Macau: a panoramic view looking south-west, Pencil, pen and ink and watercolour, 18 x 27 cm, Mr and Mrs Peter Thompson

A Legend In His Own Lifetime

18th November 2011

Never heard of George Chinnery? You’re not alone.

Jack Watkins seeks enlightenment at Asia House where a new exhibition – The Flamboyant Mr Chinnery: An English Artist in India and China – has just opened…

‘George Chinnery,’ begins the publicity blurb for this enticing new show, ‘is one of the British artists most neglected in his native country’. On quality and variety of output alone, that’s not especially surprising, perhaps, given the richness of this nation’s artistic heritage, but Chinnery has certainly been long overlooked – his last major appearance in London seems to have been at the Tate in 1932. What is more surprising is that he never popped up in a Dickens novel, though apparently he has been the inspiration for characters penned by other writers. His self-portrait gazes – scowls, even – at you from the walls of the gallery: the self-styled ‘ugliest man on the Chinese coast’, an intriguing mixture of belligerence and dandyism.

His adventurous, philanderous life included spells in London, Ireland and India, before he ended up in China, on the run from creditors, befriended by wealthy opium merchants. By his last years, he was a regarded as an exotic, and as much of a tourist attraction as some of the Asian scenes he painted.

There’s much to be said for a visit to one of the smaller London art attractions, away from the razzmatazz of the major galleries and their glitzy marketing. This exhibition takes place within the balconied, Georgian-terraced headquarters of Asia House, a couple of roads back from Oxford Street in Marylebone – in the centre of town, therefore, yet removed from the hoards of visitors and shoppers. Asia House is a pan-Asian organisation seeking to bring an awareness of the continent’s culture to London audiences, and to build bridges between Asia and the West. In Mr Chinnery they could hardly have picked a more intriguing subject.
It used to be thought that he was an Irishman, an impression perhaps enhanced by his ready wit, his generosity and the tall tales, not all of them untrue, that gathered around his name. In fact, he was born in London, where his father and grandfather were calligraphers, the latter the author of the intriguingly named Writing and Drawing made Easy, Amusing and Instructive (1750). Young George, born in 1774, took to painting and was skilled enough to enter the Royal Academy Schools, where JMW Turner was a contemporary.

The peripatetic lifestyle was soon to begin, however, when Chinnery moved to Ireland. He seems to have gone down well there, for he was eventually awarded a silver palette by the artists of Dublin ‘in Testimony of his Exertions in promoting Fine Arts in Ireland’. He also gained a wife – Marianne, the landlord’s daughter – of whom the Dictionary of Art notes, without apparent irony, that she ‘gave birth to his two legitimate children’.

Whatever domestic bliss emerged from the alliance was short-lived, for it seems that it was the breakdown of the marriage that caused Chinnery to catch a boat to India in 1802. There were reports that Marianne was extremely domineering, which would not have coincided with the artist’s bohemian inclinations, while tales of her incredible ugliness would become a staple of Chinnery’s dining repertoire while in the East. Two drawings he made of her, shown in the exhibition, do not bear out her unattractiveness, however, and are tenderly executed.

Unlike many European artists who tried their luck in the colonies, Chinnery’s sojourn would be more than a temporary one. In fact, he’d never return to Britain. Based in Calcutta, he secured many valuable commissions, and where his earlier works had mainly been miniature portraits, now he was working on a larger scale, depicting the big beasts of the East India Company, or the likes of Sir Henry Russell, the chief justice of Bengal, pictured seated amongst the paraphernalia of empire.

However, what appealed to Chinnery – and which still appeals to us – were his scenes of local life: the boatmen at the waterside, the long-limbed palanquin bearers at languorous rest, or small landscapes of ruined temples and other monuments. His style was simple and clear, unromanticised, yet evocative of place. According to Charles D’Oyly, a colonial official at whose residence Chinnery lived for a time, he liked landscape painting ‘a thousand times better than portrait painting’.

Still, though he was often criticised for lack of finish, having your portrait painted by Chinnery on arrival in Calcutta was apparently considered a rite of passage by young men coming to work there. Two colourful pictures by D’Oyly himself capture something of his friend’s showman-like flamboyance, depicting Chinnery at work in his studio swaying around on his heels to welcome us, while flourishing his palette and brushes above his head. Yet Chinnery began to accumulate heavy debts; the reasons why are unclear, although an obituarist would later write that he demonstrated ‘that complete indifference to the value of money which so often accompanies artists of genius’.

Under threat of being flung into an inhospitable Indian prison, in 1821 Chinnery hot-footed it several miles upriver to the Danish settlement of Serampore – a notorious haunt of ‘big fraudulent bankrupts from the capital of the empire’, according to one contemporary – before heading up the China coast to Canton and Macau. Many Western merchants had their trading bases here in hongs (factories) which combined offices, stores and living quarters behind fine westernised facades. Chinnery painted a number of topographical oil paintings featuring the hongs, with an atmospheric touch added by the figures of natives sitting by the waysides smoking on long pipes, or of figures in wide-brimmed straw hats wandering off down long dark alleys.

Self-portrait in old age, Pencil and watercolour, 10.2 x 8.6 cm, Mr and Mrs Peter Thompson

Inevitably, Chinnery was a popular figure with the expat community, a much sought after dinner guest with endearing eccentricities and a sense of theatricality. For all his capricious ways, his moods veering from cheerfulness to total dejection, he took painting very seriously, priding himself on rising early to sketch outdoors. As with his Indian work, it is the scenes of local life, particularly some enchanting portraits of Chinese Tanka boatwomen and another of a Chinese woman of more elevated status seated against a ‘moon’ gateway, that appeal most from this time.

Chinnery also executed several very honest self-portraits which captured his fierce countenance, his eyes glaring above spectacles perched low on his nose, his jowelly cheeks and his protuberant lower lip – the angry, neglected genius he believed himself to be. In fact, he was not entirely forgotten back here in London and he regularly sent works across to be exhibited at the Royal Academy.

By the 1840s, his rather muted palette with its favoured beige tones must have made him seem a little dated, but his adopted community remained immensely proud of him.

When he died in 1852, he was given a suitably fine tombstone in the Protestant cemetery in Macau where, in 1974, to mark the bicentenary of his birth, a street was named after him. In Hong Kong, where he had also spent six months, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel still has a Chinnery Bar. Now this enjoyable exhibition, curated by Patrick Conner – whose accompanying catalogue is highly recommended for more details of the painter’s life and works – sets the record straight for England. Mr Chinnery, at long last, has come home.

Exhibition runs to 21 January.
Admission free.
For details:

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