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.
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. 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.
Back in London 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.
In 1783 Rowlandson drew 'Two New Sliders For The State Magic Lanthern', 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' (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.
Some of Rowlandson's later work is also interesting for comics historians. His 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.
Two other interesting pieces of sequential art 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 showes a boxer's face gradually being hit into a bloody pulp.
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.
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 comics 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 comics artist in history: Rodolphe Töpffer.
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 tintillating, others more farcical.
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. Among the many cartoonists who took inspiration from Rowlandson's work are Rodolphe Töpffer, Johan Tobias Sergel, Arnold Roth and Ronald Searle.