Charles Dickens, George Chinnery, and Gurney shorthand

Guest blog by Patrick Conner, research fellow, V&A Museum.

After Charles D’Oyly, Chinnery paints the portrait of Tom Raw. Etching and aquatint, priv. coll.

Charles Dickens and the artist George Chinnery had a good deal in common: personal charm, fluency in their chosen medium, and an irregular domestic life. They were also both – quite independently – writers of Gurney shorthand. We can be quite sure that Charles Dickens (1812-1870) and the artist George Chinnery never met, since Chinnery spent the last 50 years of his long life (1774-1852) in India and China.  But as a character Chinnery could well have played a tragicomic role in a novel by Dickens (or indeed Thackeray, whom Chinnery portrayed as a wide-eyed three-year-old in India).

The spectre of the debtor’s prison, from which Charles Dickens never quite escaped, also haunted George Chinnery.  In Chinnery’s case, however, it was not the relative comfort of the Marshalsea, but,

‘ …the humid gaol of Calcutta, where the thermometer sometimes stood at 120° in the shade, and where the prisoners were dreadfully annoyed by mosquitoes… [comprised] a punishment often more severe than loss of life.’

Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register for British India and its Dependencies XXV, Jan.-June 1828, 137-8

It may seem surprising that Chinnery was threatened with imprisonment in Calcutta, for until then his career had been largely successful, outwardly at least. Born in London, he had enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools before spending five years in Dublin, where he won renown as a rising young artist, and married Marianne Vigne his landlord’s daughter. (They had two children before he left for India in 1802; when she joined him there 16 years later he had had two more children by an Indian mother.)

George Chinnery, The Esplanade, Calcutta, Pen and ink; priv. coll.

By 1820 Chinnery was established as the principal artist of British India; every socially ambitious officer or administrator, it seemed, had to be portrayed by him. His many lucrative commissions and his social connections ensured his freedom, even as his debts (whose causes have never been explained) grew more and more unmanageable.

But the Chinnerys, like Mr Toad, were skilled in the arts of escape. The artist’s elder brother William, having been found to have committed fraud on a grand scale, still managed to flee to Sweden before he could be arrested.  In India George Chinnery gained a little respite by moving to the Danish colony of Serampur, where British civil law did not apply, and deceiving his friends into increasing their loans. But finally even his close friends lost patience, and he was obliged to take ship to the China coast, from which he never returned. Here he divided his time between the Portuguese settlement of Macau and the great trading emporium of Canton (Guangzhou), through which all China’s exports of tea, silks, porcelain and other luxuries were channelled. He revelled in the cosmopolitan life of the trading community, painting portraits of Chinese, European, American and Parsi merchants, and becoming ‘a general favourite’, in the words of an American friend.

George Chinnery, Self-portrait c.1843. Courtesy of the NPG.

At the age of 62 he was described as ‘a portly figure, set out in a rather French air… He wore a mouth of goodly size, and eyes smilingly smothered in ruddy flesh, and pleasant humour…’[1]  He was humorous, self-confident, vain, and prone to extremes of exuberance and depression. He lived on in Macau to the age of 76 – an astonishing age for an expatriate – sketching until the end with obsessive and undiminished skill:

‘I go out, Sir, every morning before breakfast, and get one or two [sketches]’, he would say, ‘and they are universally admired by my indulgent friends’

Commodore George C. Read, Around the World: a narrative of a voyage in the East India Squadron under Commodore George C. Read, 2 vols., New York, 1840, 213
George Chinnery, Praya Grande, Macau.  Pen and ink over pencil; priv. coll.

In addition to portraits he made drawings and paintings of the streets and beaches of Macau, the Chinese temples, the Portuguese forts and the Jesuit churches; these are often glimpsed in the background of his pictures, while in the foreground are the Chinese barbers, boatwomen, blacksmiths, fishermen, gamblers and porters whom he encountered every day.

Many of these drawings survive today; over a thousand are in the V&A, most of them scarcely catalogued or examined. Moreover many of them are annotated in the Gurney system of shorthand, which George Chinnery learned no doubt from his father, a professional shorthand writer. So both George Chinnery and Charles Dickens were using the same Gurney system at much the same time. In general Chinnery wrote more carefully and sticks more closely to Gurney’s Brachygraphy, but like Dickens he employed some personal shortcuts and signs peculiar to himself.

At present I’m photographing and cataloguing the V&A’s holdings (slowly); they’ll be going up before long on the V&A website. There are a good many Gurney annotations to be translated! If the V&A agrees I propose to put up a second blog giving some detailed examples of how Chinnery applied his shorthand, and to provide a link to some of the examples in their collection, by way of a ’decoding challenge’. As a taster of the challenges to come, can any Dickens Decoders decipher the line of shorthand in the top right corner of Chinnery’s painting Fort Bomparto below? Clue: the annotation is a note to himself about corrections to the drawing.

    Detail of the Brachygraphy shorthand from Chinnery’s sketch

    [1] Around the World: a narrative of a voyage in the East India Squadron under Commodore George C. Read, by an Officer in the U.S. Navy, 2 vols., New York, 1840, vol. 2, 213