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The Sharp Family

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Private collection; on loan to the National Portrait Gallery, London

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The Sharp Family

by Johan Joseph Zoffany
oil on canvas, 1779-1781
45 1/2 in. x 49 1/2 in. (1156 mm x 1257 mm)
Lent by Trustees of the Lloyd-Baker Settled Estates, 1978
Primary Collection
NPG L169

Artistback to top

  • Johan Joseph Zoffany (1733-1810), Painter of portraits and conversation pieces. Artist associated with 46 portraits, Sitter associated with 11 portraits.

Sittersback to top

This portraitback to top

The remarkable Sharp family gave fortnightly concerts as an orchestra from the 1750s onwards. This conversation piece, one of Zoffany's masterpieces, commemorates the concerts they gave on board their sailing barge Apollo at Fulham. The work was commissioned from Zoffany by William Sharp, surgeon to George III. Sharp is seen standing at the tiller, hat raised, wearing the Windsor uniform with its distinctive red collar; his instruments are the French horns which rest on the piano. Of his three brothers, Dr John Sharp is on the right and has laid his cello aside for the moment; Granville Sharp, the famous philanthropist and slavery abolitionist, holds his favoured flageolets in one hand, his clarinet being nearby on the piano; while James Sharp, an engineer, holds the serpent. The three Sharp sisters complete the orchestra: Elizabeth at the piano, Judith with music in hand and, above to the right, Frances with a theorbo or perhaps an angelica.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Hogarth, Reynolds, Turner : British painting and the rise of modernity, 2014, p. 191 number 45
  • Audio Guide
  • Gibson, Robin, The Face in the Corner: Animal Portraits from the Collections of the National Portrait Gallery, 1998, p. 46
  • Ribeiro, Aileen, The Gallery of Fashion, 2000, p. 136
  • Ribeiro, Aileen; Blackman, Cally, A Portrait of Fashion: Six Centuries of Dress at the National Portrait Gallery, 2015, p. 145
  • Robin Gibson, Pets in Portraits, 2015, p. 75 Read entry

    This tour de force of a conversation piece was painted for William Sharp, the man at the back of the barge waving his hat, who was surgeon to George III. It depicts one of the regular family concerts given by this musical family, which in the summer were held in a barge on the Thames (Fulham Old Church can be seen in the background), and it remains one of the most vivid pictures of eighteenth-century family life. William’s wife sits in front of him holding their 2-year-old daughter Mary, who, being too young to participate, has in the best traditions of eighteenth-century child portraiture been given a kitten to hold. Sharpe’s brother Grenville, sitting behind the spinet and French horns, was a well-known philanthropist and abolitionist. Their father, Thomas, in the bottom right-hand corner, was Archdeacon of Northumberland.

    Zoffany, who was responsible for this feat of organisation and detail (there are eight musical instruments depicted), was born in Germany and, after a creditable start to his career painting late-baroque decorations and religious pieces, decided to try his fortune in England. He arrived in London in 1760 and by 1762 had been taken up by the great actor David Garrick, for whom he painted several family groups and more especially a number of scenes from Garrick’s plays. Zoffany was in a sense able to pick up where Hogarth, who died in 1764, left off, and he took the conversation piece to new heights of sophistication. More coincidentally, like Hogarth with his pugs, he also introduced his own dog, a white German spitz called Poma, into his portraits.

    Sharp family tradition had it that the dog became so attached to them that it had to be included in the painting. Exactly the same rather tender view of the recumbent Poma, however, appeared again in Zoffany’s portrait of John Wilkes and his daughter of 1782. It seems likely that Zoffany was inclined to re-use a good motif when he found one, especially if, as seems apparent with the Wilkeses, he found his sitters rather unsympathetic. A white spitz standing on its hind legs appears in at least two Zoffany conversation pieces from the late 1760s, though it seems more likely to be one of Poma’s predecessors.

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 742

Placesback to top

Events of 1779back to top

Current affairs

Admiral Augustus Keppel, First Lord of the Admiralty during the final years of the American War of Independence is tried and acquitted at court martial of misconduct at the Battle of Ushant the previous year. His case becomes a cause célèbre.
Botanist Joseph Banks tells a committee of the House of Commons that the east coast of Australia is suitable for the transportation of convicted felons.
Penitentiary Act authorises state prisons.

Art and science

Swiss artist Henry Fuseli settles in London after nine years in Rome. Painter and President of the Royal Academy Joshua Reynolds' celebrated Discourses on art are published as a book.
World's first iron bridge is assembled across the Severn at Coalbrookdale.Inventor Samuel Crompton introduces the Spinning Mule.
John Newton and William Cowper's Olney Hymns is published, containing the first printed version of Amazing Grace.


American War of Independence: Spain, in alliance with France and the US, declares war on Britain. Great Siege of Gibraltar begins, in which French and Spanish forces try to wrest power from the established British Garrison, under the leadership of General George Augustus Eliot.
Captain James Cook is killed in a skirmish with natives on the Sandwich Islands on his third and final voyage.

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John Nicholson

07 February 2019, 16:23

1. Ann Jemima Sharp born ca Dec 1762, Hartburn, Northumberland & baptised there 13 Dec 1762 ( Parish Register ). Her father, the Rev'd John Sharp, was vicar of Hartburn from 1762 & became a Prebendary of Durham in 1768.

2.Catherine Lodge, later wife of James Sharp ( 1730-1783 ), born 13 Oct 1735, prob in Enfield, Middlesex, & baptised 20 Oct 1735, St Andrew's, Enfield, Middlesex ( Parish Register ).

3. Also in the portrait is the cabin boy, far left, and Zoffany's dog, centre front, reputedly named

Dr Robert Banks

12 June 2018, 17:32

As a prebend of Durham cathedral, John Sharp and his wife Mary lived in one of the prebendal houses in the College, Durham, where their daughter, Ann Jemima, was presumably born. Following her father's death in 1792, Ann Jemima bought number 12 South Bailey, Durham, where she moved, initially with her mother, and where she lived until her own death in 1816. It remained in her estate until 1829 when it was sold by Thomas Barwick Lloyd Baker, son and heir of Mary Lloyd Baker. 12 South Bailey is now the main building of St. Cuthbert's Society, one of the constituent colleges of Durham University.

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