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The society hatchet man; Richard Edmonds explores the work of a satirist who didn't spare the blushes of Georgian England.

Byline: Richard Edmonds

Regarding Thomas Rowlandson 1757-1817, His Life, Art & Acquaintance. By Matthew Payne and James Payne (Paul Holberton Publishing: pounds 40) Racy, graphic, oversexed and wonderfully witty, Thomas Rowlandson remains to this day one of the best-loved British artists. A man who had magnificent drawing skills second to none and who is still highly popular today in the sale rooms, something borne out by Rowlandson's inclusion in a recent Sotheby's sale in London earlier this month.

Rarely has there been an artist whose scurrilous wit and satire was more feared, directed as it was at the foibles and follies of English Georgian and Regency society.

Everything was grist to Rowlandson's mill. Whores, country parsons, with wandering eyes, national heroes such as the Duke of Wellington, society dames on the make or the blowsy madams who ran the London brothels, all of them were fair game for Rowlandson who seems to have been endowed by the gods with a generous capacity for the enjoyment of life in all its forms from the erotic to the huge public gatherings at fairs, pleasure gardens or wherever.

As this richly fascinating new biography reveals, Rowlandson always saw himself as a tall, well-built bachelor who loved boozy mates, women, cards, the English countryside and dogs. (It is doubtful if Rowlandson ever drew a cat).

Yet so little of this brilliant man remains - there is possibly only one letter, since whatever else he wrote seems to have been destroyed. And this is doubly curious, since Rowlandson flourished in an age of great letter writers when detailed accounts of everything from the problems of debt or disease to travels on the continent flew up and down the land continually courtesy of the newly-established Penny Post.

Rowlandson was unique and like no other English artist was constantly on the lookout for new material from everyday life whether it was shady or benign.

The Victorian painter, W P Frith, commented (as well he might - he was a Victorian after all): "Rowlandson has a certain very coarse humour, there is always an intense vulgarity in which the man seems to revel with intense pleasure."

But of course he did - Rowlandson lived in an age of heavy drinkers, boxers, gaming houses, dissolute landlords selling filthy lodgings, glorious theatre, abominable prisons, gin palaces, public hangings and violent cruelty to inferiors by the ruling class where corrective treatment could involve punishment of 800 lashes.

On one occasion this was meted out on a young teenager in the West Indies guilty of a travelling misdemeanour. The boy died within days, the guilty party - an estate manager - was brought back to London, tried and hanged.

The 20-year-old Rowlandson initially joined the life class at the Royal Academy and the minutes for a meeting in 1777, show that he gained the silver medal for drawing, by 23 votes to one. But he was nearly kicked out when he smuggled a peashooter into the female life class (where admission was not granted to students under 20 years old) for the sole purpose of shooting peas at the bosom of the female model - behaviour guaranteed to infuriate the academic old guard.

It is scarcely surprising that this exceptional artist eventually turned to ribaldry, with hundreds of prints of an exceptionally sexual nature - coarse enough to make us blush today even considering our access to explicit porn.

The authors mention Rowlandson's propensity for depicting the more private female parts.

In his very fine design for the print he called Academy Stare Case (held in the British Museum like so many more Rowlandsons and therefore available to view), the congestion on the Royal Academy staircase has caused a general tumble.

The cluster of lecherous males at the bottom of the staircase are far more excited by what is revealed beneath the women's skirts (underwear for both sexes hadn't caught on yet) than by the classical female figure carved in marble in a nearby niche.

In another print following a popular theme, a fine lady is thrown from her horse, thus disclosing her private parts to a young groom.

"Did you see my agility, John?" she asked the handsome lad.

"Faith, I did, my lady, sure enough, but I've never heard it called that before."

Nobody did this after Rowlandson until Bamforth with his Blackpool postcards.

Male private parts were always much in evidence and so at this point bawdiness becomes crudity. But Rowlandson couldn't produce enough of it for his clientele which clearly included the royals. For him sex was always a huge joke and he couldn't keep a straight face when he dealt with it in hundreds of cartoons. The prints were rented out as erotica by the print shops in boxes for an evening of guffawing that is why some of the plates have remained soiled to this day.

But Rowlandson was never to make his particular fortune as a portrait painter - he left that for others. Portraits were not his metier - he was a master of the fluid line, the quick characterisation of a type - a marine, a soldier, a lecherous old vicar, a pretty girl, an overblown woman and so on.

They were swift sketches and frequently exquisitely beautiful and more important they were perfectly well-suited to his prankish temperament. And, they showed up very well in the windows of the London print dealers, Sayers and Bennett, for example, in Fleet Street, or Carrington Bowles, perhaps, in St Paul's churchyard.

There were other artists, too, who moved in the same areas and who all knew each other. James Gillray's tastes for licentious images paralleled Rowlandson's satire and delighted the public and there was George Woodward who possibly accompanied his friend Rowlandson when he turned up at boxing matches (bare-knuckle bouts, remember) in order to sketch the combatants and the large crowds who cheered them on through blood, broken bones and maiming.

But this is, by any standards, a gorgeous book with some excellent illustrations - a book you turn to again and again and really, in my experience, it is the first decent book on an artist of genius, to appear for many years. The information it contains will, I imagine, sustain many an art thesis for years to come.


Death and the Antiquaries, plate 69 of The Dance of Death Hand-coloured etching with aquatint, Published February 1,1816. Courtesy of Derrick Chivers and the Society of Antiquaries of London
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Aug 4, 2011
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