Rowlandson, Thomas (1756/7-1827). Artist. Social commentator rather than caricaturist, Rowlandson's eye for life's comedies led him to favour types rather than individuals. A Royal Academy student, his prodigious output of pen-drawings, water-colours, and prints were so full of gusto that he has been seen as a personification of his age. A friend of Gillray, he worked for the publisher Ackermann, creating ‘Dr Syntax’, but technique and vision suffered after 1800 in consequence of his productivity.
He studied at the Royal Academy and in Paris, but his passion for gambling prevented him from producing much until c.1782, when he was obliged to earn a living. As a humorous caricaturist and critical commentator of the social scene, Rowlandson quickly gained celebrity. His drawing Vauxhall Gardens (1784) was a great success, as was his series of drawings The Comforts of Bath that was reproduced in 1789. This was followed by the famous Tour of Dr. Syntax (series in 3 vol., 1812–21), Dance of Death (1814–16), and Dance of Life (1822)—all with text by William Combe. Rowlandson also illustrated Smollett, Goldsmith, Sterne, and Swift. Most of his drawings were first done in ink with a reed pen and given a delicate wash of color. The fluidity of his line is likened to the French rococo, but the spirited humor of his work, sometimes almost coarse, is in the English style. His work is represented in the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum.
He was born in Old Jewry, in the City of London, the son of a tradesman or city merchant. On leaving school he became a student at the Royal Academy. At the age of sixteen, he lived and studied for a time in Paris, and he later made frequent tours to the Continent, enriching his portfolios with numerous jottings of life and character. In 1775 he exhibited a drawing of Delilah visiting Samson in Prison, and in the following years he was represented by various portraits and landscapes. He was spoken of as a promising student; and had he continued his early application he would have made his mark as a painter. But by the death of his aunt, a French lady, he inherited £7,000, plunged into the dissipations of the town and was known to sit at the gaming-table for thirty-six hours at a stretch.
In time poverty overtook him; and the friendship and example of James Gillray and Henry William Bunbury seem to have suggested caricature as a means of filling an empty purse. His drawing of Vauxhall, shown in the Royal Academy exhibition of 1784, had been engraved by Pollard, and the print was a success. Rowlandson was largely employed by Rudolph Ackermann, the art publisher, who in 1809--issued in his Poetical Magazine The Schoolmaster’s Tour--a series of plates with illustrative verses by Dr. William Combe. They were the most popular of the artist’s works. Again engraved by Rowlandson himself in 1812, and issued under the title of the Tour of Dr Syntax in Search of the Picturesque, they had attained a fifth edition by 1813, and were followed in 1820 by Dr Syntax in Search of Consolation, and in 1821 by the Third Tour of Dr Syntax in Search of a Wife.
He also produced a body of erotic prints and woodcuts, many of which would be considered pornographic today.
The same collaboration of designer, author and publisher appeared in the English Dance of Death, issued in 1814-16, one of the most admirable of Rowlandson’s series, and in the Dance of Life, 1822. Rowlandson also illustrated Smollett, Goldsmith and Sterne, and his designs will be found in The Spirit of the Public Journals (1825), The English Spy (1825), and The Humourist (1831). He died in London, after a prolonged illness, on 22 April 1827.
Rowlandson’s designs were usually done in outline with the reed-pen, and delicately washed with colour. They were then etched by the artist on the copper, and afterwards aquatinted --usually by a professional engraver, the impressions being finally coloured by hand. As a designer he was characterized by the utmost facility and ease of draughtsmanship, and the quality of his art suffered from this haste and over-production. He dealt less frequently with politics than his fierce contemporary, Gillray, but commonly touching, in a rather gentle spirit, the various aspects and incidents of social life. His most artistic work is to be found among the more careful drawings of his earlier period; but even among the exaggerated caricature of his later time we find hints that this master of the humorous might have attained to the beautiful had he so willed.
Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827)
A distinctive style of satire used in caricature drawings emerged in England during the reign of George III. The freedom from censorship and the variety of publishers catering to people of different political and cultural views fueled this art. These etchings reproduced as single prints had the advantage of quick production and a price many could afford. The subject matter was often political in nature but many other subjects were addressed. Rowlandson's works addressed many subjects: fashion, theater, country life, religion, nautical themes, travel, and medicine and illness. The Dittrick Medical History Center has eight original prints of Rowlandson's caricature works, and a set of reproductions depicting medical themes. Doctors are usually portrayed as quacks, drunken sots, body snatchers, and money grubbers.
Thomas Rowlandson: The Last Gasp: Toadstools Mistaken for Mushrooms. Pubished by Thomas Tegg ca.1800
Thomas Rowlandson: Medical Dispatch or Doctor Double Dose Killing Two Birds With One Stone. Published by Thomas Tegg ca.1800
Rowlandson worked for many publishers throughout the years. He was employed at Rudolf Akermann's 'Repository of Arts' in 1798. Akermann sold designs for coaches, paintings, drawings, and materials for amatur artists, most of his clientele were well-heeled middle class. Ackermann was also a Loyalist. Rowlandson's work for him reflected those political and cultural values. During this same period Rowlandson was commissioned by Thomas Tegg to produce works to be sold at Tegg's 'Apollo Library' that catered to the lower sector of the booming caricature business. Colored etchings sold for one shilling, half the usual price. These works were often bawdy in nature and carelessly executed. Rowlandson also did work for Samuel Fores who was one of the top three dealers of high quality caricatures, the following prints are from a set of prints titled the Comforts of Bath (1798) published by Samuel Fores.
Rowlandson often produced works for opposing points of view at the same time, like the pro-Pitt and pro-Fox etchings, or the Kings first attack of insanity. Collectors of etchings often bought from opposing viewpoints. So when we see doctors depicted very negatively in Rowlandsons prints, this may or may not have been his personal point of view. The medical profession was poorly regulated at this time, permitting quacks to erode public confidence in the profession. Rowlandson died in 1827, and by that time reform of the profession of medicine had begun. The old Poorhouse was being replaced by the newer type of teaching hospital, and modern ideas of public health were evolving. Caricaturists of the day raised the consciousness of the public, and perhaps helped fuel reform in many areas of society.
Donald, Diana, The Age of Caricature: Satirical Prints in the Reign of George III, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996
Grego, Joseph, Rowladson the Caricaturist: A Sketch of his life, Times, and Contemporaries 2 Vols New York: J.W. Bouton, 1880