A Chinese celebrity at Knole

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

Hongbo Du, a keen reader of this blog, recently asked me about the Chinese boy in the portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds (owned by Lord Sackville rather than by the National Trust) at Knole which can be seen on one of the walls of the Reynolds Room in this previous post.

The Knole guidebook mentions that he worked as a page in the household of John Frederick Sackville, 3rd Duke of Dorset (1745-1799) and that he attended Sevenoaks School. The boy had been brought to England from Guangzhou (Canton) by the Duke’s old schoolfriend John Bradby Blake (1745-1773), who worked for the East India Company.

Portrait drawing of Huang Ya Dong by George Dance the younger (1741-1825). ©Trustees of the British Museum

However, when I did an online search for Blake I found out that he was a keen naturalist and that he had brought the boy, called Huang Ya Dong, to England because of his knowledge of the propagation and use of Chinese plants. 

Huang became a minor celebrity, advising Mrs Delaney and the Duchess of Portland on Chinese plants, Josiah Wedgewood on porcelain manufacture and the physician Andrew Duncan on acupuncture.

Portrait of the 3rd Duke of Dorset by Reynolds, 1769. Accepted in in lieu of inheritance tax by HM Government and allocated to the National Trust, 1992. ©NTPL/John Hammond

There is an interesting parallel between Reynolds’s portrait of Huang and his grander, more romantic portrait of the Polynesian Omai (also painted in 1776): both are shown as exotic but dignified exemplars of faraway cultures. A later portrait of Huang by George Dance the younger in the British Museum, by contrast, shows him dressed in European garb.

It is not known what happened to Huang subsequently – he may simply have lived out his days as a servant at Knole (where he was known by the other servants as Warnoton). Perhaps he followed the 3rd Duke to Paris when he was appointed ambassador to the court of Louis XVI. But thanks to Hongbo’s enquiry we can now at least show the two known portraits of Huang together.

25 Responses to “A Chinese celebrity at Knole”

  1. Andrew Says:

    I believe Wang-y-Tong / Huang Ya Dong is thought to have returned to China before 1785, when he was working as a trader in Canton and replied to a letter from Sir William Jones ask for help with the translation of Chinese literature.

    Lichtenberg included him in a satire, and translated his name as “yellow man from the east” (which would not be at all PC these days; but I understand that “huang” and “dong” can be translated as “yellow” and “east”).

    The artist Tan-Che-Qua was in England at around the same tim. He exhibited his work at the Royal Academy, and was included in a painting of the academicians by Johann Zoffany – http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/egallery/object.asp?maker=12720&object=400747&row=6&detail=about

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Andrew, what an interesting lead – would you know where this correspondence with Sir William Jones is kept or recorded?

    Also, what is the title of that satire by Lichtenberg?

    And thanks too for that fascinating link to the Zoffany group portrait including Tan-Che-Qua.

  3. Toby Worthington Says:

    Once again, you’ve presented us with something unexpected and
    surprising. The Reynold’s portrait of Huang was unknown to me (despite
    having visited Knole and seen the Reynolds Room) and indeed, seeing
    the second image by George Dance makes one aware that this exotic
    creature must have been, to some extent, lionised by late 18th century society.
    It’s this sort of perspective that broadens our view of history and makes us
    rethink some of our oversimplifications.

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Toby, thanks very much – and now with Andrew’s leads we may find out even more…

  5. hongbo du Says:

    Andrew and Enile,

    Many thanks for the information. Andrew, please if you could, shed more lights over this. Very much appreciated. Yes, Huang in Chinese does mean Yellow and Dong does means East. I would also like to point out that Huang and Wang sound the same in Cantonese. According to my recent dipping of Chinese websites, Huang Ya Dong could be also the person known as Wang A Dong, who the website claims to be the first person introducing acupunture concept in Britain. The British museum has recently held an exhibition in Beijing when Dance’s picture of Huang was shown and generated a lot of interest. I would definitely like to know more about him…

  6. Andrew Says:

    Yes, I believe Wang-y-Tong / Huang Ya Dong is the same person, also known as Whang at Tong, Whang Atong, Wang-o-Tang, Whang-at-Ting, or Quang-at-Tong in various places. From my reading, I think he was an expert in medicinal plants and acupuncture. Part of the reason for him coming to the UK was to help the naturalist John Bradby Blake nurture plants we was bringing back to the UK. Sir William Jones was a leading 18th century orientalist and linguist.

    This is not my area at all, but I have been doing a spot of internet research on him, intrigued by Emile’s previous blog post. See, for example, “Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking”, by Michael Keevak – http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=ZmHNk38OgDEC&pg=PA66 – on p.66-68.

    The satire is “Von den Kriegs- und Fast-Schulen der Schinesen, nebst einigen andern Neuigkeiten von daher” (first published in the Göttinger Taschencalender for 1796) but I believe the translation is in a subsequent letter.

  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Drilling down through the references and footnotes in the Keevak book I have found a few more facts about Huang. I will do another post shortly to set it all out. In the mean time, thanks again, Andrew 🙂

  8. Peter Kitson Says:

    I came across this information when searching for Whang Atong as I am currently undertaking some work on Jones. Jones mentions that Whang had passed his examinations in China and was a merchant, which would seem to make it unlikely that he could be employed in England as a page. Whang certainly was educated in the Confucian classics and Jones hoped that he would provide him with a translation of the Shi King or Book of Poetry which Jones was keen to obtain, and hoped to undertake himself but never did. Reynolds is supposed to have painted Whang and Jones met Whang at a dinner with Reynolds, according to Jones. I suspect that therefore these must be two different people. Jones What certainly returned to Canton where he carried on as a merchant and correspondent with Jones. I would be most grateful for any further info about Whang. I also have researched Tan Chet Qua a little.

  9. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Peter, thank you very much for your interesting comments. Have you seen the post that follows this one? I describe a few more findings there.

    It is indeed slightly surprising that a ‘page’ should be so highly educated. On the other hand, I think it would be very unlikely for there to be two Chinese celebrities with very similar names in England in the 1770s. And as far as I know Reynolds only painted one Chinese sitter, not two different people.

    Moreover, Huang’s role as ‘page’ probably didn’t mean that he was a lowly servant with menial duties, but rather that he was given a largely ornamental role in the household at Knole, which presumably gave him the opportunity and time to pursue the ‘western studies’ that were among the reasons for his coming to England.

    I am hoping to publish all my findings about Huang in the National Trust Arts Buildings and Collections Bulletin and will let you know when it comes out.

  10. Hongbo Says:


    I am eagerly waiting for your piece. if it is out, please let us all know.

  11. Simon Chaplin Says:

    Apropos Andrew’s mention of the Zoffany group portrait featuring Tan-Che-Qua, readers may also be interested in this portrait in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England:


    It was previously identified as ‘Quang at Tong’, but is almost certainly the portrait of Tan Che Qua exhibited by John Hamilton Mortimer at the Society of Artists in 1771.

  12. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Simon, thank you very much indeed for that link. It is fascinating that, apart from the Chinese clothes, Tan Che Qua is also holding a fan, just like Huang Ya Dong, in a way that struck Hongbo as odd. Presumably Reynolds took his cue from John Hamilton Mortimer in making the sitter clutch a fan in such a prominent way, as an extra emblem of ‘Chineseness’.

    My little article about the portrait of Huang Ya Dong, expanding on the suggestions provided here by Hongbo and Andrew, is due to be published this week in ABC Bulletin (http://bit.ly/hgtdGO).

  13. Mireille Shih Says:

    It’s very thrill to find this great articles as well as the following discussions, as I am a student from Taiwan preparing Tan Chitqua as my PhD thesis. Right now 4 portraits have been found and attribute to Chitqua, two of them were thought to be John Hamilton Mortimer’s .

    There is another portrait, which the style was quite ‘different’ from the one that we discussed here ( http://bit.ly/q50Euu ), now is in a private collection. (Martyn Gregory Gallery, Catalogue 38, no. 97, also Conner 1986, The China Trade 1600-1860, p.58, 85, https://picasaweb.google.com/109278866473528150318/2011TanChitqua#5641709185992886914 )

    These two portraits, in difference manner, really puzzle me up…

  14. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Mireille, I am so glad you are finding this useful. I have also just published a short article about Huang, with proper source references: http://bit.ly/rk3LEs (see pp. 10-11; it includes the reference to the fact that Tan Qitqua/Tan Che Qua inspired Huang to travel to Britain).

    The way Chinese visitors to Britain were portrayed is fascinating, as it provides clues as to how the Chinese were perceived then. And of course the way they were perceived changed over time as well, which adds a further layer of complexity.

    What do you think of the Knole portrait of Huang? Would you agree that the way Huang holds the fan and sits on the bench is slightly odd, from a Chinese point of view, or not? I am keen to establish how much in this portrait is realistic and how much is ‘chinoiserie’.

    I am afraid the link to the privately owned portrait that you quote above doesn’t seem to work for me – could you perhaps provide some other kind of link?

    • Mireille Shih Says:

      Dear M. Emile, I am sorry that I missed your kindly respond. Yet I am right now studying in Univ. de Geneva, and would love to share my humble research here.

      Indeed the way Chinese visitors were always fascinated, as a student knowing both sides of languages this research is pretty interesting. The Knole portrait explained this imaginary phenomena too.

      First of all, Chinese doesn’t sit like this, at least, this is not really a proper way in a public occasion, unless this is an informal place…this remind me better the way an Indian sitting. Here Huang
      was rather a model, set by Reynolds in his needs, not a purchaser. Chinese usually wear pretty formal while being painted, ie.:

      Also the layers of costume seem bizarre, especially the colors. Men mostly don’t wear red shoes.The way he held the fan is quite unnatural. Personally, I think this portrait show stereotype of an expression of an Asian rather than a reality image, a satisfaction of curiosity. However, this is of described, a masterpiece of course, equally fabulous as other works.

      I recently found an interesting statute in National Trust: http://www.nationaltrustimages.org.uk/image.aspx?id=93621&loggedIn=False

      of Henry Talbot, who has been to China (Canton) in 1730’s. This is the way that a Chinese described a Westerner.

      Apology for the link, if it’s possible would you like to visit my FB by adding me: Mireille Shih

  15. Mireille Shih Says:

    Dear M. Emile,
    This is my plates for Chitqua research, hope this is a bit helpful.


  16. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Mireille, thank you very much indeed for these further comments and links. It is really useful to have your confirmation that the way Huang holds the fan, his red shoes and his cross-legged posture look a bit strange from a Chinese perpective. As you say, there seem to be quite a lot of English stereotypes and misconceptions in this portrait – although the face seems to be a straightforward portrait, not a charicature.

  17. Andrew Says:

    Well, I see an 18th century oil portrait of Wang-y-tong “after Reynolds” was sold at Bonhams recently – http://www.bonhams.com/auctions/21331/lot/258/

  18. Andrew Says:

    And – perhaps of interest to Mireille Shih – Chitqua / Tan-Che-Qua was a “life of the week” at the ODNB this week – currently free to view at http://www.oxforddnb.com/public/lotw/

  19. Mireille Yichieh Shih Says:

    Thank you Andrew I’ve noticed the one of ODNB written by Dr. Patt, which is slightly doubtful but that’s how it goes when related documentary were hard to be found. I do keep work on Chitqua and will very soon publish my first article, and my 3rd speech in ISECS this year in Rotterdam. Thanks to Emile too for his articles that proved me so much previous informations continuously!

  20. Bram Dudok van Heel Says:

    My great great grandfather John Waterloo Wilson owned a painting of Sir Joshua Reynolds P.R.A. named: Tan-Che-Qua, canvas 83x65cm, as part of “Collection de M. John W. Wilson exposée dans la galerie du Cercle artistique et littéraire de Bruxelles au profit des pauvres de cette ville 1873”. A year later it was sold in Paris for Fr. 6.500 to Mr. Outram. The discription of the painting is: “C’est en 1770 que Reynolds peignit ce magnifique portrait, qui à été gravé. Il avait élire le peintre chinois Tan-Che-Qua membre honoraire, – Honorary Royal Academian, – de l’Académie, lors de sa fondation. Tan-Che-qua est représenté à mi-corps, de face, la tête tournée de trois quarts ; il porte le costume national, tunique brune et chemise rouge a collet vert. Sa main gauche tient les emblèmes de sa qualité. Il porte sur la tête un chapeau de paille conique bordé de vert, recouvert d’étoffe rouge et surmonte d’une pierre précieuse. Fond d’architecture chinoise et le jardin. Peinture du faire le plus rembranesque de Reynolds et de sa plus belle époque. Collection Marmaduke Constable Maxwell . Cadre ancien en bois sculpté”.
    I am searching a picture, if possible a colored one, of this painting that I like to add to my private document as part of the painting-collection of more than 515 pieces that Mr John W. Wilson owned when living in Paris 1870-1881.
    I read with great interest all the comments above. Unfortunately not all links are still usable. In the footnote of the Bonhams auction of 2014 21331/lot 258 it is mentioned “Other bust length versions by the painter are known”. Is there anyone here that can advise me further about it?

  21. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    I didn’t know Reynolds painted a portrait of Tan Che Qua as well. I know of one portrait of Tan Che Qua, but that is catalogued as by John Hamilton Mortimer – you can see it in this post: http://bit.ly/29SWxhU

    Here is a subsequent post O did about the Reynolds portrait of Huang Ya Dong: http://bit.ly/29ZDynw

    I also published an article about this portrait in the National Trust’s ABC Bulletin, I can email you a copy of it if you like.

    • Mimi Yichieh Shih Says:

      Hi Bram,
      I’m surprised too by your information after reading your post in FB page of Reynolds. It’s very precious to know that Chitqua was painted by Reynolds. I work on Chitqua for more than 4 years and I have almost all the portraits of Chitqua but NONE was made by Reynolds, which is a pity as the catalogue also mentioned there is a print version, therefore it could be interesting to look for a print version as there might be higher chance to locate prints for they usually made more copies. But what is described in the catalogue do remind everyone here the portrait of Huang Ya-tong, also made by Reynolds, that Emile has worked on him and has published some papers!! 🙂

      I’ll keep an eye on it and will inform you if I have a clue!

  22. Bram Dudok van Heel Says:

    The Marmaduke Constable-Maxwell (1806-1872) auction (Lugt 33723), 1873-03-01 lot 78 at Christie’s London page 12. “78 Tan-Che-Qua, a Chinese elected an Honorary Royal Academian on its foundation. Painted 1770. Engraved. 78 £13 sh.7 p. Gr…” (global Fr. 1.975).
    http://archive.org/stream/exhibitionworks00gallgoog#page/n37/mode/2up about the Crosvenor Gallery exhibition, New Bond Street, London of the works of Sir Joshua Reynolds, P.R.A. President Royal Academy 1883-4 number 51. West Gallery mentions Tan-Che-Qua, or rather “Wang-Y-Tong” a Chinese elected an Honorary Royal Academician of the foundation of the body. Lent by H.L. Bischoffsheim, Esq.”This appears to be the head of Wang-y-Tong, the Chinise boy, painted for the Duke of Dorset, and, according to the painter’s ledger, August 1776, paid for with GBP 73 10s. Compare a portrait exhibited by Archdeacon Harrison, at Burlington House, 1871, No. 30. The foundation R.A. was called “Tan-che-qua”. The head in Zoffany’s picture of the R.A.s is different from this. Half length; three-quarters face, turned to the right; in Chinese hat. Painted 1770. Canvas, 31 1/2 x 25 inches. In the beginning of this catalogue it is mentioned that an illustrated catalogue will be issued shortly. Perhaps someone can find this and see if there is a picture of the painting in it.

  23. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    That’s very interesting. Perhaps some of these cataloguers were confusing Tan Che Qua (the modeler and member of the RA) with Huang Ya Dong (the young man associated with the Duke of Dorset).

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