Thomas Rowlandson

by George Henry Harlow, pencil heightened with red chalk, 1814; National Portrait Gallery
by George Henry Harlow, pencil heightened with red chalk, 1814; National Portrait Gallery

Born: London, 1756/57

Died: London, 1827

Known for: Vauxhall Gardens (1785), The Microcosm of London(1808-1810); The Three Tours of Doctor Syntax; The English Dance of Death (1815-1816)

Although primarily known as the ‘inventor of Dr. Syntax” (William Bates 1869), Thomas Rowlandson had a prolific career as one of the most collected artists of his day. Collectors included the Prince of Wales, Lord Byron, the Dukes of Gordon and Hamilton, and Francis Rimbault.1While he is primarily recognized as a caricaturist and satirist, Rowlandson was trained as a painter, and many critics in the nineteenth-century praised his understanding of the human form.²

Rowlandson was born in London, either in July 1756 or 1757. When his father, a wool and silk merchant, struggled with debt, Rowlandson and his sister were cared for by their Uncle. At sixteen, he was admitted to the Royal Academy, which he would attend between 1772 and 1777. During his time at the Royal Academy, Rowlandson began to produce drawings. According to his obituary, he lived in Paris between 1772 and 1773, and after finishing at the Royal academy, he continued his travels through France and Italy. He held exhibits at the Royal Academy between 1778 and 1781 of his watercolor portraits.

1784 was a critical year for Rowlandson. He produced two of his major pieces—Vauxhall Gardens and the The Serpentine River. He also began work as a political caricaturist. In 1789, he inherited a small fortune from his aunt, but he may have squandered it through his gambling habit.3 Rowlandson became known for his political caricatures, such as The Covent Garden Night Mare (1784), A Touch on the Times (1788), and the Breaking Up of the Blue Stocking Club (1815). He also made a number of comedic erotic prints, including Bucks of the First Head (1784), Gratification of the Senses (1800), and After Sweet Meat comes Sour Sauce (1810).

The Picturesque was coming into vogue in the late eighteenth century, and aquatint was quickly providing a cheap way to mass-produce images for books, flooding the market with travel narratives illustrated with reproduced sketches and water-color drawings.4 Rowlandson was the creator of Doctor Syntax, although his friend, John Bannister, claimed at least some credit in his memoirs. Bannister accounts that Rowlandson was looking to create a comedic tour, as he was “making a tour in Cornwall and Devonshire with a friend, who…wishes me to introduce adventures at inns and other comic incidents…But what can I do for such a hero?” Bannister suggested that he create “a skin-and-bone-hero, a pedantic old sprig.”5 While Bannister suggests the creation of Doctor Syntax took place in a single session, Joseph Grego stated that Bannister gave himself too much credit, as Rowlandson was well-known to have produced Doctor Syntax two sketches at a time over the course of a year.6 Whether or not Bannister deserves this credit, Rowlandson would eventually approach Rudolph Ackerman, a prominent printseller, with his idea for the collection of prints. Ackerman contacted William Combe (although he and Rowlandson may have met already7). The first cantos and images of Doctor Syntax was serialized in The Poetical Magazine in 1810. Doctor Syntax would be Rowlandson’s greatest success and the work for which he is primarily known.

Rowlandson’s health began to fade in 1825, when he may have suffered a stroke. He died in April 1827. Although he never married, Betsey Winter was described as his widow. She had taken care of him for years, and many sources referred to her as Mrs. Elizabeth Rowlandson.8  She was the sole recipient of his will and its executioner. He left a fortune of £3,000 and a collection of art, which included a number of paintings, prints, and drawings including works by Rembrandt, Hogarth, and Rubens.9

  1. John Hayes. Rowlandson: Watercolours and Drawings. London: Phaidon Pres Limited, 1972, p. 11.
  2. Joseph Grego. Rowlandson the Caricaturist. London: Chatto and Windus, 1880, p. 18.
  3. Hayes, p.19
  4. Susan Pickford. “Images as Eccentric Paratext: Combe and Rowlandson’s Tour of Doctor Syntax in Search of the Picturesque. Book Illustration in the Long Eighteenth Century: Reconfiguring the Visual Periphery of the Text, ed. Christina Ionescu. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2011. 316-317.
  5. John Bannister. Memoirs of John Bannister, Comedian. London: Richard Bentley, 1839, p. 290-1
  6. Grego, p. 249
  7. Pickford, p. 306.
  8. Hayes, pp. 26-27.
  9. Patricia Phagen. Thomas Rowlandson: Pleasures and Pursuits in Georgian England. Poughkeepsie, NY: Frances Lemna Loeb Art Center, 2011, p. 24.