- Glimmer of Empire:Academy, "Alchemy," Exotic
late Middle English: probably of Scandinavian origin; related to Swedish glimra and Danish glimre
To shine brightly, to shine dimly
The arts and sciences are the destruction of tyrannies and bad governments […] Empire follows art and not vice versa as English men suppose.—William Blake, Annotations of Reynolds' Discourses on Art
This brief intervention concerns the life of an artist largely forgotten in eighteenth-century British art—Chitqua. But who exactly was Chitqua? Chitqua (Tan-Che-Qua), c.1728–1796, was a clay figure artist, probably born in the Guangdong province China. Working in the port of Canton much frequented by European ships in search of Chinese export goods—paintings and most porcelain became well known for his small portrait sculptures fashioned in clay. In many ways his practice was quite unique and much admired by his contemporaries. Yet his is also a story of imperial hostility, racial tensions, and an aesthetic of the exotic that remained unresolved. I would like to suggest that his brief presence in London draws attention to the admiration, perhaps the threat, of other forms of art making which might be deemed superior or at least unknowable.
Is it possible to study eighteenth-century British art without questioning empire? Some years ago, Bernard Porter made the case for imperial gestalt. Imperial gestalt suggests that scholars have tended to project empire on to the study of [End Page 13] British culture, finding it in every crevice.1 Within an eighteenth-century context, the editors of "Art and the British Empire" (2007) propose that imperialism is necessarily spectral.2 Inspired by Bernard Smith's provocative first book "Place, Taste and Tradition" (1945), Christopher Pinney makes the case that Europe was always a reflection of a reflection; neoclassical aesthetics necessarily found its alter in colonization. As Pinney writes, "We have to accept this enunciation as split by a process of hybridization, partialization or creolization but have fully come to accept, I think, that this colonial enunciation is a double splitting of an originary Europe that is itself already creolized or hybridized."3
The work of David L. Porter also offers a valuable redress of somewhat narrow definitions of eighteenth-century British taste.4 His notion of the aesthetics of the exotic in relation to China insists that we widen the focus of our intellectual inquiry to account for the exotic as poised between the pernicious or beneficent effects of "Asiatick luxury," the fashionable or the archaic, the classical or the vulgar. The exotic can be read as a fascinating ontological category. For Bernard Smith, the exotic is the "fringe dweller" of Enlightenment aesthetics.5 It is worth considering whether Victor Segalen's musings on the ontology of the angst associated with the exotic as aporia can be projected back to an Enlightenment context.6 Segalen makes the case for the exotic as that elusive aesthetic which evades the jaded tourism of tired palm trees and other clichés of travel within the apparatus of empire: "Exoticism's power is nothing other than the power to conceive otherwise… I conceive otherwise, and immediately the vision is enticing. All of Exoticism lies herein." Exoticism and Diversity are for Segalen not merely ways of experiencing the Orient, or the Exotic, but rather a philosophical stance on the nature of the Self and its relationship to the world around it, as well as its relationship to itself.7
Segelan's desire for alterity resonates with Pinney's search for what he terms the xeno-figure, and for a "material, figural history of this encounter and the everyday material creolization of Europe."8 Here the issue lies not simply in the movement from one cultural zone to another, but also in "how we might understand the field of effects around the object that respects its own alterity in the world."9 The xeno-figure is the exotic object moving between sometimes hazardous contexts, accruing value precisely because of its volatile status. Such long distant objects pertain to what Wolfram Schmidgen has termed "the mercantile fetish."10 Wolfram Schmidgen makes the case that the mercantile fetish is essentially the Enlightenment res articulated by its...