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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.
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 ;)