Event Date: 25 November 2015
London SW1P 4RG
Artist and Empire: The Long Nineteenth Century
Geoff Quilley (Professor of Art History at the University of Sussex) – Inside empire looking out: the view from Dent’s veranda
George Chinnery’s painting On Dent’s Verandah, of around 1842, is an extraordinarily daring and virtuoso group portrait that is also a complex statement about the place of empire in early-Victorian British life. Its strikingly original composition is more akin to Manet’s ‘painting of modern life’ than the eighteenth-century conversation-piece tradition that forms its most obvious pictorial genealogy. It is also an open celebration of British victory over the Chinese in the first so-called Opium War. Despite – or perhaps because of – this, there are distinct blind-spots in the art-historical literature around it, the more prominent of which is almost total absence from studies of nineteenth-century British art, notwithstanding its remarkable originality and quality. Similarly, Chinnery himself is generally relegated to the status of a marginal, disaffected or misguided maverick and opportunist, the ‘artist of the China coast’; a sort of dandified beachcomber, who, by taking himself off to the society around the East India Company in India and China, thereby missed out on the metropolitan artistic career that might otherwise have been open to him. Since this narrative to some extent was shared by the artist himself, it has been left largely uncontested and unexamined in terms of its implications for the relation of ‘artist and empire’.
Equally remarkable is the absence of any meaningful mention in any history of nineteenth-century British – or western – art, of the Opium War and early-nineteenth-century Sino-British relations. On the one hand, this is not so surprising, since it is a very rare subject for British history generally; but on the other hand, it is remarkable in view of the scale of British commercial and imperial interests in China since the establishment of East India Company power in India in the 1760s, and in view of the wealth of British visual culture associated with India and China over the same period. However, once we start to think of both Chinnery and the Opium War not as isolated, disconnected and almost incidental to British cultural history, but instead inclusively within the larger frame of empire, and specifically within a neological category of imperial art history, the view from Dent’s verandah assumes a much greater prominence and an urgent significance. This paper will seek to place the painting in just such an imperial art-historical context, and explore the methodological and disciplinary implications of doing so, to suggest that Chinnery’s marginalization within the canon of nineteenth-century art has much larger ramifications in terms of the blind-spots of British history, and the relation of art, history and empire.