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Art & artists

Bosoms, bottoms and Rowlandson

— July 2011

Associated media

State Butchers. Hand-coloured etching by Rowlandson from an original idea by Henry Wigstead, 27.3 x 38.4 cm Published December 1788 or January 1789

Regarding Thomas Rowlandson, 1757–1827: His Life, Art & Acquaintance

Matthew Payne & James Payne

This is the lively story of one of the greatest graphic satirists that Britain has ever produced. His images are instantly recognizable, and still much reproduced today. Indeed, much of what they say about the world of politics, and the foibles of human nature, is as relevant now as it was in the 18th century.

Rowlandson lived in an age when cartoonists depicted people in a wonderfully racy fashion. Lots of bare bosoms and backsides (and even what comes out of them). Yet alongside these, Rowlandson also produced delicate watercolours of landscapes and townscapes which merit attention along with the greatest masters of that art.

Despite being so well known as a caricaturist, Rowlandson is not an easy subject for the historian. He lived life to the full, but kept no diary and wrote few letters, and he failed to feature prominently in anyone’s memoirs. Various brief accounts of his life have been written, often accompanying exhibitions of his work (many in the 1970s), but there has never been such a fully researched biography before. The Paynes have had their work cut out. For over a decade they have delved into official records, newspaper reports, contemporary accounts and sales catalogues, and their fruitful labours have increased our knowledge of the man considerably.

Rowlandson was a Londoner, son of City merchant who was declared bankrupt when the boy was only two years old; he and his sister (who later married the sporting artist Samuel Howitt) were brought up by their uncle, a prosperous Spitalfields silk weaver. Rowlandson’s talent for drawing was recognized early and he studied at the Royal Academy Schools. His development as an artist was unusual, however: he always worked mainly as a draughtsman, and never took to oil painting.  His style was influenced by John Hamilton Mortimer, while Hogarth clearly had an influence in some of the subject matter. And it’s always tempting to compare his work with that of his colleague James Gillray, though Rowlandson’s attitude towards humanity was never quite so biting or cruel. In fact he seems rather fond of people, their failings and sillinesses.     

Rowlandson first worked in ink, and monochrome wash over drawings, before moving on to watercolour.  He produced some wonderfully evocative landscapes of England’s rich rolling countryside, and busy bustling townscapes. But however elegant the non-human compositions might be, they are always peopled by semi-caricature figures engaged in interesting activity or incident.  Farm work is going on, carriages are travelling or breaking down on the road. His interior scenes show a great deal of eating and drinking, lusting and bed scenes (often the ridiculous fat elderly man with the buxom wench).

Rowlandson needed to keep his prints coming for he drank and gambled heavily, and he could never afford to be lazy. On one occasion he claimed to have gambled for a continuous 36 hours (and he didn’t spare his own experience from his prints, where gamblers are show to be feckless, reckless men). Luckily, the print industry was booming. It also helped that he had patrons with whom he could stay in the country, documenting their estates.

Much of his work is interesting today for its topographical recording, for example the views of villages near London that have long been absorbed into the city. The industrial revolution had yet to change the face of much of England.  I say England; Rowlandson never seems to have ventured to Scotland (though he went to Wales) and his few images of Scotland depict the desolate landscapes that many a Londoner of his time assumed were the reality.

The artist’s family was of French Huguenot extraction, and he travelled to France several times. The lack of documentation about his movements, however, is such that even the current authors can’t establish for sure whether he went to Rome in 1782.  The French revolution in 1789 caused him to divert to the Low Countries. 

Rowlandson lived with his aunt until her death, then moved home in London frequently, mainly owing to his financial circumstances. By the time he died the social world was changing. He received scant attention from obituarists, and his work fetched very low prices when sold the following year. Both Thackeray and Dickens poured scorn on his abilities, and it was left to the following century to re-discover him.

The book is principally a biography, illuminating the background and context of much of Rowlandson’s work rather than supplanting the various art-historical studies of his oeuvre (the numerous illustrations are generally small and left me peering to see the detail). There are full endnotes, a bibliography and an index, and a mine of information about the man and his contemporaries in London. A good read for someone who is interested in the London of his day, and a good reference for the scholar.

Regarding Thomas Rowlandson 1757-1827: His Life, Art & Acquaintance by Matthew Payne & James Payne is published by Paul Holberton / Hogarth Arts 2010. 394 pp.,  145 mono / 32 colour illus. ISBN 978 0 955406 35 5



Patricia Andrew
Art historian

Media credit: © The Trustees of the British Museum

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