Laura Gascoigne

Adventurous rogue

Historically, British artists have not been good at money management. George Morland (1762–1804) was chronically insolvent; Benjamin Haydon (1786–1846) served four jail terms for debt and eventually killed himself after being reduced to pawning his spectacles; even Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830) died leaving debts of £30,000. But the painter who turned serial defaulting into an art was George Chinnery (1774–1852). Absconding was the making of him as an artist suggests a new exhibition, The Flamboyant Mr Chinnery, at Asia House.

A Londoner and fellow student of Turner at the Academy Schools, Chinnery launched his portrait-painting career in Dublin four years before the Act of Union emptied the Irish Parliament of MPs, and his studio of sitters. In 1802, aged 28, he left his new Irish wife with two children under two and boarded an East Indiaman for Madras — the first of a lifelong succession of flits.

There was money to be made by artists in India. Zoffany had returned rich from his Indian escapade of the 1780s, and the Daniell brothers’ topographical engravings, admired by Turner, were selling like hot cakes. It didn’t take Chinnery long to establish himself as British India’s foremost portrait painter, after a summons to Calcutta in 1807 to paint a 60 sq. ft canvas of Sir Henry Russell, Chief Justice of Bengal, for the new Town Hall.

Meanwhile, his ‘fascinating ugliness’ and reputation as a wag and raconteur had made him a fixture on the social circuit. Expatriates queued to have their portraits taken in the style of his hero Sir Joshua Reynolds, backed by swags of vermilion drapery, classical columns and the occasional palm tree poking up exotically out of a blur of background vegetation. Despite criticism for his lack of attention to hands and feet, Chinnery was very good at faces, searching out character even in childish subjects such as the sultry Anglo–Indian ‘Kirkpatrick Children’.

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