Da Vinci Code (2003). The Dan Brown blockbuster novel turns into a much hyped and controversial super-hit Hollywood crime thriller in 2006.

“The Last Supper” became the inspiration for many artists of different era and Christian artists, as per their thought-line, had produced the same across the globe. Another similar masterpiece was also produced in Calcutta and preserved till date as an altar-piece to St. John’s Church, Kolkata. 

The Last Supper in St. John’s Church, Kolkata by John Zoffany

(Courtesy: Lense Work by Sudip Ghosh)

From the written document of past we came to know, “Royal Academician Zoffany painted a picture in Calcutta,  “The Last Supper," which he, in 1787, presented for an altar-piece to St. John's Church, then approaching completion”.

David Garrick as Abel Drugger in Jonson's The Alchemist

Zoffany’s talent soon established him as one of the most sought after portrait painters of the then elite British society. But his liberal habits of living exceeded his income, and though never he had shortage of clientele, his finances became seriously strained. He obtained the patronage of the reigning majesties, and some of his best pictures were those of portraits and conversation pieces of the royal family.

It was also the formative years of European institutes. When the Royal Academy of Arts, London was formed in 1768, Zoffany was nominated a member. In 1772 he painted "The Life School of the Royal Academy" which contained portraits of the thirty-six foundation members. The thirty-four male academicians were represented in various attitudes, and on the walls of the room were portraits in frames of the two female members, Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser. Zoffany  represented himself with a palette in his hand, and we observe that it was apparently his practice to introduce a portrait of himself, either with a pencil or a palette in his hand, into all his pictures containing a large number of figures. Till date it is under Royal Collection, Windsor Castle.

The Portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy (1771–72)

Zoffany could very well choose the lucrative life of London but he was always a bit uncertain about his plan. He surprised and disappointed all his friends by determining to accompany Sir Joseph Banks in the voyage with Cook round the world. But when he came to see his cabin he did not like it,  did not think it suitable for painting purposes and threw up his voyage. Abandoning the world voyage, he decided to go to Italy. During this period he had received the Royal patronage and a commission to paint his famous work of “The Florence Gallery” from Queen Charlotte. Till date it is under possession of Royal Collection, Windsor Castle.

The Tribuna of the Uffizi,by Johan Zoffany, 1772-8, Royal Collection, Windsor

After acquiring great distinction in England, Zoffany travelled on the continent for a few years, adding considerably to his reputation by his "Interior of the Florentine Picture Gallery," and other works. Returning to England he remained there for a short time and then sailed for India, arriving in Calcutta in 1783.We have to speculate what made Joffany to embark on the bank of Ganges? On the bank of Thames, he had already established his portrait producing skill as a phenomenon. Was this voyage eyed to accumulating wealth from the Indian Kings and Anglo Indian notables by selling his uncanny skill or was it to balance his unfulfilled adventurist instinct? May there be something beneath the carpet?

Probably his skill was the root of this voyage from Thames to Ganges. It is said, he was obliged to leave England, owing to the ill feeling he had roused against himself through his injudicious indulgence in the habit of introducing the portraits of his friends and acquaintances into his pictures without the permission of the original, and often in unflattering guise.  He used to defame the living person by putting him in his group picture as a caricature character provided he had some bitter feeling towards that person. This practical joke of the artist even had scandalized English Court, when in one of his paintings he had hinted the intimacy of Queen Charlotte, in her maiden stage to certain German admirer.

Here it will not be very out of place to mention that some of the immensely talented people, whose ability in their respective fields was phenomenal but not up to the liking of the British Authority or elite London society, had their solace to the greatest British settlement, India, with a myth that Indian dust is even gold. Such an example is Sir Philip Francis (1740-1818), who had been detected by modern computer aided analysis as the creator of notorious “Letters of Junious”.

However, Joffany after arriving in Calcutta settlement went to the province of Lucknow, remained there for several years, continued his portrait producing skill for Indian rulers, politicians, East India Company’s high officials, native notables and amassed a considerable fortune. His professional charge became one thousand rupees per day against his skill.

Colonel Mordaunt's Cock Fight (Lucknow, 1785)

In 1787, Zoffany was residing in Calcutta ; his name is given in the list of professions in an almanac for that year, under the heading "Artist and portrait painter." The Calcutta Gazette for April 12, 1787, announced — " We hear Mr. Zoffany is employed in painting a large historical picture, ‘The Last Supper”, he has already made considerable progress in the work, which promises to equal any production which has yet appeared from the pencil of this able artist, and, with that spirit of liberality for which he has ever been distinguished, we understand he means to present it to the public as an altar-piece for the New Church.”

When St. John’s Church, Calcutta was consecrated the painting had been finished and hung in its place, and must have caused no small sensation in Calcutta society when it was found that the figures in the picture were more or less faithful likenesses of members of the community. The three principal figures in the picture, the Savior, St. John, and Judas Iscariot, were portraits. The original of the first is said to have been a Greek priest, Father Parthenio, who was well known in Calcutta for his piety and good works. St. John was represented by Mr. Blaquiere, who was for years a magistrate of Calcutta, famous to make some of his cleverest catch in female disguise and rather infamous as a "Brahmanised European, notorious for his hostility to Christianity and his indifferent character" as chronicled by one of the famous clergymen of the-then period; and in Judas Iscariot was pilloried an old resident of the town, Tulloh, the auctioneer. The remaining figures appeared to have been less exact portraits, and the names of others who appeared in the canvas had faded away with time.

The Last Supper in St. John’s Church, Kolkata by John Zoffany

There was a speculation whether Judas Iscariot was John Paul, East India Company’s servant and businessman at Lucknow residency, who, afterwards in England became a fiery White Mogul, antagonist to Wellesley’s political treatment to the Nabob of Lucknow, with whom Joffany wanted to settle his personal score. As per our thought, chronological evidence of Paul’s presence in Lucknow prior to 1787 is against this speculation.

Whatever ripples it caused in the-then Anglo-Saxon community of Calcutta, St. John’s Church had accepted this Altar –piece as their prized possession. They had written a profuse thanksgiving letter to the artist for this kind act of his benevolence- "We should do a violence to your delicacy were we to express, or endeavor to express, in such terms as the occasion calls for, our sense of the favour you have conferred on the Settlement by presenting to their place of worship, so capital a painting, that it would adorn the first Church of Europe, and should excite in the breasts of its spectators, those sentiments of virtue and piety so happily portrayed in the figures." 

Afterwards, Calcutta St. John’s Church was very alert for the preservation of this remarkable piece of art with utmost care. Calcutta society wanted this painting outside the Church premises for better viewership. The appeal of Dalhousie Institute in 1865 in this regard was turned down by Church Authority. In 1888, the decadent condition of this art piece was reported through a letter published in The Statesman; immediate attention for its preservation brought the piece almost to its original state where it remains till date as an Altar-piece.

John Zoffany went back to England in 1790. The tropical heat of Asia provided him enough fortune but certainly had a toll on his remarkable talent. His uncanny skill was missing for last twenty years of his carrier. His last exhibition in Royal Academy had taken place in 1800. Around this time the artist made another of his notorious black humor, by the way of “The Last Supper” which is till date preserved in St. George's Church, Brentford, England. This time, Zoffany himself figures as St Peter, a strong full face with small grey beard; and the face of St. John is a portrait of the painter's young wife; whom he married on his return from abroad. The Apostles were painted as local fishermen. John Zoffany died in Kew, England in 1810.

The Last Supper as painted by John Zoffany and presented to St. George Church, Brentford, England (Courtesy: John Zoffany R A His Life And Works, 1735-1810 by Lady Victoria Manners and DR. G. G. Williamson)

Today’s busy Kolkata office-goers park their vehicles in the courtyard of St. John’s Church; but  seldom any of them pays a visit to the inside of the Church.

Time has changed, British had left, the most discussed characters of yesteryears have gone to oblivion, the politics of Warren Hastings or Lord Wellesley has become a part of history book, anything you want to know nowadays is at the click of mouse, a picture you want to see is now on your screen of computer within a second through internet. But, the Master piece of John Zoffany presented to Calcutta Christian society remains as it is inside the church, in front of which viewers till have an uncanny awe mixed surprise. Is it a waste of time to pay a visit to Calcutta St. John’s Church to watch Zoffany’s “The Last Supper”? Our feeling, it is worth.

Think of an era, when there was no camera, showbiz people still wanted to have a picture of their famous stage show as an advertisement. You had many remarkable moments with your friends and relatives, people of old time also wanted it like today’s man to frame that particular moment. You cannot visit the Art Gallery of distant country but like to have a feel for the same; you are setting up an institution, like to preserve the identity of its founding members. To answer to all these wishes of the-then London society the key was John Zoffany, whose artistic foil resembles the light and shade of a photographic vividness with an element of European melodrama which was persistent at his time. Such a Master’s work in your own city certainly deserves a visit, if you accept him as a personality of first international repute who had been in Calcutta and left an worthy art work  much before Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray were born. If you think it is just an awe of colonial subjection, at least have a glimpse of this portrait at St. John’s and think on the way back: was that a lady? If you are not at all willing to be in St. John’s Church for any reason spend five minutes of your valuable time in front of the Masterpiece and think over this pictorial representation of Biblical Gospel which has excited so many painters from the date eternal till today coming up with new analysis all over the world; but the basic story of love, betrayal, forgiveness and submission still remain as elements of everybody’s life.

We are indebted to the works of Old Good Days of John Company by W H Carey (Published-1882), Calcutta Past and Present by Kathleen Blechynden (Published-1905), John Zoffany R A- His Life and Works 1735-1810 by Lady Victoria Manners and Dr. G. G. Williamson (Published-1920) and Wikipedia. All these works are approachable through internet. If anybody reads these books we will feel the justice is not only done to John Zoffany but also to those passionate writers of past who did not have the privilege of internet at their disposal, like the way we have today.

Research - Abhijnan Basu. 

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