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Huang Ya Dong ('Wang-Y-Tong') (c.1753 - ?)

Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (Plympton 1723 - London 1792)

Category

Art / Oil paintings

Date

c. 1776

Materials

Oil on canvas

Measurements

1300 x 1070 mm

Place of origin

London

Order this image

Collection

Knole, Kent

NT 129924

Caption

Here Reynolds adapts the conventions of European portraiture to evoke his sitter’s Chinese nationality, incorporating authentic articles of Cantonese dress and furniture. Huang Ya Dong was a translator from Guangzhou who visited London in the 1770s. Reynolds periodically painted celebrated visitors from abroad who were drawn to the studio to see works of art and meet the talented company that congregated there. Huang dined with Reynolds and discussed Chinese botany, medicine and technology with many of the great writers and innovators of the day.

Summary

Oil painting on canvas, Huang Ya Dong ('Wang-y-Tong') (c.1753 - ?) by Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (Plympton 1723 - London 1792), c.1776. A full-length portrait of Huang Ya Dong in Chinese dress, sitting cross-legged on a Chinoiserie low seat. Looking to the left, holding a fan in his right hand. Exhibited British Institution 1813.

Full description

This portrait of Huang Ya Dong was painted by Joshua Reynolds for the 3rd Duke of Dorset (Mannings 2000, nos. 1828-9). 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 (Lloyd and Sloan 2008, no. 168). Huang had travelled to Britain with John Bradby Blake (1745–73), who was engaged in trade for the East India Company in Guangzhou (Canton). Blake was interested in the natural history of China and being stationed in Guangzhou, was able 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 provided first-hand information to British naturalists. Blake fell ill and died in Guangzhou just before Huang arrived in Britain. His father, Captain John Blake, initially hosted Huang. At this time Chinese visitors to Europe were 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 […]’ (‘Hints Respecting the Chinese Language’, The Bee, XI, 12 September 1792, pp. 48-52, pp. 50-52; see also Appleton 1951, pp. 134-6). 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. 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 to China. 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 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’ (Jones 1801, supplemental vol. I, pp. 245-246). 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 […]’ (Jones 1792, pp. 367-368). Huang Ya Dong was well educated, and seems to have passed at least some of the 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. Text adapted from an article by Emile de Bruijn in the Arts | Buildings | Collections Bulletin, Summer, July 2011, pp. 10-11. [Addendum: There is a tradition that Huang attended Sevenoaks School and was in the service of the 3rd Duke of Dorset, the first owner of this picture, although this has yet to be corroborated with documentary evidence.]

Provenance

Painted in c.1776 when Huang is reputed to have served as a page to the 3rd Duke of Dorset and thence by descent; on loan from the Trustees of the Sackville Estate

Credit line

Knole, The Sackville Collection

Makers and roles

Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (Plympton 1723 - London 1792), artist

References

Jones 1792: Sir William Jones, et al., Dissertations and Miscellaneous Pieces relating to the history and antiquities, the arts, sciences and literature of Asia, London 1792, vol. I, pp. 357-386, at pp. 367-368. Jones 1801: Sir William Jones, Works, London 1801, supplemental vol. I, pp. 245-246. Appleton 1951: William W. Appleton, A Cycle of Cathay: The Chinese Vogue in England during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, New York 1951, pp. 134-136. McConnell 2000: Anita McConnell, 'John Bradby Blake', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition, January 2008 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. O.Connell 2007: S. O'Connell, 'Britain Meets the World', Palace Museum, Beijing, 2007, no. 4.4. Lloyd and Sloan 2008: Stephen Lloyd and Kim Sloan, The Intimate Portrait: Drawings, Miniatures and Pastels from Ramsay to Lawrence, National Galleries of Scotland in conjunction with The British Museum, Edinburgh and London 2008, no. 168. Bruijn 2011: Emile de Bruijn, National Trust Arts, Buildings and Collections Bulletin, Summer 2011, pp. 10-11

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