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Thomas Rowlandson’s last laugh

A snigger-inducing show of his satirical prints reveals him at his funniest – and most ruthless

Charlie McCann | November 19th 2015

I’m looking at a drawing called “Doctor Convex and Lady Concave” (below). It portrays a comically mismatched couple drawn in profile: the gross mound of the Doctor’s belly juts into the hollow curve of the Lady’s rake-thin torso, while her angular jaw mocks his quadruple chin. You can almost smell the stench of halitosis issuing forth from the Doctor’s mouth as he leans in for a complicit whisper. Scrawled at the bottom is a caption, and the opening sally of a new show of Thomas Rowlandson’s caricatures at the Queen’s Gallery in London: “Man is the only creature endowed with the power of laughter, is he not also the only one that deserves to be laughed at?”

To Rowlandson, a prolific Georgian satirist, this was a rhetorical question. Man was his subject, and with his pen he reveals him to be stupid, sanctimonious, venal, grotesque. This is man at his most human, wholly at the mercy of his urges and biological functions – in other words, man at his funniest. And Rowlandson found humour in everyone. “High Spirits” displays around 100 prints, cherry-picked from the Royal Collection’s archive of 1,000. Organised by genre and spanning the entirety of his career, they show that Rowlandson spared neither rag traders nor kings, but drew as demand dictated. For, like many of his subjects, he was driven by a necessity as banal as it is ruthless: money.

“The School of Eloquence” (1780), which depicts a debating society in session, is one of Rowlandson’s earliest surviving prints and is heavily indebted to his teacher, John Hamilton Mortimer. Ink covers much of the page: thick, robust lines flesh out the men, whose faces are contoured with rows of little dots, while an abundance of cramped squiggles lend depth and shade to the scene. Evidently, Rowlandson had yet to find his own style. The curators helpfully locate it for us in a print hanging next to “The School of Eloquence”, called “Buck’s Beauty and Rowlandson’s Connoisseur” (below). Made some 20 years later, it depicts another unlikely couple: the Connoisseur, seemingly an expert on the female form, has raised a monocle to his eye to better examine the Beauty, a statuesque woman drawn in the style of the neoclassical painter Adam Buck. She seems serenely unaware that her breast is exposed and at risk of being tweaked by his rapacious hand. For the curator, Kate Heard, the Connoisseur captures Rowlandson’s artistic signature because of its subject and style: he was fond of poking fun at charlatans posing as men of learning, and the fast, fluid lines, used sparingly, are enough to convey the essence of his character, and no more. Rowlandson had learned to make every pen stroke count.

This was an economy of style honed by a man who needed to make economies. Rowlandson burned through cash, even after the death of his long-suffering aunt who had supported him financially. He liked his drink and moved with a fast set. A friend described him as an “incurable gambler”; he surely was also an incompetent gambler. He griped about being “a trader and poor”, and a rent-collector once described the James Street basement he lived in as “dismal”. But Rowlandson got his own back, and made some money, by laughing at the world – a lot. He was ferociously productive: the surviving examples of his drawings are thought to number around 10,000 sheets. In a career that lasted almost half a century, that’s over 200 drawings a year. To sustain this, Rowlandson worked quickly and efficiently, with little regard for labour-intensive luxuries like authenticity. He often drew on the work of others; “A Midnight Conversation”, for instance, visually quotes “A Midnight Modern Conversation” and “A Rake’s Progress”, both by Hogarth. Rowlandson even borrowed from his own corpus, savvily recycling his designs and making multiple versions of some drawings. To his mind, these were “equally originals”.

It wasn’t just his debts that encouraged such a frenetic workrate. Rowlandson’s political satires had to stay current. Scandal sent him into overdrive. In 1809 Rowlandson went to town on George III’s son, the Duke of York. Producing 25 drawings in 44 days, he helped  stoke popular outrage at the Duke’s mistress for selling job promotions, and at the Duke himself for signing them off. Professionally fickle, Rowlandson was as likely to denigrate the monarchy as he was to champion it. When George III became seriously ill in 1788, the Prince of Wales commissioned Rowlandson to make works like “The Prospect Before Us” (top) which supported his bid for the Regency. The Prince was a fan of Rowlandson – he, too, had a gambling habit – and he supplemented his satirical-print collection, which eventually numbered 3,000, with much of his work. Rowlandson didn’t care; just a month before he had etched a piece that portrayed the Prince as a drunken lout. Business first, loyalty second.

Rowlandson ridiculed whatever subject would sell. Eventually, as this exhibition shows, he learned to ridicule whatever subject had the longest shelf-life. While political prints had an expiry date, social satires could be reprinted for years, and it is these for which Rowlandson became best known. Drawing on the caricaturist’s arsenal of slapstick, puns and fart jokes, he lampooned chubby women stuffing themselves into their stays, roly-poly men glugging drink, young wives canoodling the plumber and dandies wearing the latest, absurd fashions. These satires lay bare what make us human: greed, vanity, our inability to stop yawning at the opera – amusing faults and foibles that will always have an audience eager to pay for a laugh or two.

There is much to giggle about in “High Spirits”, not least this delicious coda to Rowlandson’s story: despite a career spent thumbing his nose at the monarchy, he has been given pride of place at the Queen’s Gallery. Rowlandson is having the last laugh.

High Spirits: The Comic Art of Thomas Rowlandson is at the Queen’s Gallery, London, until February 14th

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