'The Adventures of Johnny Newcome in the Navy'.

Thomas Rowlandson was one of the best known 18th-century British caricaturists and cartoonists. His crass and grotesque drawings all seemed to be a summarization of the caption he wrote under his 1802 cartoon 'Doctor Convex and Lady Concave', which went: "Man is the only creature endowed with the power of laughter, is he not also the only one that deserves to be laughed at?" Apart from cartooning he was also a prolific painter and also a noted provider of erotic art. The man holds historic importance for creating two prototypical comic strips: 'Two New Sliders For The State Magic Lanthern' (1783) and 'The Loves of the Fox and the Badger, or the Coalition Wedding' (1784). Several of his thousands of cartoons also make use of caricature, speech balloons, slapstick and sequential drawings. His illustrations to John Mitford's 'Johnny Newcome' (1818) are notable for following one recurring character throughout an entire narrative. His drawings for William Combe’s 'Dr. Syntax' trilogy (1812-1821) could be compared with a modern-day comics series built around the same protagonist. 'Dr Syntax' is even the first example of a comic character being used in merchandising.

Early life and career
Born in London in 1757, Rowlandson's father was a weaver who worked in the textile trade. When Rowlandson was two years old his father went bankrupt. With financial aid from his uncle and aunt he was able to get a good education at the Soho Academy. He studied there between 1765 and 1772. His schoolbooks were full with caricatures depicting his teachers. Among his artistic influences were Peter Paul Rubens and Thomas Gainsborough in the field of painting and James Gillray, William Heath and Giovanni della Porta in the field of caricature. At the age of 16 Rowlandson left for Paris, where he spent two years (recent sources like Stephen Wade's 'Rowlandson's Human Comedy' (2009) have narrowed this often repeated "fact" down to a mere few weeks) studying arts at a local academy.


'Doctor Convex and Lady Concave'.

Caricaturing
Back in London, in 1772, he spent six years at the Royal Academy. In 1777 he opened a studio in Wardour Street and became active as a portrait painter. After the death of his aunt in 1789 it became more difficult to keep financially stable, especially after he spent most of her inheritage on gambling. It was then that he decided to make caricaturing his profession. Rowlandson made many satirical cartoons, mocking fashions, gambling, alcoholics, sex, politicians and even British royals. His work was published in magazines such as The English Spy, English Review, The Poetical Magazine and The Humorist, often aquatinted on copper plate. His art publisher was Rudolph Ackermann. 


'Two New Sliders For The State Magic Lantern' (1783).

Prototypical comics combining speech balloons and panels
Thomas Rowlandson made a huge amount of cartoons which use speech balloons and/or sequential illustrated narratives. In some cases he combined the two. 'Two New Sliders For The State Magic Lanthern' (29 December 1783) is a satirical take on the coalition government of Lord Fox and Charles James North, presented as a series of sides to be projected from a magic lantern. The work is notable because it depicts a narrative told in ten sequences clearly separated by frames. The entire story takes up two strips. Each scene has a description written underneath it. We also see anthropomorphism at play, since Lord Fox is depicted as an actual fox. Rowlandson made another comic strip-like cartoon about the two politicians, namely 'The Loves of the Fox and the Badger, or the Coalition Wedding' (7 January 1784). It depicts them as a fox (Lord Fox) and a badger (North) who are wed in matrimony by Satan. The entire story is told in nine separate frames, divided over two strips. Much like the previous work descriptive sentences can be found underneath the images, but we can also see the characters use speech balloons. In the second and third image above there is even a primitive suggestion of thinking balloons, to indicate that the protagonists each have a dream.

Rowlandson's cartoon 'Blue and Buf Loyalty' (1788) mocks politician Richard Brinsley Sheridan and king George III's personal doctor Willis and their opposite reactions to the monarch's declining health. To indicate a passing of time the word 'Sunday' is written in the left corner, while in the right corner the word 'Saturday' is written. Rather than frame these time sequences by separating the images both men are shown standing next to each other, giving them the confusing appearance of being four different men, instead of the same two men depicted twice. Both express their emotions in speech balloons, as does the off screen announcer who informs them about the king's mental state. In 'Reform Advised, Reform Begun, Reform Complete' (8 January 1793), a three-panel comic strip shows how the British national personification agrees to give a group of rebels reforms, only to be trampled by them afterwards. Their dialogue is depicted in speech balloons. The work is a fierce criticism of the ideals of the French Revolution, with John Bull exclaiming: "O-h-oh French fraternity." 

'This Is The House In Gloucester Place', printed on 26 May 1809, is another interesting prototypical comic strip. It explains all the key people in a political scandal that broke out that same year. Mary Anne Clarke, the mistress of Frederick, Duke of York, was known for her decadent lifestyle. In their luxurious home in Gloucester House she soon needed extra money. In full knowledge she could convince her lover, she accepted large sums from military officers. However, this was technically bribery. When the scandal broke out it brought the Duke under direct investigation of a special committee. It didn't help matters much that Mary Anne published a book, 'The Rival Princes', in which she freely discussed her motivations and accused the people who had leaked the scandal, namely Wardle (Member of Parliament for Salisbury) and Lord Folkestone. They sued her for libel, but lost their case. When she threatened to publish her written correspondence with the Duke, Sir Herbert Taylor bribed her and destroyed all evidence, except for one copy. Meanwhile the Duke was acquitted, but his reputation was so tarnished that he was still forced to resign as commander-in-chief. He instantly broke off his relationship with Mary Anne. She was later sued for libel, based on what she wrote in another book, 'A Letter to the Right Hon. William Fitzgerald'. 

Rowlandson starts off his comic strip with a shot of Gloucester House, where the Duke and Mary Anne resided. Then he introduces everybody and everything involved with the scandal by depicting them in a panel, with lengthy explanations above and below the images. First Mary Anne, then the bishop, the letters between her and the bishop,  Wardle who seized the letters, Lord Folkstone, Francis Burdett, Dodor O'Meara, Dowler, the volumes about the lives of Mary, the printer and the bonfire that burnt the evidence. The entire comic strip is so long that it Rowlandson uses two pages. 

The Loves of the Fox and the Badger (1784)
'The Loves of the Fox and the Badger' (1784).

One-panel cartoons using speech balloons
Although Rowlandson drew sequential illustrated narratives with speech balloons earlier in his career, he rarely combined the two again. But he did use speech balloons in numerous one-panel cartoons. In  'Sir Jeffery Dunstan Presenting an Address from the Corporation of Garratt', printed on 30 December 1788, politician Jeffery Dunstan visits George III at court. In 'Neddy's Black Box' , printed on 30 January 1789, writer Edmund Burke and politician Richard Brinsley Sheridan offer the Prince of Wales, the head of Charles I in a treasury box 'The Irish Ambassadors Extraordinary, A Gallante Show' (7 March 1789) all chatter excessively. The cartoon 'Philosophy Run Mad or a Stupendous Monument of Human Wisdom' (29 May 1792) satirizes the French Revolution as a violent tyranny. 'John Bull's Turnpike Gate' (23 April 1805), features national British personification John Bull refusing the pope entrance. In 'St. Valentine's Day or John Bull intercepting a Letter to his Wife' (23 February 1809) John Bull is discussing a letter with his wife.  Erotic innuendo can be found in 'The Bishop And His Clarke, or A Peep Into Paradise' (26 February 1809), in which a bishop is beneath the sheets with Mary Anne Clarke, the mistress of Frederick, the Duke of York. That year scandal had broken out when it was revealed that she had sold army commissions, with the Duke's knowledge. She appears in two other one-panel cartoons with speech balloons that same year, namely 'The Triumvirate of Gloucester Place, or the Clarke, the Soldier and the Taylor' (7 March 1809) and 'Mrs. Clarke's Farewell To Her Audience' (1 April 1809). In 'A Parliamentary Toast' (2 March 1809) parliamentarians bring a toast behind a dinner table.  'A Visit To The Synagogue' (28 April 1809) is an one-panel cartoon in which a group of men with heads shaped like food products visit a synagogue. The rabbit uses a speech balloon to welcome them. 

All speech balloons are drawn as literal balloons. However, the one-panel cartoon 'Fancy' (20 July 1801) features a man fancying a woman. Their dialogue simply floats above their heads. 

Six Stages of Mending A Face

Sequential illustrations in pantomime, or with text underneath the images
Rowlandson made numerous sequential illustrations which lacked dialogue too. In some cases the text is simply written underneath the images. 'An Essay on the Sublime and Beautiful: The Maiden Speech' (1 October 1785) is a two-part cartoon in which a cobbler is seen speeching in the first panel, while a new member of the House Commons does the same in the second panel. 'Nap in the Country, Nap in Town' (1785) uses two panels to show the contrast between a couple taking a rest in the idyllic countryside and another sleeping at home on a sofa. A similar contrast cartoon is 'The New Speaker and the Wedding Night' (7 February 1789), in which a man addresses a hall in parliament, while in the second panel he prepares for his wedding night with an ugly woman, which takes a lot more courage. 'Comedy Spectators, Tragedy Spectators' (8 October 1789) contrasts ordinary people laughing at a comedy, while other, more sophisticated theatregoers weep with a tragedy. A similar cartoon was printed on 29 May 1807, albeit with a different title: 'Comedy in the Country, Tragedy in London'. 

Rowlandson's 'Different Sensations' series, published on 22 October 1789, is a collection of four one-panel cartoons depicting an obese man preparing, waiting, eating and relaxing around dinnertime. All four cartoons form a thematical connection, told chronologically. 'Single and Married', printed on 1 December 1791, shows a woman yearning for a husband in the first panel, while she carresses a baby in the second. 'Modish and Prudish', released on the same day, shows the difference between a modish and a prudish woman. More female differences are addressed in his etch 'St. James's and St. Giles's' (1792), where beautiful women apparently hail from the first location and ugly ones from the second. 'The Contrast' (December 1792) visualizes the difference between 'British Liberty' and 'French Liberty'. Lady Britannia is seen in the left circle and has nothing but virtues written underneath the image. Marianne is portrayed in the right circle as an old hag, with nothing but bad things underneath. The propaganda cartoon asks readers: 'Which is best?', in a clear attempt to condemn the French Revolution and its aftermath. 

Two interesting pieces are 'Six Stages Of Mending A Face' and 'Six Stages Of Marring A Face' (both from 1794). The first work ridicules a woman deconstructing her face with make-up and fashions in six sequences. Rowlandson proved he was an equal opportunity offender with the second cartoon, which shows a boxer's face gradually being hit into a bloody pulp. 'Salt Water and Fresh Water', printed on 25 March 1800, is a two-panel illustration which contrasts an old, plump woman take a bath at the beach and an obese man being shrubbed in a bath tub. 'A Brace of Public Guardians' (10 July 1800) depicts a judge who fails to see that somebody is bribing a lawyer in plain sight. In the right panel a night watchman also doesn't notice a burglary and an officer embracing a woman in a sentry box. 

On 12 October 1801 he released 'John Bull in the Year 1800! John Bull in the Year 1801!' (1801), a two-panel sequential cartoon which shows the national personification John Bull in two situations. In the first panel, set in 1800, he is at war and sits on a chair in military uniform. In the second panel, set in 1801, peace has returned, which motivates him to play the fiddle. 'At Home and A Broad / Abroad And At Home', printed on 28 February 1807, is another two-panel cartoon. The first image shows an unhappy man at home with an ugly, obese attractive woman, or "a broad" in British slang. In the second image the same man lies on the couch with an attractive woman, abroad in her home. 'The Captain's Account Current of Charge and Discharge' (3 February 1807), shows how an army captain goes to battle and quickly leaves it again afterwards. 

A similar contrast sequence is 'The Huntsman Rising: The Gamester Going To Bed' (1809). In the first panel we see how a happy huntsman rises in the morning with the prospect of a good hunt. In the second panel a gambling addict is visibly angry that he's lost so much money in one night. Yet he still decides to continue instead of quitting and going to sleep.  'Mock Turtle, Puff Taste' (20 November 1810) shows a couple tongueing over a bowl in the first panel, while another pair are rolling dough in the second panel. Both men and women are depicted as ugly caricatures. 

In 1811 Rowlandson drew an overview of all characters from William Shakespeare's play 'Twelfth Night', with their names written above each image, and a description underneath. Presented as a series of six panels each, in four rows, it gives the drawing a veritable comic strip appearance. 'Glow Worms, Muck Worms' (1812) shows the contrast between a group of happy people partying and a bunch of old, grumpy people bickering by using two different sequences, divided in panels. 

Six Stages Of Marring A Face

Dr. Syntax
His illustrations for William Combe's 'The Tour of Dr. Syntax in Search of the Picturesque' (1812), David Roberts' 'The Military Adventures of Johnny Newcome, with an account of his campaign on the Peninsula and in Pall Mall and notes, by an officer' (1815) and John Mitford's 'The Adventures of Johnny Newcome in the Navy' (1818) all follow one central character throughout a series of humorous sequences. Yet here text and images are separate entities. One has to read the books to understand what is going on in the scenes. Even the descriptions beneath consist of just one sentence.


'The Military Adventures of Johnny Newcome', with an account of his campaign on the Peninsula and in Pall Mall and notes, by an officer.

Still 'Dr. Syntax' in particular is important because Rowlandson re-used him in two sequel books, 'Dr. Syntax in Search of Consolation' (1820) and 'Third Tour of Dr. Syntax in Search of a Wife' (1821), much like a character in a present-day comics series. 'Dr. Syntax' was also the first comic character to be merchandized. William Hogarth had experienced something similar almost a century earlier when his picture-story 'A Harlot's Progress' (1731) was popular enough to inspire plays, operas, pamhlets and poems. But Rowlandson's 'Dr. Syntax' was not merely adapted: hats, coats, mugs, puppets, tops, crockery and wigs were based on him. He was also the first character to have his adventures translated in other languages (Danish, German, French). And last but not least Dr. Syntax was also an important influence on the first actual comic artist in history: Rodolphe Töpffer.

Dr Syntax by Thomas Rowlandson
'The Tour of Dr. Syntax in Search of the Picturesque'.

Book illustrations
Rowlandson was also active as an illustrator for novelists such as Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, Oliver Goldsmith and Tobias Smollett. He made several water paintings and engravings which depicted idyllic and rustic scenes of nature. Between 1808 and 1811 he co-illustrated the book 'The Microcosm of London', supplying the people in the drawings, while Augustus Pugin did the backgrounds. Rowlandson also lives on in history as an infamous provider of erotic images, some titillating, others more farcical.


'Filial Piety' (1788).

Final years and death
Saying that he was a productive artist is an understatement. Throughout his career he made over 10,000 (!) drawings and prints, yet not out of artistic pretenses. Rowlandson was a passionate gambler and made most of his drawings to pay off his debts. Because he needed the money so fast he worked quick, which gave some of his work a rushed-out appearance. To save time he sometimes recycled older designs. In his craving for cash Rowlandson didn't care much about who paid him either. He lampooned Prince George (the later George IV) and his mistress mercilessly, even going so far to make a cartoon, 'Filial Piety' (1788), in which king George III lies on his death bed, while the young prince happily walks in to check whether he's dead yet? Yet when the prince asked him to draw some cartoons that painted him in a better light, Rowlandson obeyed and just accepted the payment. Thomas Rowlandson died on 22 April 1827 after an illness.

Legacy and influence
Thomas Rowlandson was a strong influence on artists like Rodolphe Töpffer, Johan Tobias Sergel, Edward Williams Clay, Arnold RothOscar de WitRoger Law and Ronald Searle.

A French Dentist Shewing a Specimen of his Artificial Teeth and False Palates, 1811
'A French Dentist Shewing a Specimen of his Artificial Teeth and False Palates' (26 February 1811).

Series and books by Thomas Rowlandson in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:

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