The sitter in this portrait is probably Archibald Seton, the son of Hugh and Elizabeth Seton , who travelled to India in 1780 and became the Colonial Administrator for East India in Bengal, a British joint stock company trading with the East Indies and China. In 1806 he was appointed to the office of President at the court of Shah Alam II, the sixteenth Mogul Emperor. He remained in Delhi until 1811 when he was appointed as Lieutenant-Governor of Prince of Wales Island (now known as Penang, Malaysia). He was later promoted and gained a seat in the Supreme Council at Fort William in Bengal. Archibald was also a Heritable Armour Bearer and Squire of the Kings body. Archibald Seton died after a long and successful career, aboard the William Pitt (East India Company Ship) on its Voyage back to England from the island of St Helena in 1818 at the age of 60.
If the present work does indeed represent Archibald Seton, it may have been one of Chinnery’s earliest portrait commissions on his arrival in Madras in 1802, after he had already enjoyed a successful career on home shores. ‘The ablest limner in the land’ was how George Chinnery was hailed by his friend and fellow artist Charles D’Oyly. Indeed, few expatriate artists of the early nineteenth century could claim to have painted with the seemingly effortless verve of Chinnery.
The son of two generations of calligraphers – one of them a renowned author on the art – the importance of manual dexterity, one of the main prerequisites for portraiture in miniature, had been instilled in Chinnery from a young age. Trained in his youth by his father, also an amateur artist, it did not take long before Chinnery’s talent had matured to the point that he could exhibit it in public. This he did in 1791 when, aged only seventeen, he exhibited his first work at the Royal Academy, a portrait miniature. The following year he enrolled in the Royal Academy Schools, still heavily under the influence of their founder, Sir Joshua Reynolds, who had died only the year before. Inspired by the creative atmosphere that the Schools fostered, Chinnery exhibited a further twenty-one portrait drawings and miniatures at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions over the course of the first half of the 1790s.
In 1796, however, Chinnery was struck by the urge to travel; an urge that was to send him to shores much further afield than his native London. For the next five years, Chinnery lived in Dublin, where he set up a flourishing business as a portraitist. Making ready use of any opportunity to further his career and artistic development, he became the secretary of the newly-founded Society of Artists in Ireland. In 1799, his professional success was matched by that in his romantic life as he married his wife Marianne. Yet, Dublin was not to remain so attractive a prospect as a city for a young artist for long. The dissolution of the Irish Parliament in 1800 caused a rush of nobles – and potential patrons – from the city. With the opportunity for potentially lucrative commissions having, thus, quickly evaporated, Chinnery chose not to remain in Dublin for much longer. The following year, he returned to England harbouring more plans for self-advancement in the back of his mind. The Dublin art establishment rued his loss bitterly, awarding him a silver palette ‘in Testimony of his Exertions in promoting the Fine Arts in Ireland’ by way of thanks for all he had achieved there.
Chinnery was not to stay in England for long. Impelled by the desire to make his fortune, he embarked again (without either his wife or children) for India. Basing himself first in Madras, where the present work was most likely painted, the artist soon moved to Calcutta and then to Dacca, where he met his friend D’Oyly. D’Oyly, a much lesser artist, was bowled over by Chinnery’s talent, and promptly assimilated as much as he could of his friend’s style and methods. The ease with which he handled watercolour, floating the solid blue of the sitter’s coat here to emulate rich silk, in contrast to the carefully observed facial features, was also translated to pencil and oil – Chinnery managed to be successful in a huge variety of media.
Chinnery’s family had all joined him by 1820 after he had already fathered two illegitimate children but were forced to flee to Serampur in 1822 to escape debt. By 1825 his debt had risen further and he was forced to abscond to China where he resided for the remainder of his career, going on to produce his most well-known works. He died in Macao in 1852 after repaying his debts.