David Garrick (1717-79), playwright, theatrical manager and widely acknowledged as the greatest actor in English language during the 18th century, met Cantonese artist Chitqua (d.1796) in the first official dinner of the Royal Academy on April 23, 1770. At 53, David Garrick was at the peak of his professional life. His skill as a dramatist was described by the 18th cenutry German critic Lightenberg in 1775, "he is a model of strength and force as distinguished from the actors around him, by the intense life of his look, movement, gesture, and compelling, as if by magnetic force, the sympathy of his audience with every assumed mood." He was also a manager of Drury Lane from 1747. Chiefly responsible for the revival of popular interest in Shakespearean drama, he produced Shakespeare plays for the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the birth of the great English playwright in the previous year (1769). As one of the most celebrated figures of the day, he was also one of the most sought-after sitters for portrait painters. Artists including Thomas Gainesborough, Joshua Reynolds, and William Hogarth painted him in the hope of improving their fame and fortune.
Chitqua, one of the first Chinese artists to arrive in London in the 18th century, was himself treated as a celebrity and caused quite a stir. Many had heard of his realistic miniature sculptures and distinguished members of society, including the King and the Queen, received him and sat for his portrait figures. Made of unfired clay with meticulous details and with startling realism, these figures were clad in fine costumes, also made of clay, then painted with colours and fitted with real-hair wigs. Most were modelled seated, although occasionally the subjects were shown standing, the figures were completed with props such as a chair, a tree or rockworks to create a charming vignette. William Hickey in his memoir mentioned visiting a 'Chinaman who took excellent likeness in clay' with his friend and took care to wear his best and most colourful clothes, knowing full well that even the braid of the clothes would be carefully rendered. The afore-mentioned 'Chinaman' is very possibly Chitqua, who was in London between the summer of 1769 and 1771. The present figure, with its realistically modelled facial features and finely executed details, testifies to the excellent skills and artistry of Chitqua, and documents the brief encounter of these two extraordinary characters.
Although it is known that both attended the Royal Academy dinner and would surely have met, it is uncertain whether Garrick actually sat for Chitqua. The pose which the present figure assumes reminds one of the Garrick in Johan Zoffany's Mr. and Mrs. Garrick by the Shakespeare Temple at Hampton, painted in 1762. Zoffany painted numerous portraits for the Garricks, and obtained their patronage and an intimate relationship never attained by any other artists. In the Zoffany portrait and on the present figure, both artists represented Garrick standing with legs crossed and leaning on his left arm, wearing a similar long coat over a waistcoat. It is quite possible that Chitqua modelled his figure on Zoffany's painting. The two artists certainly knew each other; their acquaintance is evidenced by Zoffany's portrait of the distinguished Royal Academicians painted around 1770, in which Chitqua was included.
The figure is very fashionably dressed in a full length banyan or dressing robe of blue figured silk, worn over a stylish waistcoat and breeches of blue wool, trimmed with gilt bullion. Only his shoes seem to hark back to earlier years of the 18th century, being rather sturdy for informal wear. They are, however, beautifully and accurately detailed, even including a cobbler's trade stamp on the sole of one foot. The explanation for this anomaly is not obvious - perhaps the Chinese perception of European footwear is that Europeans always wore sturdy, outdoor shoes. It is certainly very difficult to think of a Chinese source which depicts the more fashionable European gentleman's pump.
The banyan is an interesting robe. The name is a corruption of an Indian word and was worn by the fashionable gentleman in his home for informal occasions, including entertaining, both during the day and during the evening. Typically a rich and exotic fabric would be used to make a banyan, often imported Indian chintzes or rich, Chinese brocades. It could be worn as here, with unpowdered wig or hair. Often, the gentleman wore a richly embroidered or velvet nightcap, over a bare head. A survey of portraits of the late 18th century frequently show the subject in his finest, and most exotic banyan, usually in his library, surrounded by the accessories of the Gentleman. The choice of banyan is therefore a statement of the status of the subject as a late 18th century gentleman of standing and of his cosmopolitan outlook.
Only very few of Chitqua's fine clay models are extant, possibly due to the very fragile nature of the unfired clay used as the medium. A particularly fine example is the portrait figure of Dr. Anthony Askew, who was physician to Chitqua during his stay in London, now in the Collection of the Royal College of Physicians, London (see C. L. Crossman, China Trade, Suffolk, 1991, pl.184, p.311). A standing figure of a mother holding her child in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, is also attributed to Chitqua (see ibid., pl.183, p.310). Compare also the portrait figure of Joseph Collet by Amoy Chinqua (circa 1730-60), the only other recorded Cantonese sculptor active some thirty years before Chitqua, now on display in the National Portrait Gallery, London. A painted clay figure of a European gentleman attributed to Chinqua was sold in these Rooms on the 7th of April 1997, lot 135.