Zoffany picture

The Beggar by Johan Zoffany – £330,000 at Duke’s.

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On the market for the first time in more than two centuries, the scene depicting the comic actor Edward Townsend singing The Beggar trebled its estimate at Duke’s of Dorchester on September 29.

The Beggar was a song written for William Pearce’s Robin Hoodthemed pantomime Merry Sherwood, or Harlequin Forester.

It was first performed by Townsend in Covent Garden in December 1795 and became a regular part of his repertoire in the following decade. Painted in 1796, this 2ft 6in x 2ft 1in (76 x 63cm) oil on mahogany panel was shown twice at the Royal Academy.

In 1796 (when it was titled Mr Townsend as the beggar in the pantomime of Merry Sherwood) Zoffany’s painting caught the eye of the critic Anthony Pasquin who noted: “This portrait is eminently characteristic, with a strict adherence to the minutiae of the stage dress. The countenance partakes of all the muscular whim of the original contour and expression of this supplicating visage.”

It was shown again at the RA in 1893 (when simply called An Actor) but had not been seen in public since.

Zoffany portrait

Detail of the Zoffany portrait sold for £330,000 by Duke’s.

Mary Webster, in her 2011 monograph on Zoffany, assumed the painting was missing but it came for sale at Duke’s from the family of Maureen Brymer (1924-2021) with a complete provenance back to the Zoffany studio sale of 1810.

The portrait was acquired in 1819 by Thomas Wilkinson (1762-1837), the son of Jacob Wilkinson, a director of the East India Company and one of Zoffany’s most important supporters. It was described as ‘in outstanding condition’ and came in its original carved giltwood frame.

Estimated at £80,000- 150,000, it attracted bids from three international phone bidders before selling at £330,000 (plus 25% buyer’s premium).