As far as British artists go, George Chinnery is certainly not as well-known and lauded as his contemporary Turner – and especially not in his native country. He does, however, have greater recognition in the countries he called home for the last fifty years of his life, namely India and China.
Despite having two major retrospectives in China in the past six years, this exhibition in London’s Asia House is the first U.K. public display of Chinnery’s work since 1957, and attempts to bring an underrated yet unusual artist back to the fore.
It’s fitting that the venue itself is one of London’s hidden gems, tucked away behind the bustle of Oxford Street, in the basement of the acclaimed cultural center that is Asia House. Befitting a location supported by enthusiasts, the exhibition is lovingly curated by Patrick Conner, an obvious Chinnery enthusiast. Conner has published a book about Chinnery and is now director of the Martyn Gregory Gallery, which specializes in the China trade, one of Chinnery’s most popular subject matters.
In spite of my previous academic study, and a more than passing interest in 19th century Asian trade routes, I must confess that for some reason I wasn’t particularly excited about visiting “The Flamboyant Mr Chinnery.” My preconceptions surrounding the artistic style of 18th century Royal Academy School artists, as Chinnery was, were that they would be austere and lacking in brightness.
But I was pleasantly surprised to find such a broad and varied collection of styles and subjects. The exhibition charts Chinnery’s life from his early career in Dublin, subsequent bankruptcy in India, to his final years in China and Macau, avoiding his creditors – and ex-wives. Included are loose watercolors of local life and the field sketches that inspired them, as well as rich oil portraiture of sea captains and dignitaries, Western, Indian and Chinese.
The exhibition as a whole was both enjoyable and interesting, although the lighting seemed a little harsh on some of the oils. As I browsed the exhibition I became increasingly aware of the importance of the works on show as rare European documentation of life abroad in the early 19th century and the foreign influence on indigenous populations by an artist who was fully immersed in the culture and not merely a visitor.
My favorite works, however, barely feature the Asian details that define Chinnery’s style. I couldn’t help but be drawn to the collection of self-portraits of the self-titled “ugliest man on the China coast” in the center of the exhibition. Initially amusing, the pictures of a gruff, aged man soon made me feel awkward and almost chastised for looking upon him with disdain. But perhaps to counteract the way in which Chinnery seems to have viewed himself, the central case in the final room offered up flyers for the numerous posthumous retrospectives that so revered him.
A particularly nice touch were mementos of landmarks named after him, including menus from the “Chinnery Bar” at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Hong Kong and photos of the Rua de George Chinnery in Macau. These surprised me the most – it’s clear that in the countries where he chose to spend his life, Chinnery’s legacy is woven into the fabric of everyday life.
The Flamboyant Mr. Chinnery (1774-1852): An English Artist in India and China – Asia House, London.