More about the Chinese celebrity at Knole

The western settlement along the waterfront at Guangzhou (Canton), where Chinese and Europeans were allowed to meet and trade, on a late-eighteenth-century Chinese porcelain punchbowl at Nostell Priory, West Yorkshire. ©National Trust/Robert Thrift

Andrew’s response to the previous post about the Chinese page Huang Ya Dong at Knole has revealed further details about him. It looks like Huang did make it back to Guanghzou by 1785, when he corresponded with Sir William Jones, a linguist who was soliciting his help with a translation of selections from the Chinese classics.

Portrait of Sir Joshua Reynolds by Angelica Kauffman, 1767, at Saltram, Devon. ©NTPL/Rob Matheson

In his reply Huang warned of the difficulty of such a translation, saying it would take several years to complete. But he also recalled with pleasure the kindness of his English friends, and mentioned in particular dining with Sir Joshua Reynolds and Mr Blake.

Portrait of Huang Ya Dong by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1776, at Knole, Kent. ©NTPL/Horst Kolo, with the kind permission of Lord Sackville.

The source Andrew mentioned also led me to an interesting article about the Knole portrait of Huang in the Old Sennockian Newsletter for Easter 2006, in which Ong Seng analyses the sitter’s ‘Chinese’ pose and accoutrements. Seng detects an element of ‘chinoiserie’ in this, asserting that Reynolds is emphasizing Huang’s otherness.

Chinese gouache made for export to Europe showing elegant company in an interior with a view of a garden, late eighteenth century, at Claydon House, Buckinghamshire. ©NTPL/Matthew Hollow

I think it more likely that Reynolds was just trying to create an ‘authentic’ setting for Huang, based on what was known from Chinese export art about Chinese dress, architecture and interior decoration. Compared to the outrageous Chinese fantasies of Luke Lightfoot, for instance, Reynolds’s portrait of Huang shows great restraint and delicacy.

The wilder shores of chinoiserie: relief by Luke Lightfoot, 1760s, at Claydon House, Buckinghamshire. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

Nevertheless, the very fact that the 3rd Duke of Dorset commissioned this portrait from one of the celebrity artists of the day indicates that Huang was seen, on some levels at least, as a glamorous curiosity.

An old China hand identifying with Chinese customs and lifestyle: portrait of Thomas Kymer of Kidwelly by Gavin Hamilton, 1754, at Newton House, Carmarthenshire. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Another interesting source about Huang that I have found through Andrew’s reference is a letter dated 18 February 1775, probably by Reynolds, in which Huang is described as being 22 years old – which means that he must be about 23 at the time the Knole portrait was painted, a young man rather than an adolescent.

The empirical view of China: elevation and plan of a pagoda in William Chambers's Designs of Chinese Buildings, 1757. ©NTPL/John Hammond

The letter also reveals some of Huang’s own motives for coming to Britain. Apparently he had heard from the artist Tan Chitqua of his favourable reception in England, and he then ‘determined to make the voyage likewise, partly from curiosity, and a desire of improving himself in science, and partly with a view of procuring some advantages in trade, in which he and his elder brother are engaged.’ Rather than being the passive object of John Bradby Blake’s schemes, Huang clearly had his own agenda.

I am very grateful to both Andrew and Hongbo for bringing this up and leading us to discover more about this fascinating portrait.

4 Responses to “More about the Chinese celebrity at Knole”

  1. Toby Worthington Says:

    The portrait by Reynolds of Huang in ‘native” costume returns us to the nagging
    question of whether it was done for purposes of fashion and whimsy (chinoiserie
    rather than Chinese) or whether there was something uncomfortably patronising
    about the artist’s intentions. Not that it’s ever a good idea to apply twenty first
    century attitudes to eighteenth century taste; and as you point out, Reynolds showed commendable restraint in avoiding the usual cliché trappings. Still,
    it becomes clearer that Huang was much more than an exotic oddity. I strongly
    doubt that he paraded around England in that coolie hat….

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes these questions go to the heart of what chinoiserie is (amd of course there are many different kinds of chinoiserie). In this particular portrait there seem to be elements of whimsy, but also elements of an empirical approach.

    Hongbo Du has just told me that it seems odd to him for the sitter to be holding a fan in that way in a portrait context, so that may be an attempt by Reynolds to make Huang look more recognisably ‘oriental’.

    Hongbo also says that to sit cross-legged like that represents rather informal body language in an East Asian context, which would seem to be slightly inappropriate for a portrait. So again that may be an element of whimsy on Reynolds’s part, or simply his unfamiliarity with Chinese social and pictorial conventions.

    Interestingly, Huang’s hat seems fairly grand, a Chinese gentleman’s item of headgear rather than a coolie’s. But as you say he probably didn’t wear that all the time when in England, and the portrait drawing by Dance the younger seems to show his ‘everyday’ wear.

  3. Andrew Says:

    Glad to be of help. You may also like to see p.143-4 of “Needles, herbs, gods, and ghosts: China, healing, and the West to 1848″, by Linda L. Barnes – http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=9goVmFL0ZGwC&pg=PA143 – which mentions “Hwang-a-tung”.

    How about Loum Kiqua, the Portuguese-speaking Chinese merchant who visited London in 1756-7. He was in Lisbon in 1755 (and all know about the earthquake and tsunami in November that year). He was depicted in an engraving by Dominic Serres. The accompanying text says that he was ill-treated by the Portuguese, but well-received by the English.

    He was preceded by almost 100 years by Michael Shen Fuzong, a Jesuit convert. He was painted by Kneller when he visited London in 1687 (in the Royal Collection).

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    That’s fantastic, Andrew – Barnes also clarifies that Huang was appointed as page to Giovanna Baccelli, the 3rd Duke’s mistress (and not to ‘the Duchess’ as is stated elsewhere, which would have been imposible because the previous Duchess of Dorset, the 3rd Duke’s aunt, had died and he himself hadn’t married yet).

    And thank you, too, for reminding us that Huang was not the first noteworthy visitor to England from China – that opens up a whole other area of comparative research.

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