Long eclipsed by contemporaries like Reynolds and Gainsborough, 18th century German painter Johan Zoffany gets a show of his own at London's Royal Academy next month which curators hope will restore the reputation of an under-rated artist.

Zoffany remains such an enigma that no one knows how many of his works survive and organisers of the upcoming exhibition hope the publicity it generates may unearth more of his paintings previously attributed to others.

I think he's hugely under-rated, and that is why we're doing the exhibition, said MaryAnne Stevens, curator of the show which transfers from the Yale Center for British Art.

He is someone absolutely on a par with Gainsborough and Reynolds, she told reporters at a preview briefing on Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed, which runs from March 10 to June 10 in the Royal Academy's Sackler Wing gallery.

Zoffany, whose first name is sometimes spelled Johann, was born near Frankfurt in 1733 and his earliest known works were made for German princedoms in the 1750s.

In 1760 he moved to London where he was patronised by the actor David Garrick and members of the court of George III, enjoying considerable success and joining the Royal Academy in 1769, a year after its creation.

In 1772 he travelled to Italy with a commission for Queen Charlotte to paint The Tribuna of the Uffizi, probably his most famous work which was nevertheless unpopular at the time for its depiction of individuals deemed inappropriate by the monarchy.

He went to India between 1783 and 1789 to make money from the wealthy British gentry living there, but towards the end of his life fell on hard times and was forced to request financial support from the Academy before his death in 1810.

A ROYAL FALLING OUT

The exhibition aims to unravel the enigma surrounding Zoffany, collecting more than 60 oil paintings arranged thematically to explore his training in Rome, relationship with the theatre in London, his place in the English court and mastery of the conversation piece.

These large canvases featuring groups of people, be they members of a family, organisation or social group, often benefitted from the eye of an outsider who was nevertheless allowed extraordinary access.

Most recognisable among them was The Tribuna of the Uffizi, a detailed depiction of masterpieces from the collection of the Grand Duke of Tuscany being admired by a group of diplomats, connoisseurs and travellers.

Several men crowd around the erotically charged Venus of Urbino by Titian, and Zoffany fell foul of his royal patrons for including too many figures, among them the painter Thomas Patch who was expelled from Rome following accusations of a homosexual indiscretion.

According to a diary entry from the royal collection, which owns the painting, Queen Charlotte personally disapproved of the painting and (would) not suffer the picture to be placed in any of her apartments.

Zoffany never worked for the royal family again.

In a 1782 self-portrait Zoffany is getting dressed as a monk, and on the wall behind him hang two condoms, which Stevens said may be the first representation of condoms in art history, underlining his naughty sense of humour.

While the Royal Academy hopes its show will raise visitors' awareness of Zoffany and his art, he is already highly valued among collectors.

A pair of paintings of Garrick and his wife at their rural Hampton retreat fetched 6.8 million pounds ($10.8 million) at an auction at Sotheby's late last year.

(Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul)