Capturing political machinations, the absurdities of fashion and the perils of love, High Spirits: The Comic Art of Thomas Rowlandson offers a new perspective on an era best known through the novels of Jane Austen.
Rowlandson (1757–1827) made his name poking fun at politicians, foreign enemies and even members of the royal family. The artist turned his pen on Napoleon, Charles James Fox and William Pitt the Younger.
Despite this, it was the young George, Prince of Wales (1762–1830) – later George IV – who began the collection of around 1,000 caricature prints by Rowlandson in the Royal Collection today.
Around 100 works from the collection will go on show at The Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse, from 22 November 2013 until 2 March 2014.
Here, curator Kate Heard describes some of the prints featured in the exhibition. She told historyextra: “Rowlandson was one of the most popular caricaturists of Georgian Britain. He was famous at the time, as well as now. He has really endured.
“He is really funny, and his prints are incredibly witty.
“The images have always been kept in portfolios, so they are in great condition. You can see them in the same condition as they would have been enjoyed by their first owners.
“Most of the caricatures were the size of an A4 sheet of paper, but the exhibition also features bigger ones, and large watercolours that were intended to hang alongside oil paintings.
“Rowlandson’s prints were quite expensive – they sold for two shillings each.
“The man in the street could not afford them, but they were displayed in print-sellers’ windows, which allowed people to admire them.
“There are accounts of people being pickpocketed while they were distracted looking at the prints.”
Click the images below to see enlarged versions.
Thomas Rowlandson, Billy Lackbeard and Charley Blackbeard playing at Football, 1784
“William Pitt and Charles James Fox had argued in parliament over the regulation of the East India Company. Rowlandson mischievously shows them as contrasting characters, playing football with East India House.
“This print is a classic example of Rowlandson caricaturing – that is, exaggerating physical attributes for comic effect.
“On the left you have the young, fit William Pitt, and on the right the large Fox with dice on the table – a reference to the fact the very clever Fox, who left university without a degree, was fond of gambling.
“Politicians would have enjoyed the print, and it would have been popular among fashionable society.
“After seeing this, to me Pitt will always be ‘Billy Lackbeard’.”
Thomas Rowlandson after George Moutard Woodward, The Brave Tars of the Victory and the remains of the lamented Nelson, 1805
“Although this looks at first sight like a satirical print, it is in fact a serious tribute to Nelson, who had died at the Battle of Trafalgar.
“To put the print in context, sailors had refused to relinquish Nelson’s body, and the print shows ‘brave tars’ determined to bring him home to his country.
“You look at it, expecting to laugh. It always makes me stop because, unlike his other works, it’s not funny. It really makes you think.
“I find it fascinating that it looks satirical.
“The Prince of Wales bought this print one month after it was created, on 10 January 1806.”
Thomas Rowlandson, Buck’s Beauty and Rowlandson’s Connoisseur, c1799
“Rowlandson uses this drawing to contrast his lively draughtsmanship with that of Adam Buck, a fashionable portraitist who drew statuesque women in Empire-line dresses.
“Connoisseurs leering at beautiful woman is a favourite Rowlandson subject.
“This drawing, bought by the Prince Regent in 1813, shows a woman wearing an empire line dress being admired by a connoisseur as if she were a work of art.
“The woman has been drawn against the left-hand side of the page to emphasise her statuesque elegance, in contrast to the curvy connoisseur.
“The drawing echoes the style of one of the most fashionable painters in London at the time, Adam Buck. The drawing shows that Rowlandson was as famous as Buck.”
Thomas Rowlandson, Overset, c1790
“Overturned coaches were a regular hazard for 18th-century travellers. Rowlandson took the central motif in this lively drawing from a print by Hogarth, but has added his signature cascade of tumbling figures. Rowlandson loved showing people toppling over.
“You see a mail coach has hit a rock and the horses are coming loose. But rather than showing the coach toppled over, it shows the moment before disaster.
“There were, at the time, a number of coach accidents, and there was a big argument about people riding on the outside of coaches. Here, you see people crammed in.
“Rowlandson revered Hogarth and owned a fine collection of his prints, so it is no accident that he copies the toppled coach from the Four Times of Day here.
“The more you look at this work, the more you see. It’s endlessly fascinating.”
Thomas Rowlandson, The Contrast, 1793
“Rowlandson was paid to produce this print as propaganda against French revolutionary ideas. It could be purchased in bulk at a discount, to encourage its circulation around the country.
“There will be two versions of this print on display – one dated 1792 in black and white, and another from 1793 which has been hand-coloured.
“This is an example of Rowlandson as a paid propagandist. It was produced at a time when there was real concern about the French Revolution.
“The Crown and Anchor society paid Rowlandson to produce this piece of work, which was designed by Kent clergyman Lord George Murray.
“Rowlandson was very happy producing prints for whoever would pay him. He did not express any political affiliations in his work, as a number of the prints in the exhibition demonstrate.”
Thomas Rowlandson, Filial Piety, 1788
“When George III became unwell in 1788, satirical prints played an important role in the Prince of Wales’s bid to become Regent.
“Although Rowlandson produced propaganda for the Prince, he also made prints, like this one, critical of his conduct.
“It shows the Prince of Wales dancing into the sickroom of his father. At the time, the prince was angling for the regency, and there was debate about his ability to become Regent.
“Imagine how shocking this would have been at the time – the king was not ever portrayed sick.”
Thomas Rowlandson, Theatrical Leap Frog, 1804
“The 13-year old actor William Betty was a London sensation in 1804, much to the fury of a disgruntled John Kemble. Rowlandson shows the younger actor vaulting the older, who bemoans his fate in the words of Hamlet‘s Ophelia.
“This was produced at a time when Betty, who came from Belfast, was taking the theatre world by storm. People in London fought to get tickets to see him – there were rumours people were crushed.
“The star divided his time between the Theatre Royal and Drury Lane Theatre.
“But actor John Kemble, who saw himself as the darling of London theatre, was being eclipsed by Betty. Reports suggest Kemble started a rumour that Betty was a girl, in an attempt to ruin his career.
“This print, which shows Kemble being leapfrogged by Betty, was purchased by the Prince of Wales for two shillings.”
For more information about High Spirits: The Comic Art of Thomas Rowlandson, click here.