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Thomas Rowlandson

1756 - 1827

Thomas Rowlandson was an English caricaturist and artist who was born on 14 July, 1756 and died on 22 April, 1827.

Rowlandson was born in Old Jewry (a street) in the City of London (a geographically small city at the centre of Greater London). He was a son of a wealthy businessman (probably either a tradesman or a merchant) and learnt to draw long before he could write. By the time he was ten he was spending all his free time drawing. After attending Eton College, near Windsor, he went on to study at the Royal Academy of Arts, London.

At the age of sixteen, Rowlandson traveled to France where he spent two years studying at a Parisian drawing school. In 1777 he opened a studio in Wardour Street, London, where he established himself as a portrait painter. He is also known to have traveled a great deal around Europe where he enriched his portfolios by drawing pictures of his experiences. It was around this time that he became friends with James Gillray, the leading caricaturist in London. He had all the qualities of an up-and-coming painter and it is argued that he would have attained even greater acclaim than he did as an artist, had he not developed a gambling addiction after inheriting seven thousand pounds from a wealthy aunt.

Having lost all his wealth to gambling, Rowlandson was forced to pay off his debts through taking up caricature. By the 1780s he was painting far fewer portraits. His drawings and caricatures were published in journals such as the 'English Review' and 'The Poetical Magazine'. He also took up illustrating books, including some of the works of Henry Fielding, Oliver Goldsmith and Lawrence Stern. Rowlandson also worked with Tobias George Smollet, whose radical books led to him being sent to prison for libel. His political cartoons were also frequently criticized.

Rowlandson's work is known to have included a personification of the United Kingdom called 'John Bull' who was developed from about 1790 in conjunction with other British satirical artists. In 1808 he began working for Rudolph Ackerman, a talented lithographer, who had begun publishing a series of colour-plate books. This included a three-volume work entitled 'The Microcosm of London' published between 1808 and 1811. The first two volumes were authored by William Pyne while the third was authored by William Combe. The work was illustrated with 104 hand-coloured aquatint plates. Although Augustus Pugin supplied the drawings of the buildings, it was Rowlandson's job to paint the people in and around them.

Rowlandson's designs were usually done in outline with the reed-pen, and delicately washed with colour. They were then etched by the artist onto the copper, and afterwards aquatinted (usually by a professional engraver). The impressions would then be coloured by hand.

Thomas Rowlandson was not unlike John Mitford, whose Johnny Newcome in the Navy he illustrated. One of the most successful caricaturists and book illustrators of his day, the quality of his work dropped off as he grew older due to drink, gambling, and sheer laziness. Early in his career, Rowlandson illustrated editions of many of the great classics of eighteenth century fiction, including Fielding's 'Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews', Smollett's 'Humphrey Clinker', and Goldsmith's 'The Vicar of Wakefield'. He was also known for his work on the 'Doctor Syntax' adventures by William Combe, for which many nineteenth century reprints exist. He was extensively imitated, attesting to his fame. Many books are available on his work. An extensive biography by Bernard Falk, 'Thomas Rowlandson: His Life and Art', gives a full account of his life and career.