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This is a great year for lovers of Thomas Rowlandson’s works (of which I am one). Here he is, above ,shown at the age of 58 in 1814, at the height of his popularity. An exhibition of his work is currently available to view in the USA: and interestingly it will be on show at two venues . It is currently at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University in Chicago until the 31st March, and then it will move to the Frances Lehman Boeb art Centre at Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY state, where it will be on show to the public from the 8th April until the 11th June of this year.
Sadly I have no hope of seeing the exhibit at either venues( how I do despise the Atlantic!) and so I’m pleased to be in receipt of the book that has been published to accompany the exhibit, and it is that book I am going to review today.
Rowlandson has been somewhat dismissed in the past as a prolific but crude and lewd artist. Immediately after his death his works fell into a critical decline. As Professor Vic Gatrell writes in his essay Rowlandson’s London which is contained in the book:
Manners were changing fast in the 1820s and by the time of his death in 1827 his robust humour was out of fashion. Thanks to the increasing assertiveness of the evangelical and upwardly mobile middle-class opinion makers, more domesticated and respectable tastes were gaining ground. So only one obituary noticed his passing and only Ackermann, Bannister and Angelo are recorded at his funeal.For half a century thereafter barely a handful of collectors even remembered his name.
This exhibition and book attempts to re assess Rowlandson and his work, as not only someone who was humorous, but who depicted social life in late Georgian england with a satirical but nevertheless accurate eye. Someone who had a talent for spotting and reproducing the telling details of the raw side of life in the taverns, streets and theatre of Georgian London.
Jane Austen certainly knew of Rowlandson’s works. In her letter to Cassandra Austen of the 2nd March 1814, she refers to his character Dr Syntax:
There are no good places to be got in Drury Lane for the next fortnight, but Henry means to secure some for Saturday fortnight, when you are reckoned upon. Give my love to little Cassandra! I hope she found my bed comfortable last night and has not filled it with fleas. I have seen nobody in London yet with such a long chin as Dr. Syntax, nor anybody quite so large as Gogmagoglicus.
Dr Syntax was, of course, Rowlandson and William Combe’s satirical attack on William Gilpin and his books on the picturesque. The tours of the hapless Dr Syntax mimic Gilpin’s tours around the British Isles : Jane Austen appears to have been a reader and possible admirer of both. And of course if does have to be admitted that Dr Syntax had a rather long chin….
The exhibition and the accompanying book edited by Patricia Phagan attempts to re-assess Rowlandson’s reputation, as an accurate depicter of social phenomena and the Georgian habit of mixing of social classes at entertainments in England :
The exhibition is organized around the chief forms that social life assumed in Rowlandons art: high society and politics; encounters in the street ,taverns and clubs, outdoor entertainments,the arts and sexual and romantic tangles and attachments.
He recorded a world, especially of that in London,that Jane Austen knew well, living as she did occasionally with Henry Austen at his home in Henrietta Street ,Covent Garden:
Rowlandson’s art emerged from a culture bound by a sense of irony, and independent minded society where social ranks mingled in public areas such as royal parks, pleasure gardens and in the theatrical and artistic realm of Covent Garden,but in which a hierarchy remained.
Patricia Phagan also notes that:
Rowlandson’s observations on society’s indulgent pleasures also vibrate with social tension and personal irony and it is this edge , along with his deft drawing style, that gives the artist’s work its commanding intrigue.
An essay by Vic Gatrell,author of City of Laughter (a marvellous book, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the prints of this era and which deals in part with Rowlandson’s satirical prints, gives great insights into Rowlandson and his intimate relationship with Covent Garden in London.
The truth is that Rowlandson needs tobe rescued from the immense condescension of posterity. Critics and collectors over the past couple of centuries have always liked his watercolor drawings, but because they have been largely concerned with aesthetic effects and conventionally reputable genres. They have generally ignored his comic prints and deplored his ‘coarseness’. The more snobbish have sniffed at the fact that much of his market came to lie amongst people more vulgar than themsleves. Commcerically minded, indeed low-minded, Rowlandson rejected the artistic postures that would have enabled such people to approve of him more easily…
The exhibition concentrates on Rowlandson prints, including his political ones.But does not cover in depth his landscape and topographical subjects, though some , like his depiction of Winsor, below, are included.
The book includes very fine reproductions of 72 of his prints, all reproduced in full colour and having interesting and illuminating commentaries attached.
Sadly, there are few concrete facts surrounding Rowlandson’s life and the compilers of both the exhibition and this book acknowledge that did not have access to the latest research, a new publication on Rowlandson’s life which was written by the acknowledged experts, Matthew and James Pyne. Entitled Regarding Thomas Rowlandson: His Life, Art and Aquaintance I will be writing about that book very soon.
I ought to warn that some of the images in the exhibition catalogue are, as is to be expected, explicit. But then the age in which he and Jane Austen lived was a far more robust era than those that followed. Something that readers of Jane Austen find disconcerting sometimes; But if, like me, you find in Rowlandson’s drawings and prints an immediacy,which conveys something of what it was like to live in the late Georgian era, then this book is for you.
I leave you with Rowlandson’s view of Oxford undergraduates, men Jane Austen knew quite well, having two brothers, James and Henry, who were educated there ;)