Review: Amanda Lahikainen on Thomas Rowlandson

Posted in books, exhibitions, reviews by Editor on March 29, 2011

The Rowlandson exhibition opens next week at The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College (8 April — 11 June 2011). And so in a timely manner, Amanda Lahikainen here inaugurates a new feature of Enfilade, original reviews. They won’t become a major feature of the site anytime soon, but there are a few more on the way.

Patricia Phagan, Vic Gatrell, and Amelia Rauser, Thomas Rowlandson: Pleasures and Pursuits in Georgian England (London: D. Giles Limited, 2011), 184 pages, ISBN: 9781904832782.

Reviewed for Enfilade by Amanda Lahikainen

The lens of social life and social mixing frames the exhibition and accompanying catalogue, Thomas Rowlandson: Pleasure and the Pursuits in Georgian England. It’s a concept that Rowlandson himself might have chosen for such an exhibition of his own work. The show and catalogue stress the importance of broad historical contextualization, with an emphasis on pleasure and socialization in England during Rowlandson’s life (1757-1857). Edited by the exhibition’s curator, Patricia Phagan, the catalogue divides Rowlandson’s prints into six categories, each with an introductory essay, including images of street life and scenes from the theater. The color photographs are generously sized, and the entries aid readers both in deciphering the social and political references within the satires and in contextualizing the prints within the market for satire more generally. Entry #9, for instance, includes a caricature by the cotemporary satirist James Gillray for comparison, and entry #27 allows us to compare Rowlandson’s print The Brilliants to its likely predecessor, A Midnight Modern Conversation by William Hogarth. Readers find detailed information about Rowlandson’s life and the placement of his work within Britain’s hierarchy of genres. Also included is discussion of his pornographic subject matter and boisterous tavern scenes so important for an artist who relished whimsical and grotesque vignettes from common life. Fortunately, the catalog offers multiple points of engagement between “high art” and “low art,” thereby problematizing facile distinctions that have long plagued scholarly assessments of Rowlandson.

Especially valuable for British art studies are the two essays by Vic Gatrell, a historian, and Amelia Rauser, an art historian. Both scholars have recently published important books on graphic satire, in 2006 and 2008 respectively, and they usefully approach Rowlandson’s art from different perspectives. Gatrell lays bare the complex network of print makers and artists that defined Rowlandson’s world and visualizes this history using a detailed topographical map of Covent Garden and the Strand, an area of London which he describes as the “emotional heartland and a chief source” of Rowlandson’s comic vision. Toward the end of the essay, he tackles the critical reception of Rowlandson; this section is well worth reading even as an abstract meditation on the values that often guide our judgments of prints, including anxieties about reproduction and the pitfalls of strict subject categories.

Rauser’s essay asks us to look closely at Rowlandson’s prints and acknowledge that his work often simultaneously captivates and repulses. She gives a compelling answer to the question of what makes Rowlandson’s satire distinctive. Starting from the observation that Rowlandson’s art is amoral, she identifies his “commitment to embodiedness” and bemused “ironic detachment” as exceptional strengths. Her point is a good one: Rowlandson deflates his subjects by relentlessly reminding his viewers that they inhabit a body bound by the laws of nature and desire. Whether or not we follow Rauser in thinking of Rowlandson’s unrelenting interest in the human body as a product of Romanticism or Gatrell in thinking of Rowlandson’s humorous and grotesque bodies as responses to the growing wealth of the middle-class print buyers, we can agree that Rowlandson handles the human form to great effect. It is perhaps because of his disregard for didactic messages that he so successfully demonstrates the absurdity of social norms, especially deflating the rich and powerful along the way.

Amanda Lahikainen, a Ph.D. candidate at Brown University, is finishing her dissertation on the representation of abstract ideas in British graphic satire during the French Revolution. She has an article forthcoming in Print Quarterly and is currently working towards writing a book on the embodiment of debt in satire over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.