Thursday, February 04, 2016

The Comic Art of Thomas Rowlandson

If you are interested in what life in late 18th/early 19th century London was really like, then you need look no further than the prints of that consummate draftsman, Thomas Rowlandson, (1757-1827) currently on display in High Spirits: The Comic Art of Thomas Rowlandson at the Queen’s Gallery.

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.

Midnight Conversation

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. .

Images courtesy of: Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016

 Elizabeth Hawksley



Fenella J Miller said...

Interesting view of the world -enjoyed your excellent explanation. thanks for posting.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you, Fenella. We were shown round by the curator who pointed out the topical allusions we might otherwise miss, which helped.

Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory said...

I love Rowlandson, we think today's critics can be cruel, but they have nothing on the Georgians!

Thank you, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

I agree, Melinda/Sarah. No wonder the Duke of York was on his knees praying that public interest in the whale would take it off him! I don't think cartoonists today would get away with having a royal duke's mistress sitting astride such a phallic cannon, for a start!

Helena said...

These cartoons are remarkably frank, aren't they? I wonder what sources of gossip Rowlandson had, given that he seems to have known about the Duke of York's scandal before it broke. Thank you for such an interesting exposé.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

I think he had a few friends in high places, Helena! Actually, I can't help thinking that a lot of people must have known about Mary Ann Clarke selling Army promotions. I'm sure a number of Generals and Field Marshals must have been suspicious, if not actually conniving.

Joana Starnes said...

Wonderful post, thanks! I love the cartoons of the era, so delightfully irreverent :) There is a print room at Calke Abbey, with the walls covered not with classical images, sailing ships, fruit, game etc etc, but a vast collection of really entertaining Georgian cartoons.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you for your interesting comment, Joana. What I love about contemporary cartoons is that they let you into the secret of how it felt to be living at the time. You can see what concerned them and how they saw themselves.

I've never been to Calke Abbey - I've now made a note of it as an interesting place to visit. Thank you.