Rowlandson, Thomas (DNB00)
|←Rowlandson, Mary||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 49
ROWLANDSON, THOMAS (1756–1827), artist and caricaturist, was born in the Old Jewry in July 1756, his father being a respectable tradesman. He was sent to school at Dr. Barrow's in Soho Square, where, following the precedent of many of his craft, he was more remarkable for his sketches than his studies. He had, in fact, learned to draw before he could write, and by the time he was ten had already lavishly decorated his exercise-books with caricatures of his masters and his schoolfellows. Among these latter were Edmund Burke's son Richard; J. G. Holman, afterwards an actor and a dramatic author; John, or Jack, Bannister [q. v.], another and better-known actor, who was besides a clever amateur artist; and Henry Angelo of the ‘Reminiscences,’ also an excellent draughtsman. Angelo, who, like Bannister, continued a lifelong friend to Rowlandson, soon left Soho for Eton, but Rowlandson and Bannister passed from Dr. Barrow's to the Royal Academy as students, carrying with them a supply of mischief and animal spirits which manifested itself in much playful tormenting of Moser, the then keeper, and of the librarian, Richard Wilson. As a Royal Academy student Rowlandson made rapid progress, and early gave evidence of that inexhaustible fancy and power of rapid execution which are his most marked characteristics; but, although his gift of grace and elegance was unmistakable, he also showed from the outset an equally unmistakable leaning towards humorous art.
When he was about the age of sixteen he left the Royal Academy, and, upon the invitation of his aunt, a French lady, whose maiden name had been Chatelier, went to Paris. Here he became an adept in French, and at the same time continued his art studies in one of the Parisian drawing-schools, advantages which not only gave to his work a certain Gallic verve and lightness, but helped to perfect his knowledge of figure-drawing. After two years' residence in Paris he returned to England, resuming his attendance at the academy, where his proficiency made it the fashion to pit him against the then all-popular favourite of the life school, John Hamilton Mortimer [q. v.] Then he apparently went back again to Paris. In 1775 he sent to the seventh exhibition of the Royal Academy a drawing entitled ‘Delilah payeth Sampson a Visit while in Prison at Gaza,’ a composition of which no description survives, although it is conjectured to have been in the ‘grandiose historic’ manner. Two years later he is found settled in London as a portrait-painter, having his studio at No. 133 Wardour Street. Between 1777 and 1781 he contributed regularly to the academy, sending both portraits and landscape, one of the former (1781) being a ‘Lady in a Fancy Dress.’ His work in this way seems to have attained considerable popularity, no small achievement at a time when his contemporaries were Reynolds, Gainsborough, Romney, and Hoppner. It is probable, however, that his residence in London was intermittent, for his restless disposition took him frequently to the continent, where he rambled vaguely in Flanders, Holland, and Germany, storing his memory and his sketch-book with studies of men and manners, and the adventures of inns and posting-roads. At this time the actual delineation of the busy life about him seems to have sufficed to his pencil, and the bias to broad-grin which had characterised his earliest efforts was suspended or suppressed. But many of his chosen associates were caricaturists, James Gillray [q. v.], Henry Wigstead, and Henry William Bunbury [q. v.] being prominent among them, and although in academic training he was far in advance of his friends, he ultimately suffered the penalty of an environment with which he was already disposed to sympathise. About 1781 his tendency to caricature became more marked, and his unusual ability pushed him at once into the foremost ranks of what was then one of the most popular departments of pictorial art. The stepping-stone between his new and his old calling seems to have been the graphic record of a tour in a post-chaise which he made with Henry Wigstead to Spithead in 1782, at the foundering of the Royal George, a series of sixty-seven drawings which happily combined his topographical and humorous gifts. In the academy of 1784 were three of his essays in this new manner, and one of them, ‘Vauxhall Gardens,’ afterwards engraved by Pollard and Jukes, remains the typical example of his skill. The others were an ‘Italian Family’ and the ‘Serpentine River.’ These were followed in 1786 and 1787 by several similar works, of which the ‘French Family’ and the ‘English Review’ and ‘French Review’ are the most notable. The latter two, which were executed for George IV when Prince of Wales, were shown at the exhibition of 1862, and also at the ‘exhibition of English humourists in art’ in 1889, being then lent by the queen. The same exhibition contained some two hundred and sixty choice specimens of Rowlandson's works, the detailed enumeration of which must be sought for in the exhaustive pages of Rowlandson's most enthusiastic admirer, Mr. Joseph Grego. In Mr. Grego's volumes, which are freely illustrated by uncoloured copies, the student who is not a collector may form a fair idea of the artist's extraordinary facility and fertility, and of his gifts as the assailant of Buonaparte, and the satirist of the ‘Delicate Investigation’ of 1809. His power of managing crowds at reviews, races, &c., is remarkable; and his eye for the picturesque is evidenced not only by numberless representations of field sports, pastimes, and rural scenes, but by many lightly wrought and felicitous little idylls of the hostel and the highway, the stagecoach and the wagon. His tragic power is far below his gift of humour and boisterous animal spirits. He drew women with marked grace and accuracy, and many of his studies in this way, although by preference of a somewhat over-nourished and voluptuous type, are exceedingly beautiful. His political and social caricatures, even if allowance be made for the very full-blooded humanity which he depicted, are frequently coarse and indelicate; but as the pictorial chronicler of the hard-hitting, hard-riding, hard-drinking age in which he lived, he can never be neglected by the Georgian historian.
From his first successes in 1784 he continued to produce humorous designs until the end of his career, devoting, in his later years, much of his attention to book illustration. His most popular work in this way originated with the establishment in 1809 of Ackermann's ‘Poetical Magazine,’ for which he supplied two plates monthly, illustrating a schoolmaster's tour, the metrical text to which was supplied by William Combe [q. v.], then living in the rules of the king's bench prison. Combe wrote up to the compositions with such good fortune that the tour in question not only outshone all the other poetry in the periodical, but entered speedily upon a fresh career of success in 1812, as ‘The Tour of Dr. Syntax in search of the Picturesque.’ The same collaboration produced two sequels—‘The Second Tour of Dr. Syntax in search of Consolation,’ 1820, and ‘The Third Tour of Dr. Syntax in search of a Wife,’ 1821. All went through many editions, and in 1823 the three tours, eighty plates in all (reduced), were issued by Ackermann in pocket form. Combe also furnished the text to the ‘History of Johnny Quæ Genus, the Foundling of the late Dr. Syntax,’ 1822; the ‘English Dance of Death’ 1815–16; and the ‘Dance of Life,’ 1816. Among other series of plates or book illustrations may be mentioned the ‘Grand Master, or Adventures of Qui Hi in Hindostan,’ 1815; ‘The Military Adventures of Johnny Newcome,’ 1815, by David Roberts [q. v.], ‘The Adventures of Johnny Newcome in the Navy,’ by John Mitford (1782–1831) [q. v.], 1818; Engelbach's ‘Letters from Naples and the Campana Felice,’ 1815, and last, but not least, ‘The Microcosm of London,’ 1808, the topographical illustrations of which were by Augustus Charles Pugin [q. v.], with figures by Rowlandson. Another notable volume is the series of eighty-seven plates entitled ‘The Loyal Volunteers of London and Environs,’ 1799. Rowlandson also illustrated Goldsmith, Fielding, Smollett, Sterne, Anstey, and Peter Pindar, succeeding best, as may perhaps be anticipated, with the broader men.
According to the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ for 1800, Rowlandson married in that year a Miss Stuart of Camberwell, but appears to have had no family. His French aunt left him 7,000l. at her death. But he was not the man to keep money. Besides being lavish and pleasure-loving, he was a confirmed gambler, resorting philosophically to his reed-pen and paint-box to retrieve his resources. In person he was large and muscular, resolute in appearance, and having regular and distinctly handsome features. He has left his own portrait at thirty-one in the design called ‘Countrymen and Sharpers,’ exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1787 (No. 555), and subsequently engraved by J. K. Sherwin. A separate likeness from this was prepared by T. H. Parker. Another likeness of him, stated to be ‘an excellent resemblance,’ is a pencil drawing by John Bannister, dated ‘June 4th, 1795.’ There is also a sketch of him, as an old man, by his friend and pupil, J. T. Smith. This was taken not long before his death, which took place on 22 April 1827, at his lodgings, 1 James Street, Adelphi, after a severe illness of two years.[Grego's Rowlandson the Caricaturist, 1880, 2 vols.: Grego's Rowlandson and his Works, Pears's Pictorial, March 1895; Gent. Mag. September 1800 and June 1827; Notes and Queries, 4th ser. iv. 89, 224 et passim; Angelo's Reminiscences, 1828–30, i. 233–40, ii. 324–6; Somerset House Gazette, 1824, ii. 347; Pyne's Wine and Walnuts, 1823.]