His genius for drawing lively caricatures of his fellow men and women with all their foibles: the drinking, eating, the amorous (and often ridiculous) goings-on, the fads of fashion and so on are all there, as well as prints exposing political scandals and financial skulduggery.
Dressing for a Masquerade
Take Dressing for a Masquerade, published on April 1st, 1790 – and the date may be significant (the characters depicted are all fools). The setting is a crowded room with a number of women in various stages of undress getting ready for a Masquerade. The woman on the right (who looks as if she is cross-dressing for the evening) is adjusting a stocking; another woman is standing on a chair looking at her reflection in a mirror held up by her maid. An elderly male hairdresser on the left is combing the grey hair of a seated woman. Behind, a woman dressed as a monk, is holding a bottle and a glass – the party is obviously already underway.
Masquerades were public affairs, open to anybody who could afford the ticket price. They gave ladies in particular the freedom to misbehave. Why not flirt (and, perhaps, more) with some handsome man whose accent plainly proclaims that his background is very different from hers? Who will know? And it looks as though Rowlandson’s ladies are about to take full advantage of their temporary ‘incognito’ status - the masks are ready.
John Bull at the Italian Opera
Rowlandson also pokes fun at obsessions of the day, such as the fashion for Italian opera. We see this is John Bull at the Italian Opera, published in October, 1811. Front of stage, a male singer, clad in Classical armour, is plainly in mid-aria. In the theatre box behind, John Bull, standing for a true Brit who disdains such pretentiousness, yawns ostentatiously. Yawns are notoriously infectious, and we note that other people in the box are yawning as well.
Rowlandson shows us that many in the audience are heartily bored, a view neatly echoed in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, where Anne Elliot goes to a concert of Italian music at the Assembly Rooms in Bath. Of course, the main dramatic focus in Persuasion is on the tension in Anne’s relationship with Captain Wentworth, but, nevertheless, Jane Austen allows herself a dig at the concert audience, as well.
After the interval, the audience returned, ‘the room filled again, benches were reclaimed and repossessed, and another hour of pleasure or penance was to be sat out, another hour of delight or the gapes (yawns) as real or affected taste for it prevailed.’ One can’t help feeling that Jane herself may have been on John Bull’s side.
One of the prints I found most revealing was Midnight Conversation from 1790. It was bought by the Prince Regent himself and one suspects that the subject matter rang a bell with H.R.H. Here, drunken revellers of both sexes are carousing in a private room in a tavern. On the left, a man lies sprawled out between two women, one of whom is obviously amorously inclined. On the right, a women leans over a man to vomit on the floor – he is past caring. A woman centre stage, possibly an inn servant, brings in a large punch bowl.
The print pokes fun at the fashionable ‘Conversation piece’ group portrait, turning it on its head, and, to make the point further, the lounging man on the left is taken from Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress’.
Rowlandson was a canny man of business, and his prints were widely sold. The hand-coloured prints sold for five shillings (5/-) or seven shillings and sixpence (7/6), a not inconsiderable amount at the time, given that a working man would be lucky to earn eighteen shillings (18/-) a week – less than a pound. The Queen’s Gallery exhibition owns 300 Rowlandson prints, all collected by various members of the royal family – right down to Queen Victoria, in fact.
There is also a fascinating run of topical prints featuring the scandal of the Duke of York’s mistress, Mary Ann Clarke, selling army promotions. These were published almost daily charting the course of the scandal and I’ve chosen three to look at.
The Triumvirate of Gloucester Place, or the Clarke, the Soldier, and the Taylor.
On March 7th, 1809, Rowlandson published The Triumvirate of Gloucester Place, or the Clarke, the Soldier, and the Taylor. Gloucester Place was where Mary Ann Clarke entertained High Society, and the Duke of York. The print shows Mary Ann, her friend Mrs Taylor, and the Duke of York, discussing possible Army promotions. We can see that the list is inordinately long. Mary Ann is saying: I have a small list of promotions which I wish to be fill’d up, my Dearest. A bubble over the Duke’s head says: It shall be done, my Darling. Mary Ann will make a financial killing.
A General Discharge, or the darling angel’s finishing stroke
A few days’ later, on March 13th, 1809, the scandal broke and Rowlandson published A General Discharge, or the darling angel’s finishing stroke. Mary Ann sits a-stride a cannon and fiercely hammers a spike into it, thus rendering it useless. Her bubble says: A wise General makes good his Retreat. The Duke of York, on his knees is saying: Alas! Alas! For ever ruined and undone. For see, she has spiked my great Gun. The sexual innuendoes are plainly intentional. The reference is, of course, to the Duke of York’s impotence in the face of the scandal which rocked the country. Note that the Duke is kneeling on what appears to be a whale.
A York Address to the Whale Caught lately off Gravesend.
This is explained in Rowlandson’s print of April 5th, 1809: A York Address to the Whale Caught lately off Gravesend. The Duke is on his knees before the whale which had been towed up the Thames as a tourist attraction and Londoners have been flocking to see it. Unfortunately, by April 5th, the whale’s carcase is beginning to stink and people are losing interest. The Duke is imploring ‘The Mighty Wonder of the Deep’ to hold on for a few more days to keep John Bull’s attention off the royal scandal. And I like the touch of the Duke’s tricorn hat, which lies by his feet, giving him a sort of fishy tail as well.
I hope you have enjoyed this whistle-stop tour of a fascinating and illuminating artist.
High Spirits: The Comic Art of Thomas Rowlandson is at the Queen’s Gallery until February 14th, 2016. www.royalcollection.org.uk .
Images courtesy of: Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016