George Chinnery – An Artist you should get to know

Peter Morrell sees a film that reveals one of England’s best but unknown 19th century painters

Narrator Patrick Conner

Narrator Patrick Conner

Senado Square

Senado Square

Shell Gate

Shell Gate

Moongate

Moongate

Mandarin Wall

Mandarin Wall

George Chinnery was born in London in 1774, he studied at the Royal Academy Schools before moving to Dublin. Here he married and developed his skills as a portrait and landscape artist. In 1802 he sailed to India, settling first in Madras (Chennai) and then Calcutta (Kolkata), where he enjoyed considerable success while accumulating debts on an epic scale.

He was reunited with his wife and children in India after 16 years. However a combination of marital problems and a desire to evade his creditors saw him leave India in 1825 for the Portuguese settlement of Macao, where he lived on for 27 years more. He never returned to Europe; nor did he see his wife or his children – two legitimate and two illegitimate – again.

During his first years on the China coast, Chinnery travelled regularly between Macao and Canton (Guangzhou), where he painted portraits of the merchants (Chinese, Western and Parsi) and their families. He sketched the grand architecture, the makeshift dwellings, and above all the Chinese people of Macao, fishermen, boat women, barbers and blacksmiths – often accompanied by goats, cattle and well-fed pigs. It is this free and confident recording of everyday life that we now recognise as a major element of his genius.

In 1846 Chinnery lived for six months in the new colony of Hong Kong, but returned to spend his last years, still sketching fluently, among his friends in the cosmopolitan city of Macao. He died in 1852 at the age of 78, and lies buried in Macao’s Protestant Cemetery, where visitors still pay their respects at his memorial inscribed in Chinese, English and Portuguese.

A film, In the Footsteps of George Chinnery: An English artist in Macao, has recently been made by Crane Productions (see trailer below). It tells the story of Chinnery’s 27 years in Macao and is narrated by art historian and Chinnery expert Patrick Conner who has a fluent and engaging style. Filmed in modern day Macao it is beautifully shot and visits the places that Chinnery would have been familiar with.

We hear of the artist’s daily routine, sketching everyday life in the waking city before allowing himself breakfast. He was an excellent draughtsman recording the exact postures of stallholders in the market and fishermen going about their work. Chinnery’s father taught him Gurney shorthand and many of his sketches are annotated with this.

He was described as a flamboyant character although one of his best know self-portraits shows him with a rather glum and jowly face.

He was a prolific artist and his legacy has been two-fold. Firstly as a portrait painter he captured the essence of dignitaries both local and European. For example he painted both Jardine and Matheson, who in turn helped Chinnery out with his continuing debt problems. Secondly it was his recording of life in 19th century Macao which is the more fascinating. The sketches and paintings are more fluid and entice your imagination in to Macao on a typical 19th century working day.

A by-product of the film is the footage of modern day Macao. Founded as a trading port in the 1550′s by Portuguese merchants it still retains a wealth of UNESCO listed colonial architecture. This together with more traditional buildings are shown both during the narration and by some spectacular drone footage.

This was an illuminating and revealing film and for me an introduction to ­both George Chinnery and to Macao as an intriguing travel destination.

For more information on Macao go to www.macaotourism.gov.mo

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