A notorious gambler, a big drinker, blatant, boisterous, laughing – all hallmarks that apply to Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827). The hedonistic tendencies of this great British caricaturist are also the ingredients of his extensive body of work.
Rowlandson had a troubled youth, his mother died when he was still a child and his father was a doomed investor in trading supplies, frequently on the edge of or into financial disaster. For this reason he spent his early life on the streets where he witnessed public hangings, bull-baiting, cock fights, dog fights, and fist fighting commoners and gentlemen.
Beer and Gin
This is where he learned to drink beer and gin but also got introduced to some of the graceful and enchanting pleasures of the public gardens, and the refinement of horse racing at Ascot.
Although Rowlandson was a very prosperous artist, an excellent technician and a master of drawing, his work was not always of the highest standards. This could have something to do with his somewhat decadent lifestyle (with vast quantities of strong drink and enormous meals) or that he had to pay urgent bills.
In his artistic life, the prolific Rowlandson produced illustrations for novels, joke books, topographical works, caricatures of prominent figures such as William Pitt the Younger and Napoleon Bonaparte, and erotica. His erotic drawings occupy a key position in his entire work.
Lust for Life
But when Rowlandson was at his best his drawings had an immediacy, that breath a robust and fun-inspired lust for life. The English art historian Adolph Paul Oppé (1878-1957) described him as follows:
“He had the eyes to see and the hands to represent, had he so wished; but he had himself neither the emotion nor the sympathy with emotion to allow his figures to produce it by quiet means. He could sometimes raise a laugh without forcing his characters into a grimace, but he had always to make them yell if his representations were to excite horror. All this is what makes him so good, at times so consummate a draughtsman.”
As you have come to expect from us, our focus will be on his erotic expressions in the remaining of the article. Below you can find images from the book ‘The Forbidden Erotica of Thomas Rowlandson 1756-1827‘ by Kurt von Meier…
This satirical etching (Fig.23) is a parody of ‘The Nightmare‘ (1781) by Fuseli. In Rowlandson’s adaptation the woman is replaced by the politician Charles James Fox, who is lying nude, prone on a low bed. One arm is hanging to the floor while the other is above his head. On his breast sits a demon, while a horse with wide-open eyeballs puts its head through draped curtains. The horse, the demon, and the general arrangement are closely copied from Fuseli, in reverse; but the burly nudity of Fox is in complete contrast with his elegant female in pseudo-classical draperies. In Fuseli’s picture is a circular table of classical shape on which are toilet bottles, &c.; on the smaller table beside Fox are a dice-box and dice. [Source: British Museum]
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For an extensive description on the work and life of Thomas Rowlandson I highly recommend Kurt von Meier’s site…!
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