Chinnery shorthand: Some snakes and ladders

A snakes and ladders board with numbered squares. In the centre, a sketch of the artist George Chinnery is superimposed.

Guest blog by Patrick Conner, research fellow, V&A Museum. Read his first blog about George Chinnery and the connections with Dickens.

The great transcriber

Much the best transcriber of Chinnery’s shorthand was Geoffrey Bonsall (1924-2010). He was born in China, son of a Methodist minister who was kidnapped by bandits when Geoffrey was aged two. I first met him in 1984, at Hong Kong’s famous Chinnery Bar (which is still going strong); in the 1990s he was enormously helpful to me as I was writing a book on George Chinnery, teaching me the rudiments of Chinnery’s shorthand. The picture below shows him sharing a Baked Alaska at Jimmy’s Kitchen.

A photograph of Geoffrey Bonsall in a Hong Kong restaurant, eating a dessert.
Geoffrey Bonsall in Hong Kong, 2009

As I’m cataloguing the V&A’s Chinnery drawings I’m aware how much interesting shorthand is still waiting to be transcribed. Sadly Geoffrey is no longer around to help. I’ve decoded quite a bit, but plenty still eludes me. I’m hoping to get many more Chinnery images with shorthand up on the V&A Collections website in the coming months – and hoping also that the Dickens Decoders will help to decipher! I’ve suggested (below) six main uses to which Chinnery put his shorthand. Unlike Dickens, he had no particular need to write rapidly. He usually put casual shorthand notes alongside his pencil sketches, sometimes rubbing them out later. On other occasions his shorthand is so neatly and carefully written (again in contrast with Dickens) that he seems to have envisaged it as something of a work of art in itself.

Chinnery’s uses of shorthand

  1. Pointing out particular objects and places: ‘chip hat’, ‘Canton’, ‘cabbage’.
  2. Noting colour or texture: ‘These pieces of thatch look more like pieces of velvet than anything else at a little distance’.
  3. Naming individuals: ‘Mr Sturgis’, ‘Mrs Daniell’, ‘Mr Smith’s Arab horse’.
  4. Mistakes to be corrected: ‘leg should be longer’.
  5. Techniques to be used: ‘Walters pencil or a good Burgess’, ‘fix with mustard mixture’, ‘removed by bread only’. (Bread was used for rubbing out; an overall wash of egg-white, congee or diluted mustard might be added to preserve the pencil drawing.)
  6. Observations and reminiscences unrelated to the subject: ’The coldest morning imaginable. The thermometer around 55 degrees. What must it be like in England?’


Example 1: Picture of a bird

A sketch of a bird similar to a turkey, with a shorthand inscription in the top right corner.

Transcription: ‘head purple bright blue crop bright red / upper part near it / head yellowish’

Example 2: Note in Brachygraphy shorthand

Four lines of Brachygraphy shorthand text, interspersed with numerals. Line two includes recognisable punctuation (three exclamation points). Smudges between lines three and four and circled in red.

Transcription: ‘June 16th 1840
Half an hour before the arrival of the first steamer!!!
The most important day that the English have ever
experienced in China’

(Just for context: this note – perhaps added a few hours or days after he made the drawing – referred to the Madagascar, one of several paddle-steamers in the British invasion force initiating the first Opium War with China.)

Example 3: Ink sketch of a mosque

An ink sketch of a mosque with trees, a wall, and a goat, in the foreground.

Transcription: ‘ + figures right size / dome of the mosque added’

[indicating that the dome was no longer in place when GC visited the spot]

Potential pitfalls

A. Specks and stains in the paper, even the remains of 200-year-old insects, may all be mistaken for bits of shorthand (see the marks encircled in red, in example 2, above). Enlarging the image may help sort this out.

B. It’s not always clear where the word breaks fall – so it may be worth trying different combinations of signs.

C. Chinnery is not always consistent! ‘Study’ can be written in shorthand or as a capital ‘S’ – see an example of each in the selection of typical Chinnery phrases below.

Recurring phrases and signs

Chinnery never tired of congratulating himself. Among his expressions of approval are ‘sketch excellent’, ‘fully to be depended upon’, and ‘picture at any time’ [i.e he could use the sketch to produce a fully-worked picture]. 

‘At home’ (see below) indicates that the sketch wasn’t made on the spot.

A circle with a dot inside means ‘fill in’ or ‘filled in’ (i.e. draw over the pencil in pen and ink).

Commonest of all are his ‘+ signs, which appear beside most of his sketches; the sign ‘x’ appears beside a few others. These are thought to mean ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ – which seems the best explanation so far, although it doesn’t always fit well. Maybe the ‘+’ is no more than a habitual flourish, signifying ‘done’. For the present I’m largely ignoring these ‘+’ signs! Below are some typical Chinnery expressions, including the months (he’s a conscientious dater, using shorthand for months and numerals for days and years).

Nine examples of common shorthand phrases used by Chinnery.
Cropped caption from a sketch, including a mix of shorthand and longhand script. The first line is a date abbreviation + Ju.30.1832. The second line is in shorthand.

Transcription: ‘correct July 30th 1832. Monday morning’

The months written in Chinnery's Brachygraphy shorthand.

Have a go at our Chinnery summer transcription challenge! (Deadline: 15 September 2023).