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Lovers of Rowlandson’s works are spoilt for choice at the moment. Not only is there a wonderful exhibition of his works currently on show in the United States entitled, Pleasures and Pursuits in Georgian England, but also two books have recently been published; the catalogue to the exhibition which I reviewed here, and another, Regarding Thomas Rowlandson: His Life Art and Acquaintance by Matthew and James Payne.

It is sad that the catalogue writers did not have the chance to see the book before it was published, and not merely just some papers relating to it, for this now has to be regarded as the definitive book on Rowlandson’s life and works.

Gathering facts about Rowlandson is a difficult task, as the authors of this book acknowledge:

The biographer of Thomas Rowlandson encounters from the outset a frustrating deficiency of source material. Few letters to or by Rowlandons have survived. He wrote no journals. His character and activities are touched upon in the diaries and memoirs of a mere handful of his contemporaries. He surfaces only occasionally in the newspapers and pubic records of the period…..

Due to years of diligent research and painstaking tracing of his thousands of drawings, prints and engravings, the authors have  been able to provide this full and interesting study of Rowlandson’s life. By referencing and putting into context hundreds of his works they have been able to trace the journeyings of his life, and they have provided a vibrant portrait not merely of the artist but of the world he inhabited.

(Rowlandson by John Raphael Smith circa 1795)

Rowlandson’s sketches are some of his most interesting pictures and, to me, are far more valuable than any of his more polished  satirical works.Why? Because they give us a glimpse into the world that Jane Austen knew, and he depicted sights she saw nearly every day of her life. His rough sketches-the work of moments- have a vibrancy and immediacy and capture intimate and insignificant ( to others perhaps, but not to me) moments such this sketch of  The Delay or Accident in Popham Lane 1784

Or of this simple study of his old schoolmate and life long friend the famous comic/actor, Jack Bannister  having his hair dressed in his dressing room at Drury Lane theatre in London:

Whilst the more careful studies, such as this of a review of the Isle of Wight Volunteers drilling in Newport circa 1797, below, also give a flavour of a past world, and in this case  an indication of how the arrival of the militia in the town of Meryton would have looked to the Bennet sisters( not to mention their mother).

The book is profusely illustrated in colour and in black and white

and shows scenes with which Jane Austen would have been wholly familiar…indeed, of some to which her characters actually refer. This print, below,  is one of Rowlandson’s studies of A Register Office, probably executed in 1803, and is precisely the type of place Jane Fairfax refers to in Chapter 35 of Emma when in conversation with Mrs Elton:

“Excuse me, ma’am, but this is by no means my intention; I make no inquiry myself, and should be sorry to have any made by my friends. When I am quite determined as to the time, I am not at all afraid of being long unemployed. There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something — offices for the sale, not quite of human flesh, but of human intellect.”

“Oh! my dear, human flesh! You quite shock me; if you mean a fling at the slave-trade, I assure you Mr. Suckling was always rather a friend to the abolition.”

“I did not mean, I was not thinking of the slave-trade,” replied Jane; “governess-trade, I assure you, was all that I had in view; widely different certainly, as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies. But I only mean to say that there are advertising offices, and that by applying to them I should have no doubt of very soon meeting with something that would do.”

By giving entertaining explanations of some of Rowlandson’s more obscure works, the authors allow us to understand the society he portrayed and satirised. This cartoon, below, entitled  The Road to Preferment Through Clarke’s Passage refers to the infamous Mrs Clarke, the mistress of the Duke of York. Their scandal which broke in 1809 was due to the Duke’s misuse of patronage and corruption under her influence. He had arranged the promotion of personnel in the army and the church on Mrs Clarke’s urging.

The book is for such a serious academic study,eminently readable and enjoyable. I really enjoyed meeting the characters who surrounded Rowlandson, both in his personal life and in his career, and I especially liked the vivid descriptions of the publishing world of the late 18th and 19th centuries, particularly in relation to Rudolph Ackermann. Here is how the book relates how the Microcosm of London was conceived and executed:

He(Ackermann-jfw ) invited William Pyne to write the letterpress. The colour plates were to be designed by Augustus Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson. Augustus Pugin was a small, forty-six year old Frenchman who had fled from Revolutionary France and settled to a career as an architectural draughtsman in London. He suffered from an inflated sense of status. His pedigree might have been according to family tradition, touched a long time ago by nobility, but its lustre had rather dulled in more recent time, and although he had good humour and charm enough to satisfy society he could exhibit a brusque pomposity as he intuitively played the Gentleman…..The series remained only an unrealized fancy until in about 1804 Augustus Pugin met Rudolf Ackermann. Ackermann was inclined to take under his wing talented foreign refugees in England. He listened to the proposals of Mr and Mrs Pugin and was soon persuaded of the viability and profitability of their scheme. He would direct, commission and publish. ….Ackerman’s brain wave was to entrust to Thomas Rowlandson the figures of all those Londoners who would be seen filling Pugin’s architecture….To partner  the traditionally minded “Comte de Pugin” with the comic and unruly Rowlandson was a bold stroke”

(The House of Commons from The Microcosm of London, with architectural details by Pugin and figures by Rowlandson- my collection, not in the book)

This is a gem of a book: highly entertaining, readable and so informative of  Jane Austen’s times, for her life overlapped with his. I can throughly recommend it to you.

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