Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827) Thomas Rowlandson raised comic art to a new level by representing the panorama of contemporary life with almost unparalleled fluency – adopting lyricism or incisiveness as best fitted the subject. And, in capturing an abundance of picturesque detail, his work provided a parallel to the novels of Henry Fielding or Laurence Sterne. Thomas Rowlandson was born in Old Jewry, in the City of London, on 14 July 1757, to a merchant in wool and silk. In consequence of the bankruptcy of his father, he and his younger sister, Elizabeth, went to live with their uncle, James, and a prosperous Spitalfields silk weaver and his French wife, Jane. Following the death of his uncle in 1764, he moved to 4 Church Street (now Romilly Street) Soho with his widowed aunt, and attended the Soho Academy.
From the age of 16, Rowlandson studied art at the Royal Academy Schools, Somerset House, and received permission to draw at the Duke of Richmond’s sculpture gallery in Whitehall. Between 1775 and 1787, he exhibited both subject pictures and caricatures, in pen and wash, at the Royal Academy, winning a silver medal in 1777, and making his name seven years later with the ambitious Vauxhall Gardens (V&A).
During this period, he began to make trips to the Continent (particularly Paris) and in Britain (often accompanied by Henry Wigstead).
Rowlandson continued to live in apartments in Soho with his aunt, until her death in 1789: at 103 Wardour Street (by 1777) and then 50 Poland Street (by 1787). On her death, he received a substantial legacy, though it seems likely that he lost it through gambling. Certainly, through the 1790s, he lived in modest, even shabby, addresses in and around the Strand, finally settling in attic rooms at 1 James Street, Adelphi, in 1800, where he lived for the rest of his life.
Throughout the 1780s, Rowlandson had been engaged in political and social caricature, but his versatility enabled him to work extensively as a book illustrator, initially on the novels of Tobias Smollett and Henry Fielding (1791-1805), and later on volumes dependent on their visual content. Employed by the publisher Rudolph Ackermann from 1798, he depicted the Miseries of Human Life (1808) and added figures to Augustus Charles Pugin’s architectural settings in The Microcosm of London (1808-11). He received the ideal commission in 1812 when asked to collaborate with William Combe, a writer, on Tours of Dr Syntax (1812-21). A seasoned traveller, with an extensive knowledge of Britain and the Continent, Rowlandson was well qualified to parody the vagaries of the Picturesque landscape artist. He frequently produced drawings after the Old Masters, and his own landscape style was an adaptation of that of Thomas Gainsborough. During the 1820s, the work of the Italian Renaissance artist, Giovanni della Porta, inspired him to return to caricature, the art that had made his name, and produced a number of comparative anatomy studies.
Rowlandson became seriously ill in 1825 and died at home on 21 April 1827. The executor and sole legatee of his will was Betsy Winter, his longstanding companion.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the British Museum, the National Maritime Museum, Tate and the V&A; the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford), The Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge), Hertford Museum, Manchester Art Gallery, the Museum of Island History (Newport, Isle of Wight), Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums and York Art Gallery; and Yale Center For British Art (New Haven).
Further reading: Joseph Grego, Rowlandson the Caricaturist, London: Chatto and Windus, 1880 (2 vols) John Hayes, ‘Rowlandson, Thomas (1757-1827)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 48, pages 13-16 John Hayes, Rowlandson: Watercolours and Drawings, London: Phaidon, 1972 Ronald Paulson, Rowlandson: A New Interpretation, London: Studio Vista, 1972 Matthew Payne & James Payne, Regarding Thomas Rowlandson 1757-1827. His Life, Art & Acquaintance, London: Hogarth Arts/Paul Holberton Publishing, 2010 David Rodgers, ‘Rowlandson, Thomas (b London, 14 July 1756 or 1757; d London, 21 April 1827)’, Jane Turner (ed), The Dictionary of Art, London: Macmillan, 1996, vol 27, pages 277-279