Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) was one of England's great satirists and a master of pen drawing and watercolor technique. Born to a tradesman in the London's Old Jewry, he was raised by his wealthy silk merchant uncle after his father went into bankruptcy. When his uncle died, his aunt paid his way at school, in Paris and from 1772 at the Royal Academy, where he first exhibited paintings in 1775. Lacking success as a traditional painter, he gravitated to caricature and social satire — and his career took off. He inherited a fortune when his aunt died in 1789, but squandered it in several ruinous years of dissipation and gambling, sometimes gaming for two days without sleep. In 1797 he began to rebuild his career with a looser, broader style that became much in demand for periodicals and prints; after 1800 he churned out several profitable projects for the publisher Rudolph Ackermann. Rowlandson was an avid tourist in England and on the Continent, and many fashionable spas, gardens and promenades figure into his satires, but he largely avoided political controversies. He joined with the poet William Combe to produce the three volume Tours of Dr. Syntax (1809-1821), a wildly successful parody of the Rev. William Gilpin that helped Rowlandson conclude his life debt free, and with a large estate.

It's hard to choose a representative sampling from Rolly's exuberant productivity, but Jealousy, The Rival (1787, 23x31cm) introduces him at the height of his powers. Two men representing feeble affluence and ambitious gallantry vie for the attentions of the musical young lady in fashionably modest attire; she offers the charms of beauty, refinement and, perhaps, a pleasing social pedigree. Her neglected rival, with the slightly gaudy sash and overdone hair, may have sincere domestic comforts to offer, but her most ardent suitor is a dog. The visible gap between this woman and the young man, reinforced by his jutting elbow matched to her achingly bent forearm, makes her yearning palpable, and the dowager portrait in the background hints at the old maid future she dreads. The twisted angle of her head, her writhing arms, and the menacing angle of the scissors express her frustration perfectly. The 18th century verve of Rowlandson's style lets him set these exaggerations beside the elegantly drawn couple without jarring the basic harmony of the picture. This flexibility comes from the swing of his superb pen drawing: lively and alertly adjusted, it indicates form, movement and dramatic interest with the slightest variations of weight and speed in the line. The palette, consisting only of vermilion, yellow ochre and prussian blue (later he used cobalt blue), is floated over the painting in subtle, muted washes, with many colors mixed wet in wet on the page. Yet within this limited range his color effects are inspired — the orangish tone linking the man's jacket and the back of the woman's chair, for example, or the envy green color of the table between them. These neutral tones are brightened just enough to animate the scene with color accents, but not enough to compete with Rowlandson's vitally expressive drawing. Even the play of light and shadow is carefully judged, from the reflected glow of the fireplace mantel to the afternoon shadows across the pianist's skirt and under the table — where they foreground that pathetic dog.



Though Rowlandson occasionally abandoned himself to excess, he always managed to save himself through work. Holding up his pen, he would say "I have played the fool, but here is my resource." After the death of his aunt, he seems to have regained his health and sanity through long periods in the country, at the home of a banker friend in Cornwall and in summer hiking tours throughout England. His Country Scene in Cumberland (1805?; 17x28cm) was possibly drawn on a 1799 tour of north Wales with his magistrate friend Henry Wigstead (Rowlandson happily gave his drawings whatever date would bring the best price). The pen drawing is coarse and emphatic, in the style of his later social satires; the corkscrew tree limbs and bristling foliage seem uncannily like drawings by Vincent Van Gogh. The depth of tonal values and range of color mixtures (especially in the greens) are greater than usual for Rowlandson, and the life affirming vitality of the trees seems exaggerated with genuine pleasure. His comically plump rural cottages are always littered with children and dogs (dogs are everywhere with Rowlandson), and his peasants are often thick limbed, loutish and rowdy at market. But they do not suffer from vanity or other humiliating vices: they live simply and close to the earth. There is a lyrical happiness and sentimental peace in Rowlandson's country drawings that appears nowhere else in his work.

Rowlandson attempted only a handful of highly finished works, but these confirm his command of watercolor technique. The very large London: Skaters on the Serpentine (1784; 42x74cm), exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1784, represents English society as a slithering mob — pushing, pulling, kicking and falling over each other; flirting, taunting, showing off, skating on chairs or in pairs; the carriages of the quality lined up on shore where they can view the spectacle from the safety of class distinction. This is to me the essence of Rowlandson's view of life: all the vanity, conflict and venality of this world only proves we are clumsy creatures, crowded in the cold with a slippery footing. Apart from the eventful human comedy on the ice, this is a beautifully realized nature painting with an atmosphere built up of light washes applied over a carefully selected blue gray paper. The branches seem to crackle with cold, and the more saturated but very limited range of colors in the foreground enhances the illusion of chill mist in the distance. As always with Rowlandson, brighter colors are used primarily to clarify and balance the composition — notice how the two red coats frame the view down the ice, and the blue coats circle a tumbledown tangle of dogs, kids and indignant adults.

This is a sampling of Rowlandson at his more refined. But nothing was too crass or lewd for his penetrating eye and exceedingly quick pen. Titles such as "Why Don't You Come to Bed, You Drunken Sot," "Fumble Cunt" or "A Bull Bitch" suggest the level of comedy he enjoyed. He served up the foibles of his time with superb skill, exuberant humor, unflinching insight, and occasional cruelty. What is handsome about Rowlandson's art is that he never dirties his pen with moral indignation: humans can be forgiven their sins because they give the gods so much laughter.

A beautiful selection of reproductions, many of them actual size, is available in The Watercolor Drawings of Thomas Rowlandson by Arthur Heintzelman (Watson Guptill, 1947), regrettably out of print. As always, there is a sympathetic and detailed chapter on Rowlandson in Martin Hardie's Water-Colour Painting in Britain: I. The Eighteenth Century (Batsford, 1967), also out of print. And on the ribald side, there are 84 fabulously raunchy etchings in The Forbidden Erotica of Thomas Rowlandson by the academically overendowed Kurt von Meier, Ph.D. (Hogarth Guild, 1970) — once again, out of print. The Drawings by Thomas Rowlandson in the Huntington Collection by Robert R. Wark (Huntington Library, 1975) is an interesting selection, still in print. Finally, for the escapades of Dr. Syntax — in search of the picturesque, consolation and a new wife — there is Thomas Rowlandson's Doctor Syntax Drawings: An Introduction and Guide for Collectors by Jerold J. Savory (Farleigh Dickenson University Press, 1997), in print but hard to get.