“In the Footsteps of George Chinnery”

Chinnery sketch

Knowingly or not, anyone who has spent much time at all on what used to be called the “China Coast” will surely have come across the paintings of the George Chinnery, an English artist active in Macau in the second quarter of the 19th century. Whatever profile Chinnery may have in the broader painterly pantheon, in Hong Kong and Macau he is the closest to an artistic native son that the Western colonial tradition has.

Chinnery arrived in Macau after a sojourn in India, whence he left, possibly to escape his wife, but certainly to escape his creditors. His many images of Macau—he spent only six months in ill health in Hong Kong soon after its founding and his Hong Kong oeuvre is thus limited—have become iconic.

He was, by all accounts, a character—New Yorker Harriet Low called him “amusing” (although also “fascinatingly ugly”); he reportedly liked his food.

 

In the Footsteps of George Chinnery, Terry O’Toole (director), Patrick Conner (narrator)
In the Footsteps of George Chinnery, Terry O’Toole (director), Patrick Conner (narrator)

Chinnery, as one might expect, has showed up in a novel or two, but has not—surprisingly— had a film made about him until relatively recently. “In the Footsteps of George Chinnery” is a brief, one-hour documentary shot almost entirely in Macau and featuring a great many of his paintings and drawings. It is narrated by Patrick Conner, a Chinnery expert who champions the painter and his work with not just a contagious enthusiasm but also evident affection.

The film literally follows the painter’s footsteps, walking the same streets and showing the many places that served as settings for the paintings and drawings. The was money in portraits and Chinnery painted many of the great and good—or not-so-good—of  those pre-Hong Kong decades. The great merchants—Jardine, Matheson, Dent—sat for portraits, as did visitors like Harriet Low. Conner makes much of Chinnery predilection for the rich (and expensive) red pigment vermilion.

Chinnery's portrait of Mowqua
Chinnery’s portrait of Mowqua

Chinese with means also sat for portraits: Conner highlights portraits of the merchants Mowqua and Howqua. It seems that Chinnery felt less restraint in painting Chinese than when painting fellow expats: these portraits, like his self-portraits, seem more honest and less constrained by convention.

The film thankfully focuses as much on Chinnery’s watercolours and sketches, for these seem closer to the man. Local workers, boat-people, market stalls, umbrellas, cows, goats, and the crumbling facades is adopted city, seem to be energized his talent. Chinnery had an expressive line; a bent back of a Chinese worker is sketched out in a single stroke. The sketches, ripple tension and movement; the watercolors seem freer than at least some of the oils.

In a plus ça change moment set in a Shenzhen art factory, Conner goes on to explain how Chinnery was emulated and copied by Chinese artists, notably Lam Qua.

Chinnery’s work provides a unique and unparalleled visual record of the south China of the two and a half decades just before the growth of Hong Kong cemented Britain place as the major regional power. But Chinnery’s art also remains accomplished and engaging; this film is both an excellent introduction and a delightful reminder to the artist and his legacy.

 

Although the film itself seems to have been first shown as television a year or so ago, it is only now making the rounds in semi-private showings in such places as the Asia Society, where I viewed it. Its relatively short length probably means that it won’t “soon be coming to a cinema near you”, but it is well worth seeking out.


Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.