J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, October 09, 2014

Portrait of the Artist as a World Traveler

On the left side of Johann Zoffany’s group portrait of the Royal Academy in 1771-72, toward the back of the crowd, is an unusual face for eighteenth-century London: a Chinese artist named Tan Chitqua.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography recently added an entry by Pat Hardy about this world-traveling artist:
Aged about forty Chitqua made the unusual decision to visit Europe, and was probably the first Chinese clay portrait artist to do so. He arrived in London on 11 August 1769 having travelled with a Mr Walton on the East Indiaman the Horsendon. He lodged with Mr Marr, a hatter, in premises at the corner of Norfolk Street and the Strand, London, until 1772. Here, on 21 September 1769, he met James Boswell who described ‘not a man of fashion but an ingenious artist in taking likenesses in terracotta (fine earth), which he works very neatly’. . . .

Subsequent descriptions of Chitqua included Gough’s account of a middle-sized man, about or above forty, ‘thin and lank…his upper lip covered with thin hair an inch long, and very strong and black; on his head no hair except the long lock braided into a tail almost a yard long’. . . .

In London, Chitqua worked as a modeller producing likenesses of sitters using clay that he had brought from China. His sitters were depicted wearing costumes also moulded from clay which was later coloured. Chitqua charged 10 guineas for a bust and 15 for a full-length clay figure. Some of his figures were modelled as seated; those shown standing were about 40 centimetres in height with the designs often including model chairs, trees, or rocks to support the figures. Chitqua depicted the faces of his sitters in an extremely realistic manner and the finished portraits often incorporated detachable wigs made of the subject’s own hair.
The Oxford D.N.B. also shared this video about Chitqua, showing how one of his few surviving figures in Britain fits together.

After four years in London, Chitqua returned to Canton, where he continued to create portraits for the city’s merchants. The British press reported that he took his own life in the mid-1790s.

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