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Thomas Rowlandson
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Printmaker, watercolorist, draftsman and illustrator, Thomas Rowlandson was the most talented and versatile of the group of late 18th and early 19th century British artists who specialized in caricature. Although his fame rests on his large body of humorous, often risqué watercolors and etchings, Rowlandson was also a versatile draftsman, capable of accomplished portraits, landscapes and urban and rustic genre scenes. Born in London in 1757, Rowlandson’s father William Rowlandson was a prosperous wool and silk merchant who fell on hard times and was declared bankrupt in 1759. The family moved to Richmond, in Yorkshire, where Thomas apparently spent his early years (evidence about his early life is scant). At some point Thomas and his younger sister were sent to live with their wealthy aunt Jane Chevalier Rowlandson (1728-1789), although sources disagree over whether this occurred before or after the death of her husband James Rowlandson (1731-1764), William’s brother. By 1765 or 1766 Jane and her niece and nephew were living in the Soho district of London. The young man was sent to the Soho Academy, a respected school run by Rev. Cuthbert Barwis (d.1782) in Soho Square, known for its theatrical productions. Rowlandson entered the Schools of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1772, studying there until 1778, presumably financed by his aunt. He was in Paris during 1774-1775, probably with his aunt, where he studied under the sculptor Jean-Baptiste Pigalle (1714-1785). His first work shown in the Royal Academy’s annual exhibition was in 1775 and he continued to exhibit at the Academy’s exhibitions until 1787. Although he won a silver medal from the Academy in 1777 for a bas-relief, Rowlandson’s training was as a draftsman, not as a sculptor or a painter in oils. After graduation from the Academy he found his way into London’s very active print world, and by 1780 his work was being published various print publishers. He also traveled several times to France, in 1778, 1785, 1786 and 1787, and may have visited the Paris Salon in 1781 and Rome in 1782. In 1783 he began working with one of London’s leading print publishers, William Humphrey (ca. 1740- ca. 1810) and his sister Hannah Humphrey (1745-1818), creating caricatures focusing on the political struggles between William Pitt the Younger (1579-1806) and the Tories and Charles James Fox (1749-1806) and the Whigs, as well as social satires. Rowlandson’s previous etchings were not hand-colored and his drawings were pen and ink, shaded with grey wash, but starting in 1783 he began using watercolors in his drawings and many of his etchings featured hand coloring. The following year he took the first of his sketching tours around England, visiting the Isle of Wight with his friend the painter Henry Wigstead (ca. 1745- ca. 1800). He worked up seventy watercolors based on sketches made during the journey, (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens), probably intended for publication. The two large watercolors Rowlandson exhibited in the Academy’s 1784 exhibition, “Vauxhall Gardens” (London, Victoria & Albert Museum) and “Skaters on the Serpentine” (Cardiff: National Museum of Wales), were very popular, with the former showing recognizable figures such as the Prince of Wales, later King George IV (1762-1830). Like many of his watercolors, an engraving of “Vauxhall Gardens” with hand coloring was published in 1785. Rowlandson exhibited two more large watercolors in 1786, the “English Review” and the “French Review” (Windsor Castle: Royal Collection Trust), depicting military reviews viewed by spectators and contrasting the orderly French spectators with the very disorderly English ones. Both were purchased in 1788 by the Prince of Wales. Rowlandson’s Aunt Jane died in 1789, leaving him a substantial bequest which he apparently spent on gambling, although he also acquired an etching press. By 1793 Rowlandson was living in poverty. His fortunes turned when Rudolph Ackermann (1764-1834) began publishing prints after his watercolors in 1795. Ackermann commissioned Rowlandson to design prints for the color plates in books published by Ackerman, starting with “Loyal Volunteers of London and Environs” in 1799. Rowlandson’s first work featuring Doctor Syntax, a comical parson, accompanied by verses by William Combe (1741-1823), appeared in the “Poetical Magazine” in 1809, followed by three books published by Ackerman in 1812, 1820 and 1821. Other major publications by Ackerman and Rowlandson were “The Microcosm of London” (1808-1810) and “The English Dance of Death” (1814-1816). Rowlandson provided illustrations for other publishers as well. His improved financial situation allowed him to travel to Paris in 1814 to see the art treasures in the Louvre pillaged by Napoleon’s (1769-1821) army, and he was in Italy around 1820. After two years of illness Rowlandson died in 1827. (RFJ 1985, rev. TNB 9/2015). Selected bibliography: Heard, Kate. High spirits: the Comic Art of Thomas Rowlandson. Exhibition catalog. London: Royal Collection Trust, 2013. Payne, Matthew and James Payne. Regarding Thomas Rowlandson, 1757-1827: His Life, Art & Acquaintance. London: Hogarth Arts, 2010.