Performing China

Mrs Yates as Mandane in ‘The Orphan of China’, by Tilly Kettle, exhibited 1765. Photo: © Tate, London 2012

I have just finished reading Chi-Ming Yang’s Performing China: Virtue, Commerce and Orientalism in Eighteenth-Century England. I found this book particularly interesting in that it presents the British cultural engagement with China in the 18th century as a kind of dialectic, a see-sawing between admiration and rejection.

Two children in Asian clothing, by Tilly Kettle, © Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts

Two children in Asian clothing, by Tilly Kettle, © Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts

In an age when Europe was being transformed by the effects of international trade, China presented an intriguing example of an empire that had somehow managed to combine ancient virtue with modern commerce.

Chinese goods like porcelain, lacquer and silk, which were being imported into Europe in increasing numbers, were both valuable commodities and symbols of an ancient civilisation, both advanced products to be emulated emulated and corrupting luxuries to be distrusted.

Portrait of Thomas Kymer of Kidwelly in Chinse costume, by Gavin Hamilton, 1754, at Newton House, Dinefwr. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

The ambivalence towards Chinese culture was also evident in Arthur Murphy’s play The Orphan of China, a tragedy about conflicting familial and patriotic loyalties which had a long run on the London stage between 1759 and 1767.

One of the reasons for the popularity of the Orphan, in Yang’s analysis, seems to have been its representation of Chinese virtue as recognisably admirable but simultaneously exotically excessive. It provided a useful template against which the British could measure their own, more objectified and individualistic sense of virtue.

I would tend to agree with Yang that this ambivalence or dialectic is a constant in the history of our engagement with China and is still relevant today.

More about the portrait of Mrs Yates as Mandane can be found on the Tate website, and a brief discussion of the portrait of the children in Asian clothing is on the site of the Global History and Culture Centre, University of Warwick.

9 Responses to “Performing China”

  1. style court Says:

    I’m about to click the link for more info about the portrait of the children but at first glance it seems to encapsulate the Europeans’ broad approach to chinoiserie, at the time — one child seems to be dressed to represent China, the other India?

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Indeed, although not much is known about this double portrait at the moment. Who were these boys (or a boy and a girl, but the younger one seems to be dressed as an Indian prince)? Did their parents have connections to the East India Company? What does the combination of a Chinese and an Indian costume mean? Was the picture painted in India (where Kettle went to restart his career) or in Britain? All intriguing questions.

    The provenance note for this picture when it was sold at Sotheby’s New York in June last year ( only traced it as far back as the London dealers M. Harris and Sons, who had it at some point in the early part of the 20th century. It was then acquired by the New York stockbroker William Goadby Loew, ‘builder of one of the last and most elegant mansions in the Carnegie Hill neighbourhood of New York’, and was most recently owned by Joseph A. Patrick.

  3. deana Says:

    Remarkable clothing. It is stunning the way style was absorbed before the advent of Vogue and designers. An interesting topic… and I love Mrs Yates costume!

  4. style court Says:

    Kettle’s painting has such an interesting provenance, a bit like the wallpaper discussed here recently.

    I listened to the podcast — so, again, thanks for the link. The breakdown on the Indian-inspired costume was fascinating. Also, Kettle’s career, how he achieved financial success after moving to India, was interesting too. Learning that he had children with his Indian consort adds yet another layer of intrigue to the picture.

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Deana, yes and there was a whole genre of portraits of famous actresses of the day, who were seen as style icons just as they are today, and prints would be made after those portraits to make them even more accessible.

    Apart from Mrs Yates’s amazing costume, complete with pearls and tassels, I also like it how even the dado rail has been given some vaguely Chinese-looking fretwork: some thorough styling going on there 🙂

    Courtney, yes Kettle’s career illustrates how ‘globalised’ the world already was in the mid 18th century, economically and culturally.

  6. Andrew Says:

    It was not at all unusual for Englishmen who were in India for an extended period to have families with local “consorts”, on a semi-official or at least tolerated basis, before 1857 at least. There is still a fairly substantial and identifiable community of their Anglo-Indian descendants in India.

  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes indeed, and the wider phenomenon of British men becoming acquainted with and learning to love Indian culture is explored in William Dalrymple’s book ‘White Mughals’:

  8. columnist Says:

    It is possible to see a much more refined version of what is termed Chinese School/China Trade pictures from the C19th, which were the exported pictures by Chinese artists of people and places in China. I find these older and “original” depictions to be quite fascinating.

  9. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes that is another fascinating genre. I showed a few of those Chinese export pictures here: What I am not entirely clear about is whether these images were fairly realistic or whether they reflected the taste of western consumers (or were realistic in some aspects and ‘retouched’ in others)?

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