Historical Portraits Picture Archive

A Royal Navy officer of the rank of Commander, wearing a uniform coatee with an epaulette prominently shown on the left shoulder, c.1805 

George Chinnery (1774-1852)

A Royal Navy officer of the rank of Commander, wearing a uniform coatee with an epaulette prominently shown on the left shoulder, c.1805, George Chinnery
Watercolour and pencil
19th Century
Oval, 5 1/8 in (130mm) high
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This highly distinctive, striking portrait of a young naval officer is characteristic of Chinnery’s work during his early years in India. Like his near contemporary John Smart (1741-1811), Chinnery braved the long journey to Madras, sailing on 11 June 1802 and arriving in late December of that year.

Chinnery was a prolific draughtsman, recording daily life in India through astute observations in his sketchbooks – he appears to have been fascinated with both the landscape and the people, despite complaining voraciously in his diary about the heat and smell of the country. He also produced many drawings from sittings with Europeans based in, or visiting, Madras. Many artists of the early nineteenth century provided their clients with detailed, partly coloured small drawings such as the present work. These were a compromise between the expense and time spent in painting a miniature on ivory and a larger portrait sketch and could be wall hung in small spaces. More intimate and less costly than an oil portrait, such sketches could also be given to the sitter for immediate framing as there was no waiting period for the oil paint to dry. For the peripatetic client, such as this officer, who may have been visiting the Indian mainland from another point of the ‘East Indies station’, this would have been an attractive option. Chinnery also painted his own family and friends in this format, including his wife Marianne [pencil and watercolour, 14.6 x 11.4 cm, The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Limited]. The sketch is also extremely close in execution to the head of a turbaned Bengali man, dating to Chinnery’s second decade in India [Private Collection].

Although the sitter’s costume is not described in great detail (the focus, naturally, being on the sitter’s countenance), the great prominence given to the epaulette suggests that he was, at the time of the watercolour's execution, a Royal Navy Commander who was then on what was known as the 'East Indies station'. Given the indistinct, later inscription on the reverse of the sketch, it would appear that he ultimately became an admiral. The 'East Indies', as far as the Royal Navy was concerned, stretched east from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea, if not beyond, and so encompassed the islands in the Indian Ocean, the Gulf/Red Sea, India and Ceylon, what is now Indonesia and Malaysia, the Philippines and almost everything else in that area north of Australia. Visits to the Indian mainland on official business would have provided an opportunity to sit to Chinnery.

In Madras Chinnery was well received and quickly built up a good clientele, which, on account of his natural geniality was taken from a cross section of ex-patriot society – from wealthy governors-general to young officers . Although the sitter in this portrait is as yet unknown, Madras was a garrison town with plenty of opportunities for commissions from officers.

Having left his wife and children in England , Chinnery had the reputation of something of a bon viveur who was witty, fond of women and drink. He was, however, also an artist extremely proud of his craft. Sketches from this early part of his career are relatively rare but this example demonstrates the vivacious brushstrokes and sense of movement in the head of sitter which became trademarks of his consistently fine work.

Chinnery left India in 1825, fleeing to China to escape debts accrued of nearly £40,000. The remaining years of his life were spent largely in Macao, where he died in 1852, an obituary notice even then referring to his “straitened circumstances”.
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