My Favourite Painting: Simon Mayall

Retired army office Sir Simon Mayall explains his love of a 'vibrant tableau summons up the exotic allure of India'.

Lt Gen Sir Simon Mayall on Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match by Johan Zoffany

‘Cockfighting was considered “disreputable” by the time of this picture, as were some of the identifiable characters in it. For me, the vibrant tableau summons up the exotic allure of India, those intoxicated generations of Britons, as they developed from the rakes of the East India Company into the stern, patrician administrators of the high British Raj and on to the modern travellers of today.

‘Between them, my grandmother, a doctor, and my grandfather, a port engineer, spent nearly half a century of their professional lives in India. My mother was born there. Brought up in Aden, I, too, went east to serve, yet another pale Anglo-Saxon attracted by the same glare, glamour, adventure and opportunity that had drawn Col Mordaunt and his 18th-century contemporaries to India.’

Lt Gen Sir Simon Mayall (Rtd) is a Middle East adviser for the MoD. He will discuss his book Soldier in the Sand with Frank Gardner on April 27, for the Virtual Lord Mayor’s Big Curry Lunch (www.soldierscharity.org)

John McEwen comments on Cock Match and Zoffany’s work

Johan Zoffany (Zoffanij) was the son of a Catholic court architect to the 3rd Prince Thurn and Taxis. Talent for drawing led to his training in Germany and Italy. He returned briefly to his home country to be a provincial court painter before, impulsive by nature, moving to London in 1760. There, his social skills and artistic mastery of several styles and genres soon led to success. The German Queen Charlotte favoured him and George III nominated him for the newly founded Royal Academy.

Fashions changed, however, and his extravagance — Thames musical parties, liveried servants — required support. The new market in British India beckoned. In the 1780s he went there — and restored his fortune.

This Indian ‘conversation piece’ centres on Col John (Jack) Mordaunt, an illegitimate son of Charles Mordaunt, 4th Earl of Peterborough. The amiable Jack went to India and rose to command a regiment. A shared passion for the gambling sport of cock-fighting, popular with poor and rich, made him the favourite of the extravagant Nawab Wazir of Oudh, who soon owed him money, but refused to honour his debts: ‘My dear Mordaunt, if I were to pay you, you would go to England, which must not be.’ Mordaunt never did go back.

Group scenes had identification keys. Here, excited Indian spectators surround the demarcated cockpit, where languid guests sit under the canopy shading the Nawab’s cushioned white seat. Mordaunt stands in white evening wear to the left of centre; the Nawab approaches him to make a wager. Also in white is the seated Zoffany (top right), porte-crayon in hand. The artist Ozias Humphry stands behind him. The box holds the birds’ lethal spurs.

The painting was commissioned by Warren Hastings, Governor-General of Bengal, who is not present.