History Today eBook: The Second World War

The Chinese Convert

Cherry Barnett examines Godfrey Kneller's portrait of a young Chinese convert.

In a gallery featuring seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century ‘courtly portraiture’ at Tate Britain, the spirituality of Godfrey Kneller’s portrait of a young Chinese man, currently on loan from the Royal Collection, provides a thought-provoking contrast to Van Dyck’s glamorous depiction of the youthful Lords John and Bernard Stuart (c.1638).

The quality of Kneller’s portrait ‘Michael Alphonsus Shen Fu-Tsung: “The Chinese Convert”’ alone is likely to have recommended it for selection in the recently expanded Tate displays: ‘Horace Walpole claimed that “Of all his works Sir Godfrey was most proud of the converted Chinese at Windsor”’. But in an era of post-colonialism, at a time when the leaders of the three main political parties in Britain are either Catholic or married to a Catholic, there are other reasons why this portrait is a significant choice for display. It recalls past centuries of religious strife in Britain, and it highlights, in particular, Catholic aspirations in an ambitious colonial period.

James II, who converted to Catholicism in 1668, commissioned Kneller to paint ‘The Chinese Convert’ in 1687. In reality, howver, Shen Fu-Tsung had been born a Christian, his parents having been converted by the Jesuit community in southern China, probably in Portuguese Macao. Even so, James II was impressed by this Christian curiosity from so far afield. The life-size work was hung in his Presence Chamber.

Portuguese voyagers had established a base at Macao on the south China coast by 1557; inevitably missionaries and traders quickly swelled the community. The dominant Jesuit order developed educational facilities up to Western university standards from which Shen Fu-Tsung would have benefited. But he lived well before the foundation in 1728 of a seminary specifically to train Chinese priests.

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