Archive for the ‘Reynolds, Sir Joshua’ Category

More about the Chinese celebrity at Knole

May 16, 2011

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.

A Chinese celebrity at Knole

May 13, 2011

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.