Last chance to see Rowlandson at the Holburne

Olivia Horsfall Turner writes why you shouldn’t miss the last chance to see High Spirits: The Comic Art of Thomas Rowlandson, an exhibition from the Royal Collection at Bath’s Holburne Museum.

Queen Victoria’s pronouncement, ‘We are not amused’, is probably apocryphal and reveals more about perceptions of her sense of humour than the reality. Was it so difficult to tickle the royal funny bone? The Thomas Rowlandson prints and sketches from the Royal Collection currently on display at the Holburne Museum in Bath suggest not. They provide a fascinating insight into not only the artistry of one of the most skilled observational humorists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but also the comic sensibilities of three generations of royal print collectors.

Born in 1756, Thomas Rowlandson studied at the Royal Academy Schools and in Paris before establishing himself as a satirical printmaker from 1778. Alongside James Gillray and George Cruikshank he became one of the triumvirate ruling over the golden age of British political satire. His burin cut into politics and society, from the Royal Family themselves to the street-sellers of London, but not with such cruelty as that of Gillray; Rowlandson’s characters are fondly observed and rarely grotesque to the point of revulsion. His topographical studies, some of which are included in the exhibition, are quiet and tender, expressed in a fluid, rounded line and he has the ability to evoke not merely a figure but an entire personality from a few strokes.

George III collected satires and even sent impressions to the University of Guttingen, founded by his grandfather. George, Prince of Wales (later Prince Regent and then George IV) had an insatiable appetite for them, as well as attempting to suppress their publication when they threatened his authority. He amassed one of the largest contemporary collections in the country and was one of Gillray’s major clients. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert continued to acquire. The bulk of the Royal hoard, including most of Gillray’s output, was sold off in 1921, but perhaps on account of their less excoriating tone, over 1000 prints and drawings by Rowlandson were retained.

Thanks to their confinement within albums, many of the Royal Collection Rowlandsons are as vivid as the day they were coloured. Surprisingly, as well as their visual brightness, the jokes are fresh too. Fashions may have changed over two centuries but the characters are much the same: the pompous lawyer, the grasping banker, the buxom beauty, the predictable cuckold. Many of these are shown at The Holburne in a dense hang, evoking the display of a print shop window to which even those who were the butt of the joke flocked.

Exhibiting caricatures is not without its challenges. Visual jokes that depend on stereotypes are straightforward enough, but for much political humour, although context is key, wit is spoiled by a laboured explanation. With the history curriculum notoriously encompassing only Henry VIII and Hitler, one cannot expect that every visitor will be familiar with the finer points of the 1784 election or the Regency crisis of 1788, even if seeing these images may make them wish that they were. Fortunately, Kate Heard, Senior Curator of the Royal Collection, has supplied just enough explanatory text to make the images comprehensible. In turn, the vivid representations make the bare facts much more memorable. In what other medium could a debate on the balance of constitutional power make one chuckle? The exhibition should be required viewing for teachers and students of history and politics, media and marketing.

Prints also suffer from a public relations problem. They are often seen as the dull cousin to paintings, slightly tainted by the indignity of reproduction. This notion is firmly dispelled by the exhibition’s pièce de résistance: a spectacular folding screen from c. 1806, decorated with prints and probably acquired from the printseller S. W. Fores of Piccadilly for use at Sandringham. Here, characters and caricatures by Rowlandson and others leap from their pages. Cut out, they caper and posture, creating a paper riot and showing the power of the print in the wild rather than in captivity.

The exhibition has previously been at Holyroodhouse and will progress to the Queen’s Gallery, London in 2015. While it is at Bath, specially selected items relating to the city have been added to the display. Worth particular mention is the complete set of The Comforts of Bath (1798). Twelve uncoloured prints show vignettes of spa life: hopeful hypochondriacs take the waters, corrupt bodies overindulge in food and sex, and young love is kindled.

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue, lavishly illustrated with full-colour, full-page reproductions of images from the Royal Collection and other major repositories. Introductory essays by Kate Heard explore first Rowlandson’s career then the formation of the Royal Collection, and catalogue entries allow for detailed discussion of each print. Heard offers an engaging overview, from Rowlandson’s classical training at the Royal Academy and the influence of John Hamilton Mortimer, to the legacy of William Hogarth and the landscape of print-publishing in late eighteenth-century London. She also discusses Rowlandson’s topographical work and the regrettable loss of George IV’s collection of Rowlandson’s pornographic prints, described by Queen Victoria as ‘improper and indecent…dreadfully obscene’ and promptly destroyed.

Rowlandson’s satire was at the expense of all. Though he produced scathing critiques of the Prince Regent, he also took the Prince’s pence and engraved propaganda defending his actions. No-one escaped Rowlandson’s acute and witty analysis of the human condition. In one print he juxtaposed Doctor Convex and Lady Concave with their eponymous physiques. Below is an inscription quoting the Elizabethan courtier, Fulke Greville: ‘Man is the only creature endowed with the power of laughter, is he not also the only one that deserves to be laughed at?’ Taking a draught of High Spirits, distilled by royal command, will leave you convinced of it.

Olivia Horsfall Turner is an historian, writer and broadcaster who is Curator of Designs at the V&A