Untold lives blog

30 December 2011

George Chinnery - an artist in Asia

Inspired both by a favourable review in The Independent and an eye-catching poster pinned up on the Asian & African Studies Reading Room notice board, I visited The Flamboyant Mr. Chinnery exhibition at Asia House. Such opportunities very rarely arise, this being the first major display of his art in the UK in more than half a century. Two works from the India Office Prints and Drawings collection are included in this show.


Studies of a brick kiln and of a group of men sawing a plankAn example of Chinnery's work from BL/WD 3385 Album of Drawings of Bengal f.27: Studies of a brick kiln and of a group of men sawing a plank 1821-1825. Images Online

While not a household name, George Chinnery (1774-1852) is now acknowledged as one of the foremost European artists based in Asia in the first half of the nineteenth century. He was nothing if not versatile, producing during the course of a long career spent largely in India and southern China a range of portraits, landscapes and street scenes in oil, watercolour and pencil. An exhibition caption states that he himself preferred creating landscapes. While there are several very fine examples of these in the show, this viewer liked best the portraits, especially a pair of dignified Chinese officials in exotic costume and above all the Anglo-Indian children of the East India Company administrator James Kirkpatrick. Kirkpatrick was the subject of the writer William Dalrymple's award-winning book White Mughals, published in 2002. Interestingly, a number of his sketches still have the original notes he wrote on them in shorthand, details of which the curators have incorporated into the exhibition catalogue.
Chinnery's life is as fascinating as his art. A Londoner by birth, he studied at the Royal Academy Schools but moved to Ireland when in his early twenties, marrying in Dublin in 1799. His elder brother William also left his native country, but in his case he fled to Sweden to avoid imprisonment for fraud. Leaving his wife and two infant children in Europe, in 1802 George Chinnery set out for Madras on the Gilwell, later transferring to the centre of British power in the sub-continent, Calcutta. His establishing himself among the British community and gaining patrons and commissions may have been assisted by his membership of the 'Star in the East' Masonic Lodge, but nevertheless he fell heavily into debt and left India altogether in 1825 to go to Macao. Apart from regular visits to Canton and a stint in Hong Kong he spent the rest of his life in this small Portuguese colony, being buried in the Old Protestant cemetery there. His name lives on to this day in the 'Rua George Chinnery', a photograph of which is to be found among the exhibits. 
The Flamboyant Mr. Chinnery runs until 21 January at Asia House, 63 New Cavendish Street W1, and is free of charge.

Hedley Sutton
Asian & African Studies Reference Team Leader



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