George Chinnery certainly was beyond flamboyant - he was, if nothing else, deeply eccentric. Many English artists made the journey to the Far East in search of exotic sights and subjects, and a different cultural slant on life in China and India, on the back of the East India Company, but few stayed to live, and die, there.
There are many myths surrounding Mr Chinnery, and in the accompanying catalogue the curator of the exhibition, Patrick Conner, states that “it might almost be said that Chinnery is better known through works of fiction than through his own art.”
He focuses on James Clavell’s Tai-Pan, in which Chinnery appears as the artist Aristotle Quance, a philandering womaniser. Certainly, the ingredients of his private life concoct a spicy dish, from the Tanka boatwomen, whom he painted, his friendship with the diarist Harriet Low, and his well-known ‘generosity to women’, all the time trying to keep one step ahead of his wife Marianne, who pursued him halfway across the globe, after he abandoned her and his two children in Dublin.
He was also trying to keep ahead of his debtors and fled Calcutta for, first of all, Serampore, a Danish settlement a few miles upriver from Calcutta, where he enjoyed immunity from English law, and then to Macau and the China coast. His patrons in India had been wealthy and influential and included William Jardine, James Matheson and Gilbert Elliot, who was the Governor General in the early 1800s, so it's hard to understand where all his money went.
When he first arrived in India, he stayed with Sir Charles D’Oyly with whom he shared a love of painting and through him gained many important commissions to portray the great and the good of India’s colonial capital but Chinnery professed to prefer painting landscapes.
Indeed, his drawings, watercolours and oils of the surrounding countryside and their peoples, are both pleasing and informative about life and customs in the Far East in the mid-nineteenth century. His early drawing style has a Rowlandsonian flavour without the concommitant bawdiness and is echoed by D’Oyly, who has a couple of works in the show, both depicting a character called Tom Raw in Chinnery’s studio, a mecca for Calcutta society.
A contemporary of Chinnery and fellow Orientalist was the surgeon, soldier and artist, Dr James Atkinson, who also studied under Chinnery with O’Oyly in Calcutta. He also wrote Tom Raw, the Griffin: a Burlesque Poem in Twelve Cantos illustrated by 25 engravings, describing the adventures of a cadet in the East India Company’s service from the period of his leaving England to his obtaining a staff situation.
Apart from the portraits of notable figures such as Sir Henry Russell, the Chief Justice of Bengal, and George Siddons of the East India Company, he portayed the hong merchants Howqua and Mowqua, enormously influential merchants, through whom most European trade had to be conducted. This is a fascinating well-paced exhibition and his fascinating story is told with humanity, humour and an insight into life in the Far East in that period.
By Don Grant
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