February 15, 2022

Thomas Rowlandson: Made by Debt

Jay Kapadia

Thomas Rowlandson was one of the most prolific cartoonists of the late 18th century. What Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, and Oliver Goldsmith were for literature at the time, Rowlandson was for caricature. Lively in action and detail, never subscribing to political affinities – to the point where historians don’t know Rowlandson’s personal opinion on Great Britain losing the American colonies – his work was a theatrical, bawdy, and slapstick panorama of social life in Georgian England. The artist flung ridicule capriciously.  

Thomas Rowlandson, pencil sketch by George Henry Harlow, 1814

Thomas Rowlandson was born in Old Jewry, London in 1757. The artist’s father, William began his career as a weaver and transitioned into textile trading, only to spiral into bankruptcy due to lack of business aptitude. Young Thomas then moved in with his Uncle James and Aunt Jane. He showed signs of artistic inclinations during his early school age years, covering his textbooks in cartoons, doodles, and portraits of his classmates. With the financial support from his Aunt Jane, Rowlandson first enrolled in the Soho Academy, then at the age of 16 he studied at the Royal Academy, Somerset House. 

Thomas Rowlandson, Six Hand-colored Etchings in "Miseries series" e. 300/500, available on iGavelAuctions.com

The young art student was remembered as a vivacious cultivist who traveled the countryside with friends, documenting life into social history with zest. While abroad in Paris, Rowlandson honed in on his drawing skills. The excitement of being “on the Continent” gave him the opportunity to thicken his portfolios with usable content. However, Paris became his undoing. While an ardent and industrious student, steadfast with his studies, he developed a passion for gambling. Debt became the defining aspect of Rowlandson’s productivity as an artist. Inheriting a healthy sum of money from his deceased Aunt Jane, the artist lost it all in gambling dens. 

Thomas Rowlandson, Miseries of Travelling, Watercolor and Ink on Paper, e. 10,000/15,000, available on iGavelAuctions.com

In 1777 he set up a studio on Wardour Street to be a portrait painter. Business was active, but the market was unresponsive to his portraitures. Tethering on the edge of financial ruin, similar to his father before, Rowlandson took counsel from his inner circle of friends and switched to caricature. With photography and movies nonexistent, people relied on printed material as a source of entertainment. And it was a sustainable market for productive and quick-witted artists to tap into.

Four Rowlandson Etchings, incl. one Related to Napoleon Meeting the Devil "A Friendly Visit"    e. 250/350, available on iGavelAuctions.com

An expert draftsman, Rowlandson was capable of completing two cartoons a day! He started his drawings as outlines and sketches using pencil. The use of color of his characters was solid and uniform with hardly any gradation of color. Forms of mass and solidity of elements were illustrated with line work and no color modulation. Landscapes, however, tended to have more hues combining together with gray to create shadows and mass. The final touch was the reed pen. Rowlandson would contour defining edges of an object or emphasize the spatial existence of a figure. Though an “inveterate gambler” with a constant and hasty need to stay ahead of financial losses, Rowlandson would create the engravings of works and was known to make rounds visiting the printers and colorists ensuring the quality of production. 

Still staring into the void of poverty, Rowlandson “forged a lucrative business relationship with Rudolph Ackermann (1764–1834), one of London’s leading art publishers. Ackermann had a talent for cultivating wayward writers, artists, and architectural draftsmen.” The 25 years of partnership gave the artist the channels and audience he needed to earn a living, but it did not stave off his addiction. If anything the seedy society of vice and destitution provided abundant source material to keep Rowlandson creative as a visual entertainer. Even in modern times, his sardonic humor still holds relevancy. Rowlandson died of illness April 22, 1827. 

Blog featuring lots from iGavelAuctions.com sale 'Works by Thomas Rowlandson from an American Collector' with over 500 lots of drawings, prints and books by Thomas Rowlandson, who ushered in the golden age of British caricature art at the turn of the 19th century. The sale is open for bidding on the iGavel Auctions website until March 15, 2022. Click here to view all lots in the sale.