Thomas Rowlandson (13 July 1756 – 22 April 1827) was and English artist born in Old Jewry, in the City of London. He is well known for his caricatures and also produced many fine erotic prints during the early 1800s.
On leaving school he became a student at the Royal Academy. At the age of sixteen, he lived and studied for a time in Paris.
In 1775 he exhibited a drawing of Delilah visiting Samson in Prison, and in the following years he was represented by various portraits and landscapes. He was spoken of as a promising student; and was expected to go on to great things.
A touch on the Times-
Rowlandson began his career mostly with oils but soon turned to the more convenient mediums of watercolor and engravings which he specialized in throughout his life.
So prolific was he, that his obituarist W H Pyne commented that Rowlandson “had etched as much copper as would sheathe the whole British Navy”!
All was going well for Thomas Rowlandson until he inherited £7,000 from his aunt in 1798. The money turned into a curse as Rowlandson had a taste for indulgence and with the money he would waste obscene amounts gambling, drinking and on prostitutes until within a decade he was penniless and broken.
It was around this time Thomas Rowlandson produced his series of erotic engravings.
Today they are mostly housed in the George IV collection at Windsor Castle in England, and it is believed the prints may have even been made for George IV while he was serving as Prince Regent.
Examples of Rowlandson’s erotic prints can also be found in the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Comedy Spectators by Thomas Rowlandson, 8 October 1789: a hand-coloured print of a group of male and female spectators within a theatre enjoying a comedic performance. Photograph: The Royal Collection The Royal Collection/PR
Thomas Rowlandson was so prolific they could have papered the walls of China with his work. So ran one obituary when he died in 1827 in the same spot where he had lived for the whole of his 70 years, handy for Piccadilly, parliament and the pleasures of Soho, slap in the centre of London. He may have left as many as 10,000 watercolours, drawings and prints, though nobody has yet done the count.
Love on a bicycle
Rowlandson needed the money. He was incurably sociable, an unrepentant trencherman and gambler who spent every penny as soon as he earned it. All of his appetites were cast on a large scale – rather like the characters in his art;
indeed one of his prints shows a fat man cradling his belly as he tries to master the pangs of indigestion once again. It could be any Regency epicure but it is recognisably Rowlandson himself. The lack of hypocrisy is not the least charm of his work.
Rowlandson always looks more generous than his exact contemporary James Gillray because his figures are so stout – huge chins, piggy snouts, colossal pie-eating teeth, a postprandial flush to every face, no matter how lean, great hummocking bosoms, bottoms and bellies. John Bull is practically cuboid, and gluttons are Rowlandson’s forte.
At one table, the ladles and wine glasses are dwarfed to dolls’ house miniatures by the diners themselves: he with his fleshy chops, she with her soup-tureen breasts.
Rowlandson loves a crowd at the green baize, the eatery, the racecourse, the boxing match or theatre.
One of his most famous subjects – the prints hang in country pubs throughout Britain to this day – is the colossal traffic jam of bucking horses, colliding riders and overturning coaches disgorging every comic type from the spindly but venal parson to the gouty old dame, dress flying to reveal frilly bloomers.
Even the vicious cobalt-coloured imp with its reptilian talons (income tax incarnate) assaulting poor old John Bull has a chubby bum and wide thighs. He is too comfortable, in short, to be alarming. And that is true of Rowlandson himself: he lacks the moral indignation of Hogarth, or the dark and punitive genius of Gillray. He is genuinely interested in laughter – and laughing.
Rowlandson was two when his father was bankrupted. Raised by sundry relatives, he made it to the Royal Academy schools at the age of 15, supporting himself by quick-sketch portraits.
Here he drew the customary classical casts, but also rows of his fellow students squinting and frowning through the classes. He might have made a painter and was devoted to Rubens (like Gillray), but comedy got the better of him.
Still, you can see traces of that devotion in the rushing tumble of figures spiralling down the staircase at Somerset House in the famous Exhibition Stare Case, a floundering throng shrewdly compared to Rubens’s Last Judgment by the English writer Sacheverell Sitwell.
Doctor Convex and Lady Conclave
His draughtsmanship is lithe and precise, anatomically correct in its every detail, full of whiplash outlines and graduated stipples, beautifully coloured and curvilinear.
He is better at sturdy Charles James Fox, with his jowls below the belt, than at scrawny William Pitt, though the pertinence of his political cartoons remains, so that Pitt versus Fox feels very like Cameron versus Milliband.
The Devonshire, or Most Approved Method of Securing Votes, 12 April 1784 by Thomas Rowlandson. Photograph: Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2013 Royal Collection Trust / (C) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2013
And Rowlandson’s election campaigns are sensational. The exhibition of works belonging to the Queen currently open in Edinburgh, before touring to London and Bath, includes a print of the Duchess of Devonshire bestowing her favours on a butcher to get his vote, and another in which she rides a phallic seesaw, bare-breasted, on the stump for Fox.
But Rowlandson is surely far stronger as a social observer than a political satirist. To him we owe some of the great images of life in Georgian London – thunderstruck cockneys jostling behind barriers to gape at actual Laplanders posing with reindeer against a painted panorama of ice and snow. (You could take a short sleigh ride through this living installation for an extra penny.)
The pleasure gardens at Vauxhall, jostling with soldiers, students, tarts and society beauties – and the difficulty of telling the difference between them. In one of those pullulating crowd scenes at which he excelled, he mocks the social chaos at Covent Garden. On the left, a pigtailed gentleman propositions a stylish prostitute; on the right, his counterpart tries it on with a woman in identical decolletage who turns out to be a violently affronted aristocrat.
Even when he draws a race meeting, the horses are seen at a distance for the focus must be on the fun in the foreground – the singing, the slap and tickle, the bloated alderman and tipsy vicar. Rowlandson finds humour in nearly all human foibles.
He was not one-sided in his politics; in the same month he could be pro and anti Fox. Nor was he ever beyond the needful cash. When George III went mad, his son commissioned Rowlandson to produce pro-Regency cartoons – though the tables were of course turned as Rowlandson mocked the prince as a lothario and buffoon; many of these prints were collected by their royal subject.
His even-handedness is beautifully expressed in the double print showing the theatre audience weeping copiously at a tragedy and in pleats of laughter at a comedy:
in each case the scene is just as empathetically humorous, down to the furtive play-acting of those who literally cannot follow the plot. Rowlandson doesn’t force the joke, he just sketches in the merriment, showing us why we laugh.