Chinnery: new portrait of the artist with talent

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 May, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 May, 1993, 12:00am

GEORGE Chinnery was an Irish artist who studied under Sir Joshua Reynolds and made it big in Asia where nobody cared too much that he had only moderate talent, was spectacularly fat and ugly, and drank like a fish.

This is a load of old turnips. The truth: Chinnery (1774-1852) was a native Londoner who began his training at the Royal Academy after Reynolds died, and was already 22 when he moved to Dublin where he married and had a son and daughter.

As for the rest, he was a bit homely, but nothing to frighten little children, grew pleasingly plump in his later years and had no great taste for alcohol, though he did love his hookah and cigars.

Oh yes, the questionable talent. British art historian Patrick Conner has a few words to say about that.

''There is a rather defensive attitude about Chinnery, but he shouldn't be regarded as a big fish in a small pond,'' says the author of George Chinnery: Artist of India and the China Coast.

''I think he was an international star, a really extraordinary artist.'' Tonight this view will be pushed with gusto when Dr Conner speaks at the Keswick Foundation's gala dinner at the Mandarin Hotel.

Guests will get excellent value for the bash whose proceeds will go to Wishing Well, the charity which aims to grant a special wish to any child in Hongkong or Macau with a life-threatening illness.

Preceding the dinner will be an exhibition preview presented by China Trade Painting specialist, Martyn Gregory of London - works will include a rare series by Chinnery and 120 watercolours by 19th century naval surgeon Alexander Rattray - and the chanceto get a signed copy of Patrick Conner's new book.

It is 320 pages long, beautifully assembled by the publisher, the Antique Collectors' Club, and can be safely called the first thorough study of George Chinnery's life and work.

''Just a reference book,'' says the former Keeper of Fine Art at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton. He is too modest. This is an action-packed biography which will fascinate history buffs and art-lovers alike.

Most important, it shatters all those myths and slurs about the larger-than-life artist who lies buried in Macau's Protestant cemetery.

James Clavell's Tai-Pan , in which a thinly-disguised Chinnery appeared as the lecherous Aristotle Quance, and Timothy Mo's An Insular Possession in which he sank even further as that ''Fat Fornicating Red-Yanged Devil'' Augustine O'Rourke, have contributed to the misconceptions, but Chinnery himself was probably to blame for many of them, reckons Dr Conner.

''He was certainly a theatrical character who loved to exaggerate. For example, he was always going on about his 'monstrously ugly' wife, Marianne, but his paintings of her reveal that she was quite attractive - at least when she was young.

''The other reason so many myths grew up around Chinnery is that he spent 50 years in India and on the China coast and never went home, though he did try to.

''In India, he actually wrote a letter to the Governor-General, Lord Minto, asking him to sponsor his passage back to England.

''Unfortunately, Lord Minto died before the letter reached him and Chinnery was too heavily in debt to pay for the trip himself.'' Exactly why the artist was perpetually broke, despite being top dog in a colonial outpost full of wealthy patrons just dying to have their portraits painted, is a bit of a mystery, says Dr Conner.

''He doesn't seem to have been a gambler and there's some evidence that Marianne, who had stayed behind in Dublin with their children, got financial support from someone other than Chinnery, so it probably wasn't that.

''Of course the expatriate lifestyle in India during that time was very expensive, with not much middle ground between the general population and the foreigners - rather like Hongkong today.'' Several other enigmas remain, says Dr Conner whose research took him as far afield as Dublin, Tokyo and Lisbon.

Chinnery's childhood years, his parents and most tantalising, the identity of his Indian mistress and mother of his illegitimate sons Henry and Edward (like legitimate son John, they died young without issue) - all remain grey areas.

A clever piece of detection and a Hongkong authority on a long-defunct form of shorthand made up for the frustrations.

''I like to think that quite a lot in the book is new,'' says Patrick Conner.

''Until now, there's been very little on Chinnery's career in Dublin and Madras, though I think my most important discovery is that he was a leading freemason.'' High on a guest list for a banquet held in 1813 by Star in the East, the oldest and most prestigious lodge in Bengal, was Chinnery's name, recounts Dr Conner.

Even more telling, the secretary of the lodge, Sir Charles D'Oyly, happened to be the artist's patron and best friend.

''Chinnery painted an awful lot of portraits of other freemasons from that lodge and it may also be significant that Hongkong's lodge was established in 1846, the year he came through here.'' The brotherhood may account for Chinnery's financial recoveries. The sterling work of Hongkong broadcaster Geoffrey Bonsall, better known to RTHK listeners as Charles Weatherill, makes sense of much more.

For years, art historians puzzled over the strange squiggles in the borders of Chinnery's drawings. ''Like the hieroglyphs of an extinct civilisation,'' Dr Conner says. They turned out to be Gurney notations - a shorthand system widely used in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

''Since the 70s Geoffrey Bonsall has proved himself the outstanding interpreter of Chinnery's shorthand,'' writes the biographer who has made extensive use of the unravelled hieroglyphs.

With his book, Patrick Conner has become Chinnery's foremost champion, ready to challenge even those who call his subject's work anachronistic. They are right, but miss the point, says Dr Conner.

''It's true that Chinnery, who left for the Far East at the age of 28, continued to paint in the style popular in the reign of George III, but that didn't make him a bad artist.

''One could take the view that he was trained in the golden period - Turner was a contemporary - and had he stayed, he would have probably gone downhill, adopting all those unfortunate Victorian mannerisms.

''Instead, he developed in the most individual way. Look at those incredibly fluent drawings of the China coast - far better than his early work.

''I think he was variable as a portrait painter, though some of his oils are splendid. As a watercolourist and a draughtsman, he was outstanding.

''It was to Chinnery's benefit and ours that he never went back.'' The Martyn Gregory Gallery exhibition at the Mandarin's East and West Rooms will be open to the public from tomorrow till Sunday.