Windows onto a vanished past: George Chinnery’s evocative images of 19th-century India, Macau and Hong Kong
In 1802, London-born George Chinnery boarded a ship for Madras in search of his fortune. He would spend the next 50 years abroad, forever fleeing his debts, but at the same making portraits and landscapes that amount to a documentary treasure trove
If George Chinnery had had a decent accountant, his life would have been very different — and his contribution to art history, one suspects, a lot less interesting.
Chinnery was born in London in 1774. He went on to attend the Royal Academy Schools around the same time as J.M.W. Turner and to exhibit a number of paintings at the Royal Academy itself.
A dire appreciation of finances, however, and a proclivity to get into debt meant that the adult Chinnery was regularly on the run from creditors. His travels took him to different parts of India and China, where he produced images that are perhaps unrivalled as records of the people and places there in the first half of the 19th century.
On 25 May 2023, as part of the Three Private Collections: Belgravia, Berkshire and Guernsey sale at Christie’s in London, more than 30 works by Chinnery are being offered — all from the same collection.
The artist’s first move was actually from London to Dublin in 1796. He accumulated a circle of wealthy patrons there, whose portraits he painted. However, the Acts of Union of 1800, which constitutionally united Great Britain and Ireland, had the negative effect of emptying the Irish Parliament of MPs — and, consequently, his studio of sitters.
Within two years, after a brief return to London, Chinnery sensed the chance to make good money and boarded a boat for Madras (today’s Chennai), where his brother was employed by the East India Company. He left his Irish wife and two young children behind and, despite living another 50 years, never set foot in the British Isles again.
The sale features two of Chinnery’s watercolours of his adopted city — The entrance to ‘the Honourable East India Company’s pagoda’, Madras (above) and Madras, a street scene — both executed in a freely handled style. Foreground figures and architectural features are suggested by dashes, dots and quick strokes, in a manner quite different from the more detailed work of Chinnery’s later years.
In 1807, the artist moved on to Calcutta (today’s Kolkata), having been summoned to paint a huge portrait of Sir Henry Russell, the Chief Justice of Bengal, for the city hall. It was as a portraitist of the colonial ruling class — as well as a handful of local princes — that Chinnery made his name, establishing himself as one of the leading artists in British India.
However, as was observed by Eliza Jane D’Oyly, wife of Sir Charles D’Oyly, the Collector of Government Customs and Town Duties, he liked ‘landscape painting a thousand times better than portrait painting’. Venturing with his sketchbook into the Bengal countryside outside Calcutta, Chinnery found inspiration in oxen, goats and wooden carts — as well as dwellings with unkempt thatched roofs and tombs overgrown with vegetation.
In a way, he was no less in thrall to Romanticism than his peers back in England, such as Turner and Thomas Girtin, who chose to paint crumbling abbeys and fallen columns.
Despite earning well from portrait commissions, Chinnery somehow contrived to rack up debts on a massive scale. In 1814 he wrote to the outgoing Governor-General of India, the 1st Earl of Minto, asking for £8,000’s worth of financial assistance ‘to settle [him] in England’. Sadly for Chinnery, the earl died before receiving the letter.
‘There are not even six [artists] at home whom I’d stand in any awe of’ — George Chinnery in a letter to his friend, Maria Browne, in 1817
The artist managed to escape the bailiffs until 1821, when finally he decided his only hope was to relocate to the Danish settlement of Frederiksnagore (today’s Serampore) in West Bengal. British civil law didn’t apply there, meaning that legally he couldn’t be pursued.
Numerous artists — such as Johann Zoffany and the uncle-nephew duo Thomas and William Daniell — followed a pattern of working profitably in India before returning home to Britain. That was never an option for Chinnery, however, as, for whatever reason, he simply couldn’t afford it. (Some have suggested he was an opium addict.)
In 1825, fearful that creditors still might find a way to ensnare him, he jumped on a ship to China, where he would remain for the rest of his life — predominantly in Macau, though he also spent time in Hong Kong and Canton (today’s Guangzhou) nearby.
These three cities were international trading hubs, and Chinnery now found a more diverse group of portrait subjects than in India. He captured Portuguese, American, Swedish and Parsee sitters, as well as British merchants such as William Jardine (who, in a painting coming to auction, below, is seen seated at his desk) and so-called ‘Hong merchants’ (local figures licensed by China’s Qing dynasty to trade with Westerners).
He also found time to indulge his passion for depicting scenes of local life on streets and on beaches. It’s said that he used to rise every day at first light and head out to do a few sketches before breakfast — commonly working these sketches up into watercolours and oils in his studio later in the day.
His subjects in Macau ranged from market vendors, boat people and gamblers to blacksmiths, barbers and stonemasons. Portuguese-built forts and Jesuit churches often provide an impressive backdrop (Macau having been controlled by Portugal since the 16th century).
These scenes gain character for tending to be closely cropped and relatively muted in colour. Chinnery’s many rural scenes, by contrast, such as A landscape in Macau with a herdsman walking along a track, are punctuated by vibrant tones, offering a serenely beautiful impression of the countryside and rolling hills of the Macau peninsula.
Following Britain’s victory over China in the First Opium War (1839-42), Hong Kong surpassed Macau as the foremost trading post on the South China Sea. Chinnery moved there in 1846, but stayed only for six months before bouts of illness prompted him to leave.
The artist died in Macau in 1852, aged 78. The parts of China he depicted have, of course, been transformed by modernisation since then, and what’s fascinating about his images is seeing both what has changed and what has stayed the same. Myriad skyscrapers and the international airport are examples of the former; St Dominic’s church and the sweeping bay of Praia Grande rare examples of the latter.
Chinnery’s pictures offer a window onto a lost past, not just geographically but also socially, with views of local lives being led. Take the cows in the bottom right of A landscape in Macau with a herdsman and cattle watering, a stand of bamboo beyond, which were not a native breed. Chinese cattle were smaller and less accustomed to milking than their Western counterparts — meaning that they were unable to meet the demand from the large expatriate community, which had been raised on a diet rich in dairy. The result was the significant importation of cows from Britain and North America.
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Chinnery never showed any particular interest in posterity, nor care for what his imagery might represent to the generations after him. He does seem to have kept a relatively close eye on what his artist-peers were doing back in Britain, though.‘There are not even six at home whom I’d stand in any awe of,’ he wrote in a letter to his friend, Maria Browne, in 1817. What Chinnery lacked in funds, he clearly made up for in self-confidence.