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1770 In Search of Chitqua

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The minutes of the Royal Academy’s Council meetings for 1770 document a series of important discussions and developments at the fledgling institution. Thus, the year witnessed the election of a new category of Associate-Academicians, an unsuccessful call for the creation of a new class of Associate engravers, and the appointment of a librarian, the painter Francis Hayman.1 Other, less welcome developments were discussed by the Academy’s Council. It was forced to issue a statement that a complaint had been made by the housekeeper, Mrs Elizabeth Malin, and several visitors that: “several drawings have been taken out of the portfolios in the Academy and taken away by persons unknown”; the President and the Secretary thus acquainted Members that: “whoever shall be found guilty of this offence will be expelled from the Academy”.2 Finally, just days before the Exhibition opened, the Hanging Committee that arranged the display decided that Nathaniel Hone’s Two Gentlemen in Masquerade (featuring the men-about-town Francis Grose and Theodosius Forrest in the guise of Capuchin friars) had to be altered, so that it might escape accusations of blasphemy.3 

At the display itself, one of the most notable and unusual exhibitors was the sculptor Chitqua. He is most famously depicted in Johann Zoffany’s Portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy, exhibited in 1772. Although scholars have long drawn our attention to the absence of the female Academicians Mary Moser and Angelica Kauffmann in the grouping of Academicians depicted by Zoffany (they are represented instead as bust-length portraits hanging on the wall), little attention has been paid to the picture’s representation of another outsider within the Academy’s ranks—Chitqua, who stands quietly at the back watching the life class unfold.  

But who exactly was this figure? Chitqua (Tan-Che-Qua, ca. 1728–1796) is known to have been a clay figure artist.4 He was probably born in the Guangdong province in China.5 Working in the port of Canton, which was much frequented by European ships in search of Chinese export goods—paintings and, most importantly, porcelain—he became an accomplished clay figure artist.6 The majority of his patrons were visiting merchants and ships’ officers, many of whom carried his celebrated clay portraits to Europe. In this way, Chitqua became a celebrity in London even before his arrival in the English capital. After all, chinoiserie and a taste for the exotic had long been part of fashionable British style and served as a counterpart to neoclassical aesthetics.7 

Although Chitqua was “well known by our people who have been to Canton where he keeps a shop for making figures”, at around the age of forty, he made the decision to visit England. He was probably the first Chinese artist championing clay portraiture to do so. Initially only permitted passage to Batavia (Jakarta), he managed to travel on to London.8 He established a studio at his lodgings with a hatter in Norfolk Street, just off the Strand. He charged 10 guineas for busts and 15 guineas for small statuettes. Treated with curiosity as a minor celebrity, he was granted an audience with George III and Queen Charlotte. John Hamilton Mortimer and Charles Grignion the Elder both took his likeness (Fig. 1). While Grignion’s work is an intimate pencil study which bears a similarity to the likeness found in Zoffany’s portrait (itself taken around the same time and perhaps even based on Grignion’s sketch), Mortimer’s portrait was rather more public in intent, and appeared at the Society of Artists’ exhibition of 1771. In the surviving pictorial likenesses and written descriptions of Chitqua, he appears both as a working artist and as a somewhat mysterious, exotic figure: thus, in The Gentleman’s Magazine, he was described as “not a man of fashion but an ingenious artist in taking likenesses in terracotta (fired earth), which he works very neatly”; “of proper stature […] elegantly dressed in silk robes” with skin “copperish in colour”.9

At the Academy, his fellow sculptors, many of whom regularly experimented with terracotta models for their works, would no doubt have been fascinated not only by his appearance and persona, but also by his working practice and materials. Furthermore, the fact that this was the age when Europeans were attempting to imitate porcelain and to search for porcelain’s own “alchemical” secret, Chitqua’s media and techniques—he fashioned likenesses of sitters with the kaolin clay he had brought from China—were no doubt also of great interest beyond the Academy.10 In the search for the source of the materials and technologies of porcelain, British manufacturers created soft paste porcelain, bone china, and Queensware. Notably, William Cookworthy discovered deposits of kaolin in Cornwall around this time and established a factory in 1768, with the hope of promoting this still mysterious material.11 The sculptor’s materials thus have relevance and resonance beyond the sphere of the fine arts, and within the wider worlds of ceramic design and manufacture.

At the Academy Exhibition of 1770, Chitqua presented a “portrait of a gentleman”.12 Unfortunately, the sitter of the portrait is not identified, and there are only a few surviving English works that offer themselves as candidates for this exhibition piece. One is a portrait, some thirteen inches in height, of Dr Anthony Askew (Fig. 2).13 Askew, who had travelled to Canton, is shown by Chitqua as sitting on a kind of Chinese rock. He is depicted as a rather portly figure, draped in his red doctor’s robes, and assuming the polite hand-in-waistcoat pose common to much early eighteenth-century British portraiture. As was his usual practice, Chitqua, who would have modelled the head separately, made his work using an unrefined clay reinforced with hair, bamboo, or tow, embellished with a polychromatic surface which was painted or gilded over a white ground of gesso or fine clay.

Like its maker, such a work must have stood out from the great majority of its sculpted companions at the 1770 Exhibition. More particularly, it would have seemed very different to the more familiar and “prestigious” categories of sculpture on show, which ranged from classical pieces such as Thomas Banks’ model of Aeneas and Anchises escaping from Troy to the portrait busts produced by John Flaxman and Joseph Wilton.14 Instead, Chitqua’s work may have had a little more in common with the similarly colourful exhibited works of another cultural outsider: the “family piece, in coloured wax”, and the “three portraits, ditto” shown at the same display by John (or, more accurately, Johann) Eckstein, a similarly itinerant German sculptor, who was passing through London that year, and who, like Chitqua, was not to exhibit at the Academy again.15 

Given this lack of cultural and artistic fit, it is perhaps unsurprising that Chitqua, seemingly unhappy in London, left for Canton in the following year. After a series of unfortunate incidents on board the ship The Grenville, the crew took against him, throwing him overboard. On his subsequent rescue, he returned to his former lodgings for another year, before once again setting out for China. Taking poison in Canton, Chitqua committed suicide in 1796—a tragic end for the only Chinese artist to have displayed his work at an eighteenth-century Academy Exhibition.16  

  1. Royal Academy, Council Minutes, 10 July 1770, 85. It was decided that Francis Hayman would be the Librarian and receive a salary of £50.↩︎

  2. Royal Academy, Council Minutes, 17 March 1770, 73. Although written in the first person, the document is signed by both Reynolds as President and Newton as Secretary.↩︎

  3. Two Gentlemen in Masquerade, which Hone referred to as Monks Carousing, showed the men in question stirring a bowl of punch with what appeared to be a crucifix—prompting the Academy’s refusal to accept the picture on religious grounds. Hone voiced his objection to the Academy’s decision in a letter of 14 April 1770, Royal Academy RAA/SEC/1/8; and although a draft reply by Reynolds suggests that the Academy insisted that he alter his design, it is not clear that this letter was actually sent (it is not included in John Ingamells and John Edgcumbe [eds], The Letters of Sir Joshua Reynolds [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000]), or that if it was Hone did as he’d been asked. The fact that a photograph of the composition (current location unknown) clearly shows the offending object raises two possibilities: that either the Academy backed down and permitted the work to be shown; or the picture was not exhibited but was included in the catalogue.↩︎

  4. For the most detailed and informative discussion of Chitqua’s life and career, see David Clarke, “Chitqua: A Chinese Artist in Eighteenth-Century London”, Chinese Art and its Encounter with the World: Negotiating Alterity in Art and Its Historical Interpretation (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2011), 15–84; see also Greg Sullivan’s entry on the artist in Ingrid Roscoe, Emma Hardy, and Greg Sullivan (eds), A Biographical Dictionary of Sculptors in Britain, 1660–1851 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 272–273.↩︎

  5. No details of his family are known.↩︎

  6. Canton was known for its clay portrait artists. Although many were anonymous, we do know of an artist called Chitqua, who made portraits of European merchants such as Joseph Collett (1716).↩︎

  7. This position is put forward in an intriguing essay by the anthropologist Christopher Pinney, “Creole Europe: The Reflection of a Reflection”, Journal of New Zealand Literature 20 (2002): 125–161.↩︎

  8. Chitqua travelled on to London in the East Indiaman The Horsendon, arriving on 11 August 1769. He lodged with Mr Marr, a hatter in premises at the corner of Norfolk Street and the Strand until 1772.↩︎

  9. The Gentleman’s Magazine 41 (May 1771): 238. See also Gough’s account:

    a middle sized man, about or above forty, thin and lank […] his upper lip covered with thin hair an inch long, and very strong and black; on his head no hair except the long lock braid into a tail almost a yard long,

    John Bowyer Nichols, Illustrations of the Literary History of the Eighteenth Century (London, 1817), Vol. 5, 318.↩︎

  10. For European fascination with porcelain, see L.H. Liu, “Robinson Crusoe’s Earthenware Pot”, Critical Inquiry 25, no. 4 (Summer 1999): 728–757. See also Michael Keevak, Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011).↩︎

  11. For Cookworthy, see Angus J.L. Winchester’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).↩︎

  12. See the exhibition catalogue for that year: The Exhibition of the Royal Academy, MDCCLXX The Second (London, 1770), 22.↩︎

  13. For the Askew portrait, see David Clark, Chinese Art and its Encounter with the World, 39–43.↩︎

  14. See The Exhibition of the Royal Academy, MDCCLXX The Second, 3, 9–10, and 19.↩︎

  15. The Exhibition of the Royal Academy, MDCCLXX The Second, 9; for Eckstein, see Roscoe et al., A Biographical Dictionary of Sculptors in Britain, 1660–1851, 404–405.↩︎

  16. For the details of Chitqua’s troubled exit from Britain, and his eventual death by poisoning, see Greg Sullivan’s entry on the artist in Roscoe et al., A Biographical Dictionary of Sculptors in Britain, 1660–1851, 272–273.↩︎

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