The Spirited Mr Rowlandson

November 20, 2015

A bloggers’ preview last week of not one but two new exhibitions at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace.  A bijou selection of high-quality genre paintings from the Golden Age of Dutch art more than competed for attention with one of the most brilliant draughtsmen and printmakers England has ever produced: Thomas Rowlandson (1757 – 1827).

The display of around 100 prints and drawings explores the life and art of one of this country’s most popular caricaturists. Social satires were his staple, but often the political intrigues of Parliament and the Court attracted the scrutiny of his quick-fire wit and flashing, free-spirited pen.

Rowlandson was a roving gun for hire, happy to direct his ridicule in whatever direction his patron or publisher of the time required – always with that arresting combination of invention and artistic flair. The exhibition includes satires against William Pitt and the Tories as well as against Pitt’s great rival Charles James Fox and his Whig acolytes.

It is perhaps surprising thIMG_2064at Rowlandson’s output was so popular with both George III and George IV, father and particularly son so often the butt of the joke. Queen Victoria apparently acquired more of his prints than either of her Hanoverian predecessors.

And pictorial satires of the Georgian and Victorian periods remain highly collectable to this day.  The market has been rejuvenated by a recent upsurge in scholarly research into this intriguingly fluid, hybrid medium that seems to straddle simultaneously the worlds of art, journalism, literature and politics.

Commanding the centre of the largest gallery is this c. 1806 four leaf screen (left), pasted with carefully arranged figures and scenes cut from satirical prints (the work of various artists, French and British).

This is a rare survival, the sort of thing I would love on my stand at a fair – think of the visitors it would attract.  These screens were popular adornments to the fashionable parlours of the Georgian and Regency periods, the ultimate statement of a trend for pasting prints onto everything from tea caddies to tables to the walls of billiard rooms (see my earlier post on this theme: Furniture Prints).

Printsellers’ catalogues and trade cards of the time offered selections of their wares intended for this very purpose.  Publishers too got in on the act – Isaac Cruikshank’s set of ‘Caricature Ornaments for screens’ was advertised in 1800.
Such screens could also be purchased ready-made.
Either way, they make for wonderful after-dinner conversation.

High Spirits: The Comic Art of Thomas Rowlandson showing at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace with Masters of the Everyday: Dutch Artists in the Age of Vermeer13th November 2015 – 14th February 2016.

Bonaparte and the British

February 17, 2015

To mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo – the final defeat of the brilliant French general and emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) – the British Museum have put together a wonderful exhibition of British and French satirical prints.

The free display runs from 5th February to 16th August and is well worth a special visit.

The period of Britain’s struggle with Revolutionary and then Napoleonic France between 1793 and 1815 coincided with the richest seam of talent for caricature that this country has ever produced.

The compositions of Charles Williams, George Moutard Woodward, Richard Newton, Thomas Rowlandson and the incomparable James Gillray combined originality, perceptive wit and considerable artistic flair. The attacks could be brutal – both in terms of the narrative and visually, with grotesquely distorted faces and forms. But in some cases the subversion of the traditional rules of draughtsmanship as laid down by the art establishment was extremely inventive and, it occurs to me, ahead of its time.

The corsican spider. In his web. Etching by Thomas Rowlandson

The Corsican Spider. In his Web. Etching by Thomas Rowlandson

The satire is complemented by more sober works and official portraiture. A collection of anonymous and very competent watercolour sketches of the battlefield are dated two days after the fighting. They bear grim testament to the savagery and scale of the slaughter on that Sunday in June 1815. The ghostly pale bodies of soldiers, stripped bare by trophy hunters, are still seen lying on the ground in of one of the drawings.

Among other printed material on show is this poster advertising a reconstruction of Admiral Nelson’s great victory over a French fleet on the Mediterranean coast off Egypt in August 1798.

Charles Dibdin, the theatre manager at Sadler’s Wells in London’sAN01514979_001_l Islington, installed a water tank and attracted large patriotic crowds, their morale perhaps needing a boost as Napoleon’s victorious progress across the Continent continued.

It features a wood engraving of the French flagship L’Orient exploding at its centre.

Accompanying cabinets of curios include a group of metallic souvenirs collected by none other than Lord Byron from the field of Waterloo during his visit in 1816 – soldiers’ decorations etc.

On a totally unrelated subject, I was pleased to observe that prints were accorded their rightful prominent place in the decorative schemes of several room-recreations at the Geffrye Museum, during a recent visit. Next time you find yourself in east London’s trendy Hoxton do pop in!

Drawing room, 1870 at The Geffrye Museum

Drawing room, 1870 at The Geffrye Museum

Propaganda in Print

October 21, 2013

Last week I popped along to Room 16 of the National Portrait Gallery to take a look at the ‘Treason, Plots and Murder‘ display of 17th century British political prints. The contemporary engraving of the shifty-looking Gunpowder Plot conspirators (below) in earnest conversation by Crispijn de Passe is an arresting image, familiar from my school history textbooks.

But my eye was instantly drawn to the adjacent wall and a complete set of pictorial playing cards depicting the Popish Plot of 1678. They were designed by Francis Barlow, who apart from high quality book illustrations and sets of prints of birds and animals which were etched by Wenceslaus Hollar, Richard Gaywood and others, produced propaganda prints on behalf of the Whig faction during this turbulent period of our nation’s history.


In fact the Popish Plot was not in reality a ‘plot’ at all but a total fabrication by the notorious perjurer Titus Oates, with the consequence that dozens of innocent people were brutally executed. The episode was perhaps the ultimate manifestation of the febrile atmosphere surrounding religious politics in 17th century England.

Each chronologically-sequential image, with its caption beneath, narrates a highly biased interpretation of the inglorious affair for the amusement and ‘education’ of the card player, almost in the style of a strip cartoon. What more effective, flexible or popular medium than the playing card – perhaps the equivalent of today’s TV (or internet) advertising – to promote a version of events that were the talk of every tavern and parlour in the land?

The exhibition is a potent reminder that power, print and propaganda have been irrevocably linked since the first presses went into production.
It runs until February 16th 2014.