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Great Works

Great Works: Thomas King as Touchstone in As You Like It, 1780 (91cm x 55.5cm), By Johan Zoffany

Garrick Club, London

This painting, which usually lives as a non-paying guest at the Garrick Club, is currently on display at the Royal Academy's Zoffany show, and you come upon it there rather suddenly, quite close to the entrance, like some clever bit of theatrical staging. Here is Touchstone in Shakespeare's As You Like It, stepping in from the right to declaim to Rosalind some very bad, jog-trot verses in imitation of ones that have been pinned to a nearby tree by her love-sick lover, Orlando. You do not see Rosalind at all – the painting has been cut down.

The character is beautifully, comically poised and posed, weight borne on its right leg. He leans, slightly, with beckoning finger, lips just parted, to say his piece. The tone is one of gentle, studied mockery. His fool's costuming, with the raucous blare of those puffy vertical stripes is extravagant, ridiculous, perfect, and especially so for an actor who has outlived his youthfulness. The ass's ears suppress some promised spillage from a wig. There is nothing but this gesture of taunting outreach, and it fills the space to perfection. It is also a fairly rare example of an artist rising to one of Shakespeare's great comic occasions.

Yes, generally speaking, Shakespeare is often a nuisance. To poets in particular, I mean. They cower in his overbearing presence. At his greatest, he cannot be surpassed. No one has encompassed life's great generalities in quite such magnificent language. And it all happened about 400 years ago. Imagine if you were a maker of automobiles, and you were told that the best had already been and gone, long ago. It would take the spark out of your plug.

But he is a snare for artists too. So few have done him justice. There are some, of course: Blake, Millais, Hogarth, Maclise. Few seem capable of matching the emotional reach of the language. They do little but illustrate, describe. They do not embody the thrust, the gravity of the words. Those who interpret the tragedies are usually the worst, falling a prey to hamming, exaggerated actorly posturing. They strive too hard for sublimity. If this was music, we would clap our hands to our ears and call it too shrill.

Why though? He was born too late is the crassest of explanations. Most of the great painters of the Renaissance, those who had done justice to the myths of the Greeks and the Romans, had all died by the time that Shakespeare was a babe in arms. Shakespeare had been inside his mother's womb for approximately seven months when Michelangelo finally gave up the ghost. Too late to be so great.

About the artist

Johan Zoffany (1733-1810) Born in Germany, Johan Zoffany was one of the greatest painters of the 18th century, and many of his evocations of the Georgian theatre world of Garrick and Co are usually to be found sitting pretty in the dining room of the Garrick Club in London. He managed to inveigle himself into the circle of George III and Queen Charlotte, and he was a prosperous painter not only of the world of the Court, but of aristocratic preening, petting and idling in general.