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.