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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.