This full-length, life-size portrait shows the acclaimed actor Mary Ann Yates (1728–1787) as the character of Mandane in Arthur Murphy’s tragedy, The Orphan of China (1759). It shows the increasingly theatrical character of ambitious portrait painting in the 1760s, often literally involving the representation of famous performers in character. The painting was first exhibited at the annual exhibition organised by the Society of Artists in London in 1765. It is not known if it was commissioned from the artist, although it was in the collection of Francis Rawdon–Hastings, 1st Marquess of Hastings (1754–1826) at Donington Park, Leicestershire in the early nineteenth century.
The Orphan of China had been first performed at David Garrick’s Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London in 1759. The play is based on the radical French philosopher Voltaire’s L’Orphelin de Chine (1755). It is set in medieval times, with China under the cruel rule of the Tartar leader Timkurkan. The complex plot sees a high-ranking official, Zamti, and his wife Mandane wrangle with the excruciating moral dilemma of whether to sacrifice their son in the cause of national independence. Zamti remains a zealous patriot, but Mandane is overcome by maternal affection. Driven by emotion, she is outspoken in denouncing tyranny:
Our kings! – Our kings!
What are the scepter'd rulers of the world? –
Form’d of one common clay are they not all,
Doom’d with each subject, with the meanest slave,
To drink the cup of human woe? – alike
All levell’d by affliction? – Sacred kings!
‘Tis human policy sets up their claim. –
Mine is a mother cause – mine the cause
Of husband, wife, and child, – those tend’rest ties!
Superior to your right divine of kings! –
(Arthur Murphy, The Orphan of China: A Tragedy, As it is Perform'd at the Theatre-Royal, in Drury-Lane, 2nd edn, London 1759, pp.32–3).
While Mandane’s emotive stance resonated with contemporary ideas about the social value of such strong emotions, the stage setting also provided more immediate pleasures. Murphy recalled that Garrick had ‘prepared a magnificent set of Chinese scenes, and the most becoming dresses’ (Arthur Murphy, The Life of David Garrick, Dublin 1801, p.218). However, this did not apparently reflect any genuine sympathy for Asian art or culture, and Yates’s outfit is a wholly European fantasy. In a rhetorical speech delivered at the end of the play she went so far as to apologise to the audience for the alien ugliness of the ‘true Chineze’ sights they had witnessed.
The emphatic colour scheme and life-size scale of this work were aimed at gaining the painter attention in the context of the exhibition, a new forum for viewing art where a multitude of artists showed works that competed in catching the eye of critics and potential clients. Kettle had been working as a portrait painter outside London in 1762–4, and the pictures he exhibited in 1765 would have announced his return to the metropolitan art scene. There may also be a political subtext. There was growing opposition to the monarchy in these years, with the perception among some critics that ancient British liberties were under threat. Several artists exhibited paintings in the 1760s which contained coded references to current politics, and it may be that Kettle’s representation of a dignified mother railing against the abuse of power can be counted among them.
J.D. Milner, ‘Tilly Kettle 1735–1806’, Walpole Society, vol.15, 1927, pp.60–1, 85.
The Tate Gallery 1982–84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986, pp.39–40.