The sitters are Richard Dalton (?1715-91), antiquarian and minor graphic artist, librarian to George III and from 1778 surveyor of the King's pictures; his wife Esther (née de Heulle, died 1782) whom he married in 1764; and their niece Mary de Heulle, the daughter of Esther's brother Abraham (died 1763) and his wife Mary Magdalen Garnault whom he married in 1758. Their orphaned child (later Mary Agar) was adopted by the Daltons, who were themselves childless. She received 633000 in trust from her grandfather, Abraham de Heulle, a wealthy Huguenot Spitalfields silk-weaver, on his death in 1765, and was named a legatee in her aunt's will of 1775 (proved 1782). Esther holds a tatting-shuttle. The young Mary is beginning a drawing under Dalton's instruction. John Landon (1767-1847), an amateur painter and brother-in-law of Mrs Dalton, commented that 'the likeness of Dalton is wonderful' (undated letter of c.1844-7 from John Landon to his nephew Francis Landon; quoted in Landon, p.337).

Sometime during the painting's indirect descent through the family, the identity of the sitters was lost. At the time of its sale at Christie's on 31 May 1902 it was titled The Drawing Lesson, and was said to depict 'Philip Palmer of Dorney Court, Bucks, with his wife Jane and daughter and heiress Anna, subsequently the wife of James Landon'. The true identity of the sitters was not known until the discovery of the above-mentioned letter from John Landon to his nephew, in the family archives.

The picture has been dated on grounds of dress, style and presumed age of the sitters to the artist's first sojourn in England, before his departure for Italy in 1772. Zoffany, who was working for the Royal Family by the mid-1760s, would naturally have come into contact with Dalton, who had been in the King's service from at least 1758.

Various pentimenti show that a more elaborate background may have originally been intended. The awkward spatial relationships suggest a studio setting rather than Dalton's rooms in St James's Palace.

Further reading:
The Tate Gallery 1974-6 Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1978, pp.44-5, reproduced
Mary Webster, Johan Zoffany 1733-1810, exhibition catalogue, National Portrait Gallery, London 1976, p.39, reproduced
Theodore Luke Giffard Landon, 'The Landons: the first two hundred years ( arrival, Spitalfields and onwards', Proceedings of the Huguenot Society, vol.25, no.4, London 1992, pp.331-2, 337-8, reproduced pl.XXVI[c]

Terry Riggs
January 1998