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Man of the Streets-Thomas Rowlandson: Pleasures and Pursuits in Georgian Englandby Ross Rice

It’s interesting how exhibitions like these come into being. Patricia Phagan had just been hired as the new Philip and Lynn Straus Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, and was familiarizing herself with the sprawling collection. She found herself returning to a forlorn red leather-bound folio full of prints and watercolors, bequeathed to the college in the 1950s, some thirty-odd glimpses of London street life in the late 1700s-early 1800s (known as the “Georgian” period, under King George III), all rendered with a confident and wickedly humorous style best suited for social commentary. Thus was her introduction to the artist who would take up much of the next two years of her curatorial life, the subject of extensive research: Thomas Rowlandson.

Phagan smiles. “I should tell you why his work sparked my interest. My dissertation at CUNY Graduate Center for my PhD was in 20th Century political cartoons. I have always had this keen interest in politics and art, social context. And so I thought, well, his works really do hit upon those topics: the politics, the social follies and mores of that particular time.” Indeed, it would be hard to imagine any artists capturing the zeitgeist of their times better, or exceeding Rowlandson’s prodigious output; with over 10,000 works to his name, that comes out to roughly one finished product per day for thirty straight years. But it’s also easy to see why he fell deeply out of favor in the Victorian period: his misbehaving royalty, prostitutes, unwashed crowds, social climbers and rubes were too real for those times, too brutal for those seeking the beautiful. For those interested by social interactions, reality shows and art “from the street,” this exhibition—“Thomas Rowlandson: Pleasure and Pursuits in Georgian England” at Vassar College’s Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center—might just be your cup of tea.

Though he often portrayed them in his pictures in harsh caricature, Rowlandson (born in 1757) himself was the son of a tradesman, one who dealt in textile goods. After his father’s bankruptcy, he was sent to live with his well-to-do aunt who, when later widowed, moved with her nephew to the West End of London, where they commenced to enjoy the good life. Rowlandson got training to match his natural drawing talent at prestigious academies, and quickly became a local favorite with his renditions of Vauxhall and Covent Gardens, making sure to portray the royal class with class, and the lower social strata with humor. London was in a boom period; though they had recently lost the Colonies, the British Empire was still ascendant, trade was strong, money and people flowing into the city. Topical artists like Rowlandson were in vogue, with their drawings and paintings hung in print shop windows for the enjoyment and amusement of passers-by. George, the Prince of Wales, became not only a frequent subject for Rowlandson, but also a patron.

Rowlandson had to play a tricky game early in his career, as patronage was everything to an artist. Though he portrayed her in a fawning light in his Vauxhall Gardens (1784), his renditions of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire—who was politically active of behalf of the liberal Whig party—were pretty harsh, as were his caricatures of Whig candidate Charles James Fox. But they had to be—the prints were commissioned by the King himself! Georgiana had committed the sin of canvassing for votes among the lower classes during the Westminster general election on 1784; though the various strata mixed often in Georgian times, there were limits. Ladies just didn’t do that sort of thing.

The election of 1784 got Rowlandson on the map, in spite of Fox’ triumphant re-election, and he stayed busy, travelling and painting further afield, gambling and partying with actor pal Jack Bannister. The work varied in quality; some works were seemingly casually dashed off, other topographical and architectural studies were rich with detail and color. As opposed to the more sedately composed prints of his contemporary William Hogarth, Rowlandson makes his characters more kinetic; you can almost see the motion.

It’s not easy to call Rowlandson’s work humor per se; it’s not like these people are doing or saying anything funny. More often than not, it’s a tension he creates by juxtaposing extremes; a favorite motif is the lovely young woman, being leered at by a usually older tradesman or greedy letch. To quote Vic Gatrell’s essay in the exhibition catalog, “his humor was extracted not only from human mishaps, but more subtly from the comical interplay of incident, caricature, punning titles, composition, and medium: the contrast between a situation’s vulgarity and the elegance of the penwork and color used to depict it becomes comic.”

Things took a downward turn when his aunt died in 1789, leaving him a £2,000 inheritance he quickly gambled away. Penury was not an option, so Rowlandson put all his efforts forward with a sheer volume of work, to the point of over-production. As the print media was in booming ascension in the early 1800s, Rowlandson found his fortunes rising again. Book illustration was coming into demand, as well political satire. But it wasn’t so much the wealthy patrons making it happen, it was cheap book and print sellers like Cheapside’s Thomas Tegg bringing in coin from the rabble.

As a result, Rowlandson’s subject matter catered to the new audience, with depictions of street scenes, clubs and taverns, and theatergoers, often in full mayhem mode. Prostitutes, gamblers, and not just a little erotica fill the folios of his later career, with some of the more garishly colored late works (like Comedy in the Country, Tragedy in London, 1807) even presaging the sometimes coarse counter-culture humor of Robert Crumb. From Gatrell’s essay: “While he is not commonly thought of as a defender of social justice, some prints and drawings also explicitly attack the arrogance or pretensions of the wealthy, the sanctimonious, or the socially aspirant—in satires on gluttonous clergymen, pretentious tradesmen, cruel tax collectors, and press-gangs, or on the moral equivalences between the wealthy women of St. James and the poor whores of St. Giles.”

Though Rowlandson died a wealthy man in 1827, his passing went largely unnoticed by the public, as his robust style of lowbrow humor had already begun to fall from fashion. His personal reputation as a drinker, gambler, and whoremonger—he was unmarried his whole life—didn’t help. As one of the Time’s critics observed, “He is the master of the horse-laugh, the most persistent and implacable of all adepts of the English tradition of Philistine humor….The path of humanity is strewn with banana skins and the French go head over heels at Waterloo with the same richly satisfying effect as when old women tumble in the streets of London.”

But recent years have been kinder, with more collections coming together. One would be hard-pressed to find a more rambunctious view of Georgian London, which couldn’t possibly be captured in any other way but by pen, paint, and imagination. Though he will never be considered one of “the greats,” Thomas Rowlandson offers a distinctive lens through which we can see the rich tapestry of that place and time, without sentimentality, from the honest viewpoint of someone right there in the middle of it, living La Vida London.

Thomas Rowlandson: Pleasures and Pursuits in Georgian England will be showing at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, 128 Raymond Ave., Poughkeepsie, April 8 through June 12. The opening reception is at Taylor Hall, Rm. 102, Friday April 8 at 5:30 PM, and will feature “A Conversation on Thomas Rowlandson and His Art” with historians Linda Colley and Brian Lukacher. The accompanying film series (Taylor Hall, Rm. 203) features The Duchess (Th 4/28), The Black Adder (The Third Season) Marathon (Th 5/5), and The Madness of King George (We 5/11). All screenings 5:30 PM

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