This painted plasterwork figure is after a very similar portrait figure signed and dated 1720 that was exhibited and published in A Tale of Three Cities: Canton, Shanghai and Hong Kong, London 1997 (p. 146). The sitter, D.S. Howard writes, is so far unidentified, but the figure has remained in the same English house since the 18th century, likely since it was commissioned by a China trader on one of the six British ships at Canton during the 1719/20 season.
The present figure is very like another in the collection of the Peabody Museum, Salem, Massachusetts and illustrated by C. Crossman (The Decorative Arts of The China Trade, p. 307); a third is reported to be in a private Scandinavian collection. It is hard to conceive of a commercial purpose to this small group of copies of the 1720 figure. Perhaps grandchildren or great-grandchildren of the original sitter commissioned them, so that various branches of the family could display a revered ancestor - likely one who greatly enhanced the family coffers.
Portraits of this type were rare in the original period, and the fragile nature of both plasterwork and unfired clay has certainly further diminished the supply. But the tradition has been well-established. Amoy Chinqua was the earliest reigning artist of the type, as demonstrated by a large figure of Joseph Collett (1673-1725), signed as the present lot and now in the collection of The National Portrait Gallery, London. Later in the century an artist known as Chitqua even traveled to London, where he spent 1769 to 1771 sculpting very fine portraits of various notables, possibly even the King and Queen. And the tradition culminated in the very large figures brought to America by Edward Carrington of Rhode Island and Benjamin Hodges of the East India Marine Society (see Crossman, op. cit., pp. 319-21).
For further amplification see the catalogue note for a similarly-sized figure of a European gentleman attributed to Amoy Chinqua, circa 1730-60, and sold Christie's, London, 7 April 1997, lot 135.