Tilly Kettle 1734 or 5–1786
Mrs Yates as Mandane in ‘The Orphan of China’
Oil paint on canvas
1924 x 1295 mm
Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1982
... Francis Rawdon-Hastings, 1st Marquess of Hastings (1754–1826), Donington Park, Leicestershire, by March 1820 (as by Johan Zoffany, ‘Mrs Yates, Whole Length Size’); by descent to 4th Marquis of Hastings, Donington Park, by 1869; purchased by the art dealer Jane Noseda for £106.17.17 at Phillips, London, 25–26 February 1869, no.106 (as by Johan Zoffany, ‘A Whole-Length Portrait of Mrs Yates, the Celebrated Actress’); ... Sir Hugh Lane (1875–1915), London, by whom lent to the Grafton Galleries and the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London in 1910 (as by Johan Zoffany, ‘Mrs Yates (Tragic Actress in Character Dress) (1723–1787), from the Collection of the Marquess of Hastings’); ... Sir Edmund Davis (1862–1939), of London, Chilham Castle, Kent, Venice and the French Riviera, by whom offered for sale at Christie’s, London, 11 July 1930 (97) (as ‘Portrait of Mrs Yates in Character’ by Jean Etienne Liotard), bought in; ... purchased by Gavin Graham in Nice, France in 1981; by whom sold with Anthony Dallas & Sons to the Tate Gallery in 1982.
This full-length portrait shows the acclaimed actor Mary Ann Yates (1728–1787) as Mandane, a character in Arthur Murphy’s tragedy The Orphan of China (first performed and published in 1759). Placed alone in a bare interior setting, Yates is shown raising her hands in a way that would conventionally indicate that she was meant to be speaking. Her vividly coloured costume, dominated by a rich combination of black, gold and deep pink conjured by broad, emphatic brushstokes, presumably corresponds with her stage outfit. Yates found fame in the role, which she took up from the opening performance at David Garrick’s Theatre Royal on Drury Lane, London in 1759. The play was revived at the same theatre in 1764, with a special performance on 2 April ‘For the Benefit of Mrs Yates’.1 Kettle’s painting was first exhibited in London in 1765 at the annual exhibition of contemporary art organised by the Society of Artists. Although listed in the catalogue only as ‘Portrait of a Lady, Whole Length’, contemporary commentators identified it as Mrs Yates in her role as Mandane.2 The early ownership history of the painting is unknown, and the painting may have been a commission or created speculatively.
The Orphan of China is based on the radical French philosopher Voltaire’s L’Orphelin de Chine (1755), which itself had originated from a thirteenth-century Chinese play that had been transmitted to Europe via a French translation in 1735. The play is set in the medieval era, with China under the oppressive rule of the Tartars and the tyrannical Timurkan (Genghis Khan). Following the violent conquest of China by the Tartars, the characters Zamti and Mandane raise the last remaining Chinese royal as their own child, in place of their natural son who they sent away. Twenty years pass in the story and the couple’s exiled son, who became a resistance fighter, returns to China as a prisoner and faces execution. The play sees Zamti and Mandane wrangle with the excruciating moral dilemma of whether to sacrifice their own son to protect the prince’s disguise, or to give up their adopted son to Timurkan, thus saving their natural child by destroying any hope of restoring the Chinese monarchy. Zamti remains a zealous patriot, but Mandane is overcome by maternal affection. Although the story ends with the death of Genghis Khan and the restoration of the prince, Zamti and Mandane also die, the latter by her own hand. While providing a great deal of action and emotion along the way, the play touches on themes of public and private virtue and conflicted loyalties. Mandane is most 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! 3
There may, accordingly, have been a political subtext to Kettle’s choice of subject, for there was growing opposition to the Hanoverian monarchy and its government in these years, with the perception among some critics that ancient British liberties were under threat. Several prominent 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.4
While both the political and emotional content of the play resonated with contemporary British audiences, the ‘exotic’ setting provided more immediate pleasures. The highly decorative chinoiserie stage sets and costumes of Garrick’s production were greatly admired. Murphy himself recalled that Garrick had ‘prepared a magnificent set of Chinese scenes, and the most becoming dresses’ and the play was advertised as being performed ‘in the Habits of that nation’.5 However, this did not necessarily reflect any genuine sympathy for Asian art or culture. Rather, China was generally viewed from a European perspective as a barbarically strange and elaborate culture, qualities which might be indulged in the form of fashionable fripperies but which stood as irredeemably alien to Western aesthetic standards. If the epilogue spoken by Yates offered an apology to anyone whose Western sensibilities might be offended by her dress – ‘Ladies, excuse my dress – ‘tis true Chinese’ – the costume represented by Kettle is entirely fanciful, and far more European than Asian.6 Indeed, the rhetorical epilogue goes on to emphasise the alien ugliness of China and the Chinese:
You’ve seen their eastern virtues, patriot passions,
And now for something of their taste and fashions,
O Lord! – that’s charming – cries my Lady Fidget,
I long to know it – Do the creatures visit?
Dear Mrs Yates, do tell us – Well how is it?” –
First, as to beauty – set your hearts at rest –
They are all broad foreheads, and pig’s eyes at best.
And they lead such strange, such formal lives! 7
The emphatic colour scheme of this work, its ambitious scale, and its presentation of a well-known actress in her most famous and exotic role, were aimed at gaining the painter attention in the context of the Society of Artists annual exhibition, where a multitude of painters and sculptors showed works that competed in catching the eye of critics and potential clients. Kettle had been working outside of London in 1762–4, and the pictures he exhibited in 1765 would have announced his return to the capital. The picture attracted some critical commentary, although one reviewer complained that ‘Mr Kettle has by no Means done Justice to the Beauty of Mrs Yates ... for the Copy appears twenty Years older than the original’.8 Kettle was defended by a correspondent identified as ‘Proabtum Est’:
Mrs Yates, like all great performers, has the true Art of divesting herself of herself in this Character, as in every other: She is the very Distress’d Mother of a Son grown up to Manhood; and not Mrs Yates, the Agreeable and All–accomplished, sitting at her Tea–table, or acting Belinda in All in the Wrong. Mr Kettle, therefore, seems to have shewn us Mrs Yates and Mandane in one; A much higher Stroke of Fancy than giving either of them separate.9
The same writer added: ‘That Mr Kettle may also appear in a better Light, suppose Mandane was in a proper Light, she possessing now the darkest Corner of the Room’, thus making the kind of complaint about the unhappy positioning of pictures in the crowded annual art exhibitions which became common in the period. The exchange draws attention to the very high level of scrutiny applied to female actors’ bodies in late eighteenth century art as well as in the theatre as well as the struggles some artists faced in getting their pictures displayed in a satisfactory manner.10
Tilly Kettle was a moderately successful portraitist who worked in Oxford and the Midlands as well as London, before becoming one of the first British portrait painters to operate in India (1769–1776). His early death in 1786, on route back to India, helped render him a relatively obscure figure in art history, and the identity of even this painting, one of his most elaborate and distinctive works, became obscured over time. However, it is possible to trace the picture back to the Hastings collection at Donington Park, Leicestershire, at least as far back as the early nineteenth century. The picture is first documented as belonging to Francis Rawdon-Hastings, 1st Marquess of Hastings (1754–1826), as it was included in the catalogue of a planned sale of his collection at Donington Park in 1820. However, in the catalogue it is said to have been painted by Johan Zoffany, and is simply titled ‘Mrs Yates, Whole Length Size’.11 That sale appears not to have gone ahead, for the work was still listed in the collection in an inventory of Donington Park in 1847. In this document the painting is titled ‘Mrs Yates in an Indian Costume’ but with no artist attribution (‘Indian’ in this context may simply register a rather generic understanding of the ‘exotic’ Asian-style dress), and is recorded as having been hung in the ‘Rustic Simplicity Bed Chamber’.12 It was included as by Zoffany in the London sale of the 4th Marquis of Hastings’s collection in 1869. Observing the sale, the artist and curator George Scharf made notes that allow for the identification of that work with the present painting: ‘Fine well painted picture, pale in colour like Gainsborough but not in touch. Pink dress and sleeves bl[ac]k body & apron. Bl[ac]k satin and pearly ribbon round neck. Headdress bl[ac]k & pearls with r[ed] feathers’.13 The buyer was ‘Noseda’, which must mean Jane Noseda (1814–after 1881) a London-based art dealer. It subsequently entered the collection of the Irish art collector Sir Hugh Lane (1875–1915), by whom it was lent for exhibition in 1910 to the Grafton Gallery and to the Whitechapel Art Gallery. It apparently left Lane’s collection before his death in 1915,14 and it was put up for sale from the collection of the mining financier Sir Edmund Davis (1862–1939) in 1930. By this point it was identified as a work by the widely-travelled Swiss portraitist Jean Etienne Liotard (1702–1789), but it failed to sell.15 The painting re-emerged on the art market in France in around 1980, when the attribution to Kettle was restored before being purchased for the Tate Gallery in 1982. At that point the picture was considered to be mainly of ornamental interest: Martin Butlin, the Keeper of the British collections identified it as ‘an exceptionally attractive picture ... [which] shows this admittedly second-rank painter at his best’.16 More recent literature on the Orphan of China and on the commodification of Anglicised fantasies of China in eighteenth-century theatre and design provide, however, further contexts for interpreting the painting which have yet to be fully explored.17