Spotlight feature by Freddie Pegram
George Chinnery’s Ragged Landscapes
In 1977, a group of more than thirty sketches by the late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century British artist George Chinnery was photographed and reproduced in the PMC’s photographic archive (a selection are illustrated below). They had been the property of the art collector and historian Paul Oppé (1878–1957).
The Oppé sketchbook contains topographical studies from Chinnery’s travels throughout India, Hong Kong, and Macao. However, all are in various states of disrepair and provide a paradigm of the mutability and transience of art-objects and, in particular, of works on paper. The delicate sheets are torn, ripped, and pieced back together, their edges ragged and frayed, with whole sections of drawings often entirely missing. The effect of the damage is itself beguilingly poetic, imbuing the drawings with a singular and charismatic mystique. In this sense, the Oppé sketches perfectly encapsulate the raggedness and intrigue of Chinnery’s remarkably peripatetic and sometimes perilous career.
In a review of the 2011 exhibition “The Flamboyant Mr Chinnery: An English Artist in India and China” at Asia House in London, Brian Sewell described George Chinnery ( below) as “the famous painter, the penniless fornicator, the begetter of an uncertain number of illegitimate Chinnerys, white, brown and yellow and the recorder of faces, places, pursuits and past times in India and on the South China coast.”
Sewell’s typically sardonic and provocative language undoubtedly paints something of a caricature. That said, it is a caricature not without some basis in truth. Chinnery’s remarkable life began in London on 5 January 1774. His father and grandfather were both writing masters and his grandfather, in particular, was an expert in calligraphy. In the Oppé drawings, a distinctly calligraphic flair characterises Chinnery’s draughtsmanship and it is certainly possible that this came, in some part, from skills learnt during his upbringing.
Chinnery’s artistic career began in more familiar territory than that in which it ended. As in the case of Hugh Robinson before him, Chinnery attended the Royal Academy Schools, which he entered in 1791. During the following four years, Chinnery showed sufficient promise to successfully exhibit over twenty minor portraits at the Academy.
In 1796, Chinnery moved to Dublin, the first indication of the uncommonly itinerant career that was to follow. There he met his first wife, Marianne Vigne and continued to develop his burgeoning practice. He became secretary for the Society of Artists in Ireland and accumulated a circle of wealthy patrons for whom he predominantly produced portraiture. There, in the words of Patrick Conner’s DNB entry on the artist, he is said to have “extended his artistic range to incorporate landscapes and large portraits in oils”, which would form the two foundation stones of his later output.
In 1802, Chinnery moved once again. After a brief return to London, he left his young family in order to join his brother who was employed as a civil servant for the East India Company. The artist made his home in the Bengali city of Calcutta (now Kolkata). Here, he found a significant expatriate community and, among them, wealthy patrons belonging to the colonial ruling class. He produced portraits of significant political figures in Britain’s Indian territories, including the Chief Justice of Bengal, Sir Henry Russell (below, left) and the Governor General of India, Gilbert Elliot-Murray-Kynynmound, 1st Earl of Minto (below, right). During his time in India, and despite the fact that Chinnery was, according to one sitter, “one of the ugliest men in existence”, he is known to have fathered at least two illegitimate sons by an unknown Indian woman. Ultimately, despite the great wealth of his patrons, Chinnery found himself in financial difficulties, which forced him to move on yet again.
In September 1825, Chinnery made passage to the Portuguese-controlled port settlement of Macao where, aside from temporary sojourns in Hong Kong, Canton (Guangzhou), and Shanghai, he lived for the rest of his days. In Macao, Chinnery was once again able to attract wealthy patrons for whom he mostly painted portraits. As well as British expatriates living in Macao’s international haven, Chinnery portrayed wealthy members of the Portuguese, American, Swedish, and Parsee communities living in the city. He also depicted Chinese “Hong Merchants”, as in his celebrated portraits of How Qua (below).
Chinnery, though, did not exclusively depict a wealthy clientele. He also painted less affluent members of Macao’s ethnically diverse population, and sought to capture the rituals of everyday life in the port city (below, left and right).
In Macao, Chinnery is said to have dramatically increased his output of topographical and landscape drawings, of which the Oppé sketches make up a small fraction. Chinnery was described as having “like[d] landscape painting a thousand times better than portrait painting”. During his time in Macao, he was reported to have woken daily at five o’clock in the morning to go out sketching. Sketching was foundational to Chinnery’s working methods. He used his sketchbooks as far more than just preparatory studies. As a modern Christie’s auction catalogue has noted, his uses for sketches were wide-ranging: they were “for clients to make selections and to commission watercolours or oils; for friends and pupils to trace and copy; to sell or to give as presents and even [served] … as partial payments for some of his debts.”
At the outset of the First Opium War between Britain and China, Chinnery’s livelihood came under threat. In February 1840, he was ordered by the Chinese to leave Macao. Unable to make passage to Bengal, his precarious position was only resolved when the British Navy arrived in June that summer. In the aftermath of the war, Hong Kong superseded Macao’s status as the foremost trading post on the South China Sea. Chinnery moved there in 1846, presumably to follow his moneyed patrons, but stayed for just six months before ill health prompted his return to Macao. Chinnery continued to work up until his death on 30 May 1852 and is buried in Macao’s Protestant cemetery.
It is not entirely clear from which period of Chinnery’s career the Oppé sketches come. But we are on safe ground in suggesting that, both figuratively and materially, the sketches epitomise a romantic vision of a distant “Oriental” world. As a schoolchild might fray and stain a piece of paper in order to affect the qualities of an old and weathered document, the accidental damage suffered by these sketches colours our understanding of their subject matter by enhancing the romanticised decay expressed in Chinnery’s visions of the colonised East. Even as the product of happenchance, the damage still influences the way we read and interpret these images
The Oppé sketchbook stands apart from Hugh Robinson’s Head of a Beggar and the “Rothes Portraits” in that the sketches of which it is comprised remain in almost entirely the same state today as when they were photographed for the PMC’s archives in the 1970s. In 1996, the sketches were acquired by the Tate as part of a collection of over 3,000 works on paper formerly belonging to Paul Oppé. This famous connoisseur’s decision to buy the sketchbook, and its later acquisition by the Tate, implicitly bolsters its value within the histories written of British Art. Even in its traumatically damaged state, it will continue to constitute a visible expression of the nature of colonial life in Asia, and a valuable record of an aspect of British history still often absent from public discourse and educational curricula.