High Spirits: The Comic Art of Thomas Rowlandson

Picture: Jane Barlow
Picture: Jane Barlow
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Political and topical ‘cartoons’ are ever popular, and an exhibition of Thomas Rowlandson’s caricatures shows why, says Duncan Macmillan

Caricature is as old as art, but for a couple of centuries it has had a specially vigorous tradition in this country. Think of artists like Gerald Scarfe or Steve Bell, or the gentler, social observation of Giles, creator of Grandma Giles, or, closer to home, of Dudley D Watkins, creator of The Broons and Oor Wullie.

This British tradition began with Hogarth. The novelist Henry Fielding was a close friend and distinguished his comic art, and thus his own comic novels, from caricature. “For sure it is much easier to paint a man with a nose of preposterous size than to express the affections of men on canvas.” Rejection of caricature did not diminish the power of satire, however. Far from it. Hogarth’s satire is enduring because his observation is so precise. Being natural, it holds up a mirror to human folly. Nor was it just Fielding who followed him. Dickens’s novels are full of memories of Hogarth.

Hogarth also pioneered the popular print. Creating a market for his own works, he appealed directly to the public. He even promoted an Act of Parliament to protect an artist’s copyright in the same way as an author’s. Thus he created the conditions for a vast industry of satirical prints in the late 18th century.

Sometimes they are little better than printed graffiti, but there were also outstanding artists working in this vigorous, topical and sometimes disreputable market. James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson stand out. Of the two, Gillray is the more surreal and so perhaps closer to Fielding’s definition of caricature. If Rowlandson, the subject of an exhibition in the Queen’s Gallery at Holyrood, is also a caricaturist, his caricature is nevertheless tempered with Hogarth’s naturalism. He was a master of the comedy of social observation, though equally of the barbed political satire.

Rowlandson was a brilliant draughtsman. Often responding to events day by day, he used etching for his prints. Unlike the slow labour of engraving, etching is almost as quick as drawing and preserves the fluency of his hand. Indeed, at first sight, prints and drawings are sometimes indistinguishable.

Brought up on the edge of penury, thanks to the charity of an aunt, Rowlandson had a proper artistic training. This shows in his skill, but his training also meant he was familiar with the great art of the past and he could compose like an old master. In one, the English Review, for instance, the main interest is not the military review in the title. It is relegated to the distance. The real subject is in the foreground where a runaway horse has brought anarchy among the spectators. The tumbled pile of people, horses and dogs is composed with all the skill of a baroque ceiling painter, but combined with a rich sense of the comic. Reflecting his training in classical art, too, his visual jokes often hinge on the contrast between classical beauty, representing youth, and the grotesque representing age.

A Couple of Antiques or My Aunt and My Uncle is a good example. In an elegant Georgian interior, an elderly fright of a woman is sitting in front of her looking glass being beautified by her maid. It is an uphill job. Ancestor to Grandma Giles, the old woman has bristles on her chin and coming out of her nose. Her head is shaved in preparation for a fashionable wig which her maid is putting on her. The maid herself, in contrast to her mistress, is young and classically pretty. In the nature of youth she is being distracted from behind by the sly embrace of an amorous footman. Meanwhile, in a pun on the antiques in the title, the woman’s husband, ignoring the domestic disorder, peers into a cupboard containing his precious collection of antiquities. A dog and cat, impervious to human folly, enjoy their position by the fire.

In The Unwelcome Visitor, another pretty girl confronts a crabbed old man with her manifest pregnancy. His consternation at his sins returned to haunt him is pitiful, but the real – and eligibly young – father peeps conspiratorially round the door. There is more innuendo, too, in A New Cock Wanted. A handsome plumber distracts a pretty young wife with his plumbing skills and suggestive equipment while her crabbed, elderly husband approaches looking very suspicious.

Rowlandson had quite a line in this sort of suggestive, but often more explicit imagery, but this is one of the few risqué prints in the show. George IV liked his erotic prints and collected them. Queen Victoria didn’t. She wrote about “the many very improper and indecent prints entirely collected – there were quantities of the most obscene character – by George IV!” They were purged. Apparently her present successor has similar views.

Nevertheless the Royal Collection still has very rich holdings, all the more surprising too as it is an art form in which royalty was frequently treated with very little respect. (It is still very rich, even although 10,000 prints were sold to the Library of Congress in the 1920s.) This was evidently a love-hate relationship. George IV was very sensitive about his image, but his daughter, Princess Charlotte, wrote with a frisson of naughtiness about “these infamous prints” at which she only got “one little peep”. One problem that the pilloried dignitaries faced was that although journalists could be prosecuted for libel and sedition, it proved more difficult to pin down crime in a picture.

The political and more simply topical prints sometimes take more interpretation, but much is familiar too. The struggles for power of Pitt and Fox have echoes in today’s adversarial politics. Indeed Pitt and Fox seem interchangeable with Cameron and Miliband. There is something very topical in the Word Eater, for instance, a picture of Fox at the Dispatch Box with the legend, “The Word Eater… just arrived from the Continent eats single words and evacuates them so as to have a contrary meaning.”

Some of the best images relate to a scandal about the king’s second son, the Duke of York. He was a soldier (as in the nursery rhyme) and his mistress, Mrs Clarke, had been selling commissions in the army. In one striking image, she is a vigorous figure in flimsy and revealing garments sitting astride a very phallic cannon and hammering a large spike into its breach. He wails in despair, “Alas! Alas! forever ruined and undone/See, see, she has spiked my great gun.”

Rowlandson cheerfully served both sides and the French Wars, the madness of George III and the attempts of his son to take over as Regent were all good subjects for his satire. He would no doubt have had fun with Alex Salmond and the referendum, too, for he also had the Scots in his sights. The Learned Scotsman or the Magistrate’s Mistake shows a kilted Scotsman bowing obsequiously to a fat English magistrate with a gouty foot, ear-trumpet and ill-favoured wife. After the brilliant drawing, the joke is in the verbal exchange in speech balloons. The Scotsman admits to being inebriated, but being both learned and drunk, he quotes Latin in self-justification.

The combination of his accent and the poverty of the magistrate’s Latin leads to confusion too elaborate to detail here, but prompting the response from the magistrate “What’s that you say, fellow, about whores in a saw-pit? A very improper place to go with such company.” It is a nice vignette of absolute mutual incomprehension between northern and southern Britons.

• High Spirits: The Comic Art of Thomas Rowlandson, Queen’s Gallery, Edinburgh, until 2 March.