Thomas Rowlandson

Birth: 1756


THOMAS ROWLANDSON (1756–1827) was an English caricaturist, was born in Old Jewry, London, in July 1756, the son of a tradesman or city merchant. On leaving school he became a student in the Royal Academy. At the age of sixteen he resided and studied for a time in Paris, and he afterwards made frequent tours on the Continent, enriching his portfolios with numerous jottings of life and character. In 1775 he exhibited at the Royal Academy a drawing of "Delilah visiting Samson in Prison," and in the following years he was represented by various portraits and landscapes.

Possessed of much facility of execution and a ready command of the figure, he was spoken of as a promising student; and had he continued his early application he would have made his mark as a painter. But by the death of his aunt, a French lady, he fell heir to a sum of £7000, plunged into the dissipations of the town and was known to sit at the gaming-table for thirty-six hours at a stretch.

In time poverty overtook him; and the friendship and example of Gillray and Bunbury seem to have suggested caricature as a means of filling an empty purse. His drawing of Vauxhall, shown in the Royal Academy exhibition of 1784, had been engraved by Pollard, and the print was a success. Rowlandson was largely employed by Rudolph Ackermann, the art publisher, who in 1809–11 issued in his Poetical Magazine "The Schoolmaster’s Tour"—a series of plates with illustrative verses by Dr William Coombe.

They were the most popular of the artist's works. Again engraved by Rowlandson himself in 1812, and issued under the title of the "Tour of Dr Syntax in Search of the Picturesque, " they had attained a fifth edition by 181 3, and were followed in 1820 by "Dr Syntax in Search of Consolation, " and in 1821 by the " Third Tour of Dr Syntax in Search of a Wife." The same Collaboration of designer, author and publisher appeared in the English " Dance of Death, " issued in 1814-16, one of the most admirable of -R0wlands0n's series, and in the " Dance of Life, " 1822. Rowlandson also illustrated Smollett, Goldsmith and Sterne, and his designs will be found in The Spirit of the Public Journals (1825), The English Spy (1825), and The Humourist (1831). He died in London, after a prolonged illness, on the 22nd of April 1827.

Rowlandson's designs were usually executed in outline with the reed-pen, and delicately washed with color. They were then etched by the artist on the copper, and afterwards aqua-tinted usually by a professional engraver, the impressions being finally colored by hand. As a designer he was characterized by the utmost facility and ease of draughtsmanship, and the quality of his art 'suffered from this haste and over-production.

He was a true if not a very refined humorist, dealing less frequently than his fierce contemporary Gillray with politics, but commonly touching, in a rather gentle spirit, the various aspects and incidents of social life. His most artistic work is to be found among the more careful drawings of his earlier period; but even among the exaggerated caricature of his later time we find hints that this master of the humorous might have attained to the beautiful had he so willed.


J. Grego, Rowlandson the Caricaturist, a Selection from his Works, &c. (2 vols., 1880).

1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 23. pg. 787

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