Regarding Thomas Rowlandson 1757-1827: His Life, Art and Acquaintance

Lord Baker of Dorking appreciates the scholarship applied to an appraisal of a great English artist

March 31, 2011

Thomas Rowlandson's watercolours, drawings and caricatures are immediately recognisable, but what makes them different from other contemporary prints is the jostling disorder of a mass of people that fill the pictures. In an image of a race meeting, the horses are paraded around at a distance, but the focus is upon the crowd who add to the fun of the occasion - a "find-the-lady" trickster, a gambling wheel in a tent, one group drinking and another listening to a fiddler and songstress. In others you find a soldier kissing a girl, a coach up-turned, a groping lascivious old lecher, a buxom bumboat woman, a bloated alderman and a tipsy parson. Rowlandson is one of our great comic artists.

The comedy and the rowdy energy are all played out in tavern yards, fairs, bare-knuckle fights, haywains, public executions and busy quaysides. He created the way in which the late 18th century is recognised. From 1780 to 1830 - the Rowlandson years - England was top dog: the Empire was spreading across the world; the Industrial Revolution was changing everything; and the Navy under Nelson and the Army under Wellington defeated Napoleon. Rowlandson brushed shoulders with our greatest painters - Gainsborough, Reynolds, Lawrence, Stubbs, Turner and Constable - and with our great poets - Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats and Byron. What a time to be alive - and an age that, incidentally, has almost dropped out entirely from the national curriculum.

Rowlandson, like William Hogarth, had to produce saleable material, and one of the most interesting points that this work of meticulous scholarship brings out is just how vigorous the print trade was. It employed many hundreds of people: artists, engravers, colourists, publishers, printers, and workshops that produced paint, ink, pencils, reed pens, etching needles, brushes, as well as many printshops. Expanding economies produce collectors of art: there were candlelight auctions in Leicester Square and in 1786 it took a 38-day-long auction to clear one collection. All this was centred on the hugger-mugger of streets in Soho that survive to this day - Greek Street, Dean Street, Poland Street, Wardour Street and Gerrard Street.

It was just as well for Rowlandson that there was a busy, thriving market for prints and caricatures as he had to sustain his habit: gambling. He once played dice for 36 hours and his many gambling prints tell the grisly truth - the gamblers are morose, sullen, anxious, angry, dispirited and in some cases brawling. His other weakness was punch and one of his drinking friends was George Woodward, another caricaturist who was to die with a glass in his hands. Both had to live just ahead of their creditors.

The two authors of this book treat the reader well with 200 illustrations, several of them in colour. It also reminds us that topical political cartoons could be bestsellers, for biting satire sold. In the Regency crisis in 1788-89 while George III was mad, Rowlandson's first cartoon was hostile to the Prince of Wales - a gambling, whoring, drinking roue. But money changed hands: royal accounts show that he was paid £26 for "etching the Regency crisis during the times of His Majesty's malady". After that, the Prince became a St George defending Britannia from the overweening power of the prime minister, William Pitt - Rowlandson was a pen for hire.

This book also emphasises the importance of having a patron, or as Rowlandson called them, "the long-pursed gentry". He had several, which led to tours of their country estates and the production of appealing pictures of a pastoral, bucolic England when Clapham was "a very agreeable village". But it was about to give way to the smoky, grimy industrialised economy of Victorian England.

I have read several books on Rowlandson, but this is the one I have enjoyed most.

Regarding Thomas Rowlandson 1757-18: His Life, Art and Acquaintance

By Matthew Payne and James Payne

Paul Holberton Publishing

436pp, £40.00

ISBN 9780955406355

Published 15 November 2010

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