Imago 1900

Fragment from A View of London from the Thames (The Microcosm of London, pl. 89), 1809. Thomas Rowlandson and others, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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Thomas Rowlandson

His life and artistic work

The artist and his world

Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827) was one of the well-known caricaturists of the eighteenth century, noted for his political satire and sharp social observations. He made political cartoons (including about Napoleon, Britain’s most important enemy at that time) and produced an extensive oeuvre of coloured reed pen drawings of landscapes, village and city views, sport events, entertainment, domestic situations and erotic scenes.

Much of his work also appeared in printed form, well reproduced thanks to improved printing techniques. His designs were usually executed in outline and subtly washed with colour. The image was then etched on copper, afterwards aquatinted (usually by a professional engraver) and coloured by hand if desired. Rowlandson was also successful as an illustrator of various books, including novels by Smollett, Goldsmith and Sterne. Looking at his work gives the viewer the opportunity to glimpse daily life of ordinary people around 1800 in England, with all its pleasures and sorrows – albeit through a satirical lens.

Portrait of Thomas Rowlandson, black chalk with graphite with grey ink. John Raphael Smith, 1752-1812. British Mueum, London.

The world in which he lived was on the one hand hard and cruel: people often joked about the physical defects of others and animals were treated harshly. On the other hand the high-profile upper layer of society was full of moralism, politeness and good manners. Rowlandson was able to portray contrasts flawlessly. He likes to show that people did not always behave according to the norms and values they advocated. However, he was never judgemental, but emphasised the comic and tragic aspects of circumstances that could arise. Or as Gatrell (2006) put it “he was never other than a detached and amused voyeur”. His humour was based on various mechanisms, such as exaggeration, the confrontation of opposites, and unexpected observation of similarities in movement and posture, which elicit a laugh from the viewer.

His life

Thomas was born on 13 July 1757 as son of William Rowlandson, a trader in wool and silk. The Rolandsons were part of the large group of Huguenots who had settled in England in the late seventeenth century. Apparently they also had a relationship with the Netherlands because the name Rowlandson comes from the Dutch Roelantsoen, i.e. “son of Roelant”1. Although the textile industry prospered, William failed to capitalise on it properly. He was of a speculative turn and lost considerable sums in experimenting upon various branches of manufactures, which were tried on too large a scale for his means. He ended bankrupt in 1759. Now his brother James (who unlike William did very well in business) became the main support of the Rowlandson family.

Unfortunately, James Rowlandson died in 1764; his wife Jane was his only heir and took care of young Thomas. Thanks to her financial support he was able to attend the school of Dr Cuthbert Barvis at 8 Soho Square, from 1765 to 1772. Tradition has it that he already covered the margins of his school books with humorous drawings. From 1772-1777 Thomas studied at the Royal Academy and spent some time in Paris. Next he started his career as a portrait painter with his own studio in Wardour Street.

Argument (from Miseries of Human Life), one of his many highly expressive caricatures. Thomas Rowlandson. Princeton University Art Museum.

However, Rowlandson handled money poorly. After the death of his aunt in 1789 he fell into poverty by squandering most of her inheritance on gaming tables and horse racing gambling. His personality had two contradictory sides: on the one hand he was a libertine who liked to participate in the nightlife of a big city like London and on the other hand a hard-working and very productive artist (throughout his career he made over 10,000 drawings and prints!). Many of his drawings reveal traces of haste, which, however, do not detract much from the quality of the work. Through his friendship with James Gillray and his fellow artists, he came up with the idea of earning a living with caricatures.

In the 1820s his health began to deteriorate and he may also have suffered a stroke. He finally died in April 1827. Rowlandson was not officially married, but a certain Betsey Winter appears to have been his life partner for a long time and also became his heir.

His artworks

It is impossible to give a representative picture of Rowlandson's work in a few paragraphs or to connect his artistic production with his living conditions over time. The accurate chronology of the thousands of watercolour drawings is as yet unsolved, but a rough chronological three-way division has been made: an early period, a transitional period and a late period.

  1. 1774-1790: In the early period the portraiture dominates. If there is any caricature then it is based on physical distortion of features rather than on broad social satire. The lines of the reed pen are strong and uninterrupted.
  2. 1790-1800: Fewer portraits are found in the transitional period; the thick outlines disappear, probably because he had to work on a smaller scale. Line is used to express character by short, curving pen strokes. Now satire occupies a much greater place.
  3. 1800-1827: In this late period he developed a somewhat looser drawing style; he put stronger emphasis on colour and less on the interplay of lines2.

During this later period Rowlandson mainly worked for the prominent bookseller and print publisher Rudolph Ackerman. Ackermann, a German immigrant, was originally a saddler and coach-builder. In line with these activities he published a book on coach making and this was the start of his printing business. In 1795 he established a print-shop and turned out to be a successful entrepreneur. He gathered some authors and graphically talented artists around him and made them work together. This group included the distinguished caricaturists Thomas Rowlandson and Isaac Cruikshank, and well-known writers such as Augustus Pugin, William Pyne, William Combe and George Woodward.

This fruitful collaboration led to a series of interesting products:

  • The Microcosm of London (1808-1811), published in three volumes, provided a visual overview of the architectural highlights of the city. It was the result of collaborative efforts between the architect Auguste Pugin, the writers William Pyne and for the third volume William Combe. Rowlandson co-illustrated the book supplying the people in the drawings.
  • The Miseries of Human Life, written in 1806 by James Beresford is a humorous dialogue between two old curmudgeons. Thomas made drawings for a new edition of Bedford’s book published by Ackermann. In 1807 this work got a counterpart in the form of The Pleasures of human life, written by John Britton and again illustrated by Rowlandson.
  • The Tour of Doctor Syntax: In Search of the Picturesque was first published in instalments in Ackermann’s The Poetical Magazine (1809-1810) before it appeared in book form. In 1820 it was followed by Dr Syntax in Search of Consolation, and the next year by the Third Tour of Dr Syntax in Search of a Wife.
  • Dr Syntax was an imaginary schoolmaster, who started a tour in search of picturesque landscapes. This had become a fashionable passtime thanks to publications by the amateur painter and author William Gilpin (1724-1804), who had defined 'picturesque' as an aesthetic landscape category, somewhere between 'beautiful' and 'sublime', particularly characterised by an irregular and varied appearance. Rowlandson first made the drawings for Dr Syntax’s adventures and then William Combe (1742-1823) produced the associated text in poetry form ‐ see also The picturesque landscape and scenic travel.
    Dr. Syntax drawing the waterfall at Ambleside. Watercolor, set in the Lake District of north-west England, Thomas Rowlandson, ca. 1812. Victoria & Albert Museum, London.
    Dr. Syntax drawing from Nature. The Doctor now, with genius big, first drew a cow, and next a pig. Watercolour, Thomas Rowlandson, 1812. Victoria & Albert Museum, London.
  • The English Dance of Death (1815-1816), again a co-production by Rowlandson and Combe. The Dance of Death (or Danse Macabre) is wide-spread theme in Western art, developed in the fourteenth century. It is an allegorical confrontation of the living with death: people from all walks of life encounter Death, usually depicted as a skeleton, who summons them to follow him. The theme reached a large audience partly thanks to the famous book with woodcuts by Hans Holbein the Younger (1538).
  • Rowlandson turned it into a colourful parade of recognizable characters and focused the elaboration of the theme entirely on customs and character of his country. Combe added the verses and both of them thus created a colourful overview of the different ways in which Death managed to catch its prey emphasising the vices, follies and vanities of the age. These stories appeared in instalments in one of Ackermann's magazines and were later published in book form as well.
  • Also this work got a pendant: The Dance of Life (1816-1817) produced by the same team and also first published in instalments. Although the design follows the same pattern, it is less attractive than its predecessor about death. With a certain moralistic undertone it tells in verse the life of the wealthy Henry: his birth and childhood, the Grand Tour on the continent, the subsequent luxuriously fashionable life that culminates in wise insights as he approaches death.

For a larger overview of his works see the short-list in Wikipedia and, more fully, in detailed publications3. Despite his impressive oeuvre, he was soon forgotten, even among colleagues and collectors. It just wasn't art that adorned the walls of museums. Moreover, in the more prudish past, his erotic prints also did not do his reputation any good.

A selective introduction to the artistic work of Thomas Rowlandson. 2:47 min; 1920×1080 px; larger view in seperate page.
  • 1. Wade, 2013, p. 36.
  • 2. Baum, 1938.
  • 3. Wade, 2013 and Grego, 1880.