Huang Ya Dong (Wang-Y-Tong) (b. c. 1753- fl. in England 1770/76)
Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (Plympton 1723 - London 1792)
Huang Ya Dong (known in England as Wang-y-Tong) was brought to England from China around 1770, by the naturalist John Bradby Blake (1745-1773), owing to the former’s knowledge of Chinese plants and culture. As a result, Huang became somewhat of a minor celebrity in English intellectual circles in the 1770s; he visited the Royal Society in 1775 and is known to have advised Josiah Wedgewood (1730-1795) about the production of Chinese porcelain, and to have explained the principles of acupuncture to the Physician Andrew Duncan (1744-1828). By the time this portrait was painted, Wang-y-Tong had entered the household at Knole, working as a page to the Duchess of Dorset. He was subsequently educated at Sevenoaks School. A later drawing of the sitter is in the British Museum.
Oil painting on canvas, Huang Ya Dong (Wang-y-Tong) (b. c. 1753- fl. in England 1770/76) by Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (Plympton 1723 - London 1792), 1776. A full-length portrait, in Chinese dress, sitting on a Chinese-style bench with his legs crossed, looking to the left, holding a fan in his right hand. Around 1770, a Chinese boy called Huang Ya Dong was brought to England from Guangzhou (Canton) by John Bradby Blake (1745-1773), an employee of the East India Company. Blake was a keen naturalist and brought the boy to England for his knowledge of the propagation and uses of the Chinese plants. After Blake died, his father, Captain John Blake, looked after Huang for a time. Huang visited the Royal Society (1775), and is known to have advised Mrs Delaney and the Duchess of Portland on Chinese plants, given Josiah Wedgewood information about the production of Chinese porcelain and explained the principles of acupuncture to the Physician Andrew Duncan. By the time the Knole portrait was painted (1776) Huang had entered the household of John Frederick Sackville, 3rd Duke of Dorset (1745-1799), a contemporary of John Bradby Blake at Westminster School. Huang became a page to the Duke's mother and was educated at Sevenoaks School, but there are no further records of his subsequent life.
One of the works that Reynolds produced for the 3rd Duke is a fascinating portrait of a young Chinese man, dressed in Chinese garb and sitting cross-legged on a Chinese bench, dated 1776 (2). He is described as ‘Wang-y-Tong’, who worked as a page in the Duke’s household at Knole and attended the local Sevenoaks School. It is an enigmatic image, at once respectfully realistic and deliberately exotic. Why and how did this young man come to England, and what happened to him after the picture was painted? There is another, more sober portrait of him in the collection of the British Museum, dressed in English clothes this time, drawn in profile by George Dance the Younger (see page 13). British Museum curators have established that his name should read Huang Ya Dong in the currently used pinyin transliteration (in Chinese characters), and that he was a minor celebrity in English intellectual circles in the 1770s. Huang is known to have visited the naturalists Mary Delany and the Duchess of Portland at the latter’s country seat of Bulstrode, discussing Chinese plants and their uses with them. He also visited the Royal Society, talked to Josiah Wedgwood about the manufacture of Chinese porcelain and explained the principles of acupuncture to the physician Andrew Duncan.(3) The man who was instrumental in enabling Huang to travel to England was John Bradby Blake (1745-1773), who was engaged in trade for the East India Company in Guangzhou (then called Canton by Europeans). Blake was interested in the natural history of China and being stationed in Guangzhou enabled him to collect seeds and plants that had medicinal or economic uses and to send them back to Europe for propagation and research. Huang’s botanical knowledge made him a suitable conduit to supply first-hand information to British naturalists. Blake fell ill and died in Guangzhou just before Huang arrived in England, and his father, Captain John Blake, initially looked after the young Chinese man. The Duke of Dorset and John Bradby Blake had been at school together, which indicates how Huang then came to transfer to the Duke’s household. (4) But what were Huang’s own motives in coming to Europe? At this time Chinese visitors to Europe were still very rare, as the voyage was long and dangerous and the Chinese imperial administration discouraged its subjects from travelling abroad. On this point a letter attributed to Sir Joshua Reynolds and dated 18 February 1775 provides valuable clues: ‘I have lately met in company Whang-At-Ting, the Chinese, who is now in London […] He is a young man of twenty-two, and an inhabitant of Canton, where having received from Chit-qua, the Chinese figure maker, a favourable account of his reception in England, two or three years ago, he determined to make the voyage likewise, partly from curiosity, and a desire of improving himself in science, and partly with a view of procuring some advantages in trade, in which he and his elder brother are engaged. He arrived here in August, and already pronounces and understands our language very tolerably, but he writes it in a very excellent hand, which he acquired with ease by using the copy books recommended by Mr Locke […] He has a great thirst after knowledge, and seems to conceive readily what is communicated to him […]’ (5) From this it appears that Huang was both intelligent and adventurous, travelling to Europe for reasons very similar to those that drove enterprising Europeans to venture in the opposite direction. The letter also indicates that Huang arrived in England in August 1774, and that he was about 23 when Reynolds painted the Knole portrait of him. What happened to Huang subsequently? A letter from Huang written in Guangzhou and dated 10 December 1784 is recorded in the papers of the linguist Sir William Jones, showing that he had managed to return home. In the letter Huang politely declines Jones’s suggestion that he might produce an English translation of some classic Chinese philosophical texts, as he is ‘too much engaged in business.’ He also graciously recalls ‘the pleasure of dining with you in company with Captain Blake and Sir Joshua Reynolds; and I shall always remember the kindness of my friends in England.’6 Elsewhere Jones recorded that Huang ‘[…] passed his first examinations with credit in his way to literary distinctions, but was afterwards allured from the pursuit of learning by a prospect of success in trade […]’ (7) So Huang was well educated, and seems to have passed at least some of the fiendishly difficult official examinations that provided entry into the Chinese imperial bureaucracy. These exams focused exclusively on the Chinese literary and philosophical classics, but, as Jones’s and Reynolds’s accounts suggest, the pull of his family’s business and his own interest in the natural sciences seem to have drawn him in a different direction. These glimpses into Huang’s life and character also put his role as a page at Knole into perspective. He was appointed as one of the personal servants of the Duke of Dorset’s mistress, the Italian ballet dancer Giovanna Francesca Antonia Giuseppe Zanerini (1753-1801), known as La Baccelli. The Duke commissioned portraits of her by both Gainsborough and Reynolds, and there is a record of a sketch by the former that includes Huang ‘in a round hat’ attending to La Baccelli.(8) As this picturesque scene indicates, Huang’s role in the Knole household may have been largely ornamental. The Duke probably considered having an exotic page as being appropriate to his rank, while it provided Huang with a livelihood and allowed him to pursue his studies at Sevenoaks School and elsewhere. Reynolds’s portrait of Huang reflects his ambiguous position. On the one hand, it is clearly a portrait of an individual, not a caricature. On the other hand, the Chinese dress and accoutrements obviously and self-consciously mark the sitter as an exotic subject. The portrait cannot quite be characterised as ‘chinoiserie’, as it is does not present an overtly fantastical or escapist image of China.(9) But equally there is something odd about the pictorial language of the image, as Reynolds struggles to fit Huang into one of the accepted categories of British portraiture. Huang, too, must have been bemused by the result: sitting cross-legged was considered to be a rather informal posture in China, and would not have been used for a formal portrait. Sitting cross-legged on a bench, moreover, would have been seen as an oxymoronic combination of informal and formal, but the painter obviously considered the Chinese item of export furniture to be an essential prop for his English viewers. The brandishing of the open fan also seems rather incongruous from a Chinese point of view, and appears to be yet another marker of ‘Chineseness’ deliberately inserted by Reynolds.(10) Huang’s ambiguous presence was recast in literary form by the German Enlightenment thinker Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799), who visited England in 1770 and 1774-75. On that second occasion he must have heard about and possibly met Huang, for he incorporated him into an allegorical fable about the difficulties of communication across cultural boundaries that he published in the Göttinger Taschencalender (Göttingen Almanack) for 1796. The story shows Huang (here called Wang-o-Tang) acting as an interpreter between a European and a Chinese. He initially tries to correct various misunderstandings, but ultimately resigns himself to telling both sides what they want to hear, allowing them to maintain their sense of superiority in the face of the ‘other’.(11) So the portrait of Huang hanging at Knole points to the limits as well as the possibilities of cultural exchange. It shows a young man whose ambition and thirst for knowledge made him travel to the other side of the world. The people he encountered there were fascinated by him and tried to engage with him, but inevitably also saw him through the lens of cultural prejudice. He was ‘pictured’ as a symbol of exotic glamour and ‘rewritten’ as a metaphor for cultural exchange. It is a remarkably complex set of meanings for a painting and its sitter to carry. I would like to thank Hongbo Du and Andrew Loan, whose helpful enquiries and comments, partly recorded on the Treasure Hunt blog (http://nttreasurehunt.wordpress.com/) led me to find hitherto unrecognised sources concerning Huang Ya Dong. I am also grateful to Dr Kim Sloan for commenting on the text. 2) This picture, along with much of the collection at Knole, is owned by Lord Sackville and is reproduced here with his kind permission. It is included, together with another version of the head and shoulders only, in David Mannings and Martin Postle, Sir Joshua Reynolds: A Complete Catalogue of his Paintings, New Haven and London, published for the Paul Mellon Centre for British Art by Yale University Press, 2000, nos. 1828-9. 3) Stephen Lloyd and Kim Sloan, The Intimate Portrait, London, British Museum and Edinburgh, National Gallery of Scotland, 2008, no. 168. 4) Anita McConnell, ‘Blake, John Bradby (1745–1773)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition, January 2008 (http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/2580, accessed 21 May 2011). 5) Quoted in an anonymous article entitled ‘Hints Respecting the Chinese Language’, in The Bee, XI, 12 September 1792, pp. 48-52, at pp. 50-52. The letter is mentioned (but not quoted fully) in William W. Appleton, A Cycle of Cathay: The Chinese Vogue in England during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, New York, Columbia University Press, 1951, pp. 134-136. 6) Sir William Jones, Works, London, 1801, supplemental vol. I, pp. 245-246. 7) Sir William Jones, ‘Dissertation XII: On the Second Classical Book of the Chinese’, Sir William Jones, et al., Dissertations and Miscellaneous Pieces relating to the history and antiquities, the arts, sciences and literature of Asia, vol. I, London, 1792, pp. 357-386, at pp. 367-368. 8) Vita Sackville-West, Knole and the Sackvilles, London, 1948, p. 189. 9) A more strongly ‘chinoiserie’ interpretation of the portrait is put forward by Ong Seng, ‘Wang-y-Tong’, Old Sennockian Newsletter, Easter 2006, p. 17. 10) I am grateful to Hongbo Du for alerting me to these incongruities. 11) Entitled ‘Von den Kriegs- und Fast-Schulen der Schinesen, nebst einigen andern Neuigkeiten von daher’ (Of the Chinese academies of war and of fasting, as well as some other news from there). See unpublished paper by Carl Niekerk, ‘Theories of Alterity and their Limits in Eighteenth-Century Anthropology (Buffon, Camper, Blumenbach, Herder)’, which can be accessed via the Academia website (http://www.academia.edu/). Emile de Bruijn, Registrar (Collections and Grants), arts|buildings|collections bulletin, summer issue july 2011, pp. 10-11 - www.nationaltrust.org.uk/abcbulletin
Painted in 1776 for the Duke of Dorset when Huang was page at Knole and thence by descent;on loan from the Trustees of the Sackville Estate
Knole, The Sackville Collection
Makers and roles
Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (Plympton 1723 - London 1792), artist
Intimate Faced: Portrait Drawing , (ed.K. Lloyd and K Sloan), exh. cat. British Museum and National Gallery Scotland, 2008,, no. 168 McConnell 2000 A. McConnell, 'John Bradby Blake', Oxford DNB [2580, accessed 31 Jan. 2008]; O.Connelll 2007 S. O'Connell, 'Britain Meets the World', Palace Museum, Beijing, 2007 ________________________________________ , no. 4.4 Mannings, 2000: David Mannings, Sir Joshua Reynolds: A Complete Catalogue of his Paintings. The Subject Pictures catalogued by Martin Postle, New Haven & London, 2000, nos 1828-9 Bruijn 2011 Emile de Bruijn, Registrar (Collections and Grants), arts|buildings|collections bulletin, summer issue july 2011, pp. 10-11 - www.nationaltrust.org.uk/abcbulletin)