Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827)
Rowlandson was born in July 1756 in Old Jewry, in the City of London. His father, William, had been a weaver, but had moved into trading supplies for the textile industry and after overextending himself was declared bankrupt in 1759. Life became difficult for him in London and, in late 1759, he moved his family to Richmond, North Yorkshire. Thomas' uncle James died in 1764, and his widow Jane probably provided both the funds and accommodation which allowed Thomas to attend school in London.
Rowlandson was educated at the school of Dr Barvis in Soho Square, then "an academy of some celebrity," where one of his classmates was Richard Burke, son of the politician Edmund Burke. As a schoolboy, Rowlandson "drew humourous characters of his master and many of his scholars before he was ten years old," covering the margins of his schoolbooks with his artwork.
In 1765 or 1766 he started at the Soho Academy. There is no documentary evidence that Rowlandson took drawing classes at the mainly business-oriented school, but it seems likely, as on leaving school in 1772, he became a student at the Royal Academy. According to his obituary of 22 April 1827 in The Gentlemen's Magazine, Rowlandson was sent to Paris at the age of 16 (1772), and spent two years studying in a "drawing academy." there. In Paris he studied drawing "the human figure" and continued developing his youthful skill in caricature. It was on his return to London that he took classes at the Royal Academy, then based at Somerset House.
Rowlandson spent six years studying at the Royal Academy, but about a third of this time was spent in Paris where he may have studied under Jean-Baptiste Pigalle. He later made frequent tours to the Continent, enriching his portfolios with numerous sketches of life and character. In 1775 he exhibited a drawing of Dalilah Payeth Sampson a Visit while in Prison at Gaza at the Royal Academy and two years later received a silver medal for a bas-relief figure. He was spoken of as a promising student; had he continued his early application he would have made his mark as a painter. On the death of his aunt, he inherited £7,000 with which he plunged into the dissipations of the town and was known to sit at the gaming-table for 36 hours at a stretch.
Discomforts of an Epicure, a self-portrait from 1787, showed that he could aim his caricatures at himself
In time poverty overtook him; and the friendship and examples of James Gillray and Henry William Bunbury seem to have suggested caricature as a means of earning a living. His drawing of Vauxhall, shown in the Royal Academy exhibition of 1784, had been engraved by Pollard, and the print was a success. Rowlandson was largely employed by Rudolph Ackermann, the art publisher, who in 1809—issued in his Poetical Magazine The Schoolmaster’s Tour—a series of plates with illustrative verses by Dr. William Combe. They were the most popular of the artist’s works. Again engraved by Rowlandson himself in 1812, and issued under the title of the Tour of Dr Syntax in Search of the Picturesque, they had attained a fifth edition by 1813, and were followed in 1820 by Dr Syntax in Search of Consolation, and in 1821 by the Third Tour of Dr Syntax in Search of a Wife. He also produced a body of erotic prints and woodcuts.
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