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Rowlandson at Masterpiece

24 May 2016

Thomas Rowlandson
1756–1827
The Coach Booking Office                                  
Watercolour
7 x 11 ½ inches; 178 x 292 mm
 

For Masterpiece London 2016 we have brought together a representative group of works by Rowlandson. The group includes drawings from across his career and works covering a multitude of diverse subjects, from savage satires and popular cartoons, to landscape drawings and furniture design.

During the run up to Masterpiece we will be looking at some of the drawings in detail but here we discuss Rowlandson’s critical reputation over the last century.

Writing shortly after the death of Thomas Rowlandson, his friend, Henry Angelo noted:

‘Everyone at all acquainted with the arts must well know the caricature works of that very eccentric genius: the extent of his talent, however, as a draughtsman is not so generally known… His powers indeed were so versatile, and his fancy so rich, that every species of composition flowed from his pen with equal facility.’

Since 1827 Rowlandson’s reputation as a draughtsman has gone through successive periods of neglect and revival. By the 1880s Rowlandson’s drawings were highly celebrated and much copied with interest in Rowlandson reaching a peak in 1927 with the Tate’s centenary exhibition. For collectors and writers such as Paul Oppé, Rowlandson represented the quintessence of eighteenth-century life, Oppé’s 1923 study was the first full-length assessment of Rowlandson’s work.

After neglect during the depression, the post-war period saw several collectors and curators drive a period of sustained interest in Rowlandson’s work. Amongst the most distinguished collectors was Gilbert Davis, part of whose collection was acquired en bloc by Robert Wark for the Huntington Library in San Marino. Wark was an incisive scholar of Rowlandson’s work, adding to the volumes of drawings which had been bought by the library’s founder, Henry Huntington and eventually publishing the collection in an important catalogue in 1974. It was during this period that Paul Mellon formed his great Rowlandson collection, now at the Yale Center for British Art, which was published by John Baskett and Dudley Snelgrove in 1977. Rowlandson even received important scholarly attention from Ronald Paulson, a pioneer of the New Art History, who in 1972, offered a broader contextual reading of Rowlandson’s subject matter. However, since the 1970s, there has been a gradual decline in scholarly interest in Rowlandson.

The most important Rowlandson exhibition in over a generation was organised by John Hayes in the US in 1990. When we organised ‘Beauty and the Beast’ in 2007, a loan exhibition of Rowlandson’s works from British private collections, it was the first serious show to have been devoted to Rowlandson in Britain for some thirty years. Despite recent, excellent exhibitions, including a significant show at the Royal Collection, the interest in Rowlandson remains intermittent. Flipping through the great catalogues produced by Wark, Baskett and Snelgrove and Hayes it is clear that Rowlandson is ripe for both serious scholarly investigation and a beautiful public exhibition.

Masterpiece London

The Royal Hospital Chelsea · Stand D18
Thursday 30 June 11:00 – 21:00
Friday 1 July 11:00 – 21:00
Saturday 2 July 11:00 – 18:00
Sunday 3 July 11:00 – 18:00
Monday 4 to Wednesday 6 July 11:00 – 21:00