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High Spirits: Thomas Rowlandson at Queen’s Gallery

The works of Thomas Rowlandson, a great English satirist of the Georgian era, is celebrated in the exhibition High Spirits.

High Spirits at The Queen’s Gallery brings together the best of the Royal Collection’s archive of prints by Thomas Rowlandson, one of the great English satirists of the Georgian era.

If Masters of the Everyday: Dutch Artists in The Age of Vermeer is the kind of exhibition you might expect to see in The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, High Spirits is something different. A collection of around 100 works by Georgian satirist Thomas Rowlandson, this exhibition shows the Palace embracing a history of royal scandal and shame through the eyes of a consummate humourist.

The prints and drawings on display in High Spirits were selected from over 1000 works from the collections of George III, George IV and Queen Victoria. Although the fairly pornographic results of an internet search for Rowlandson makes one wonder if the 900 or so works not included were a little too racy for the Palace’s public image, enough lewdness has made it onto the walls to represent the spirit of Rowlandson.

To sum up Rowlandson’s ethos, curator Kate Heard points to his 1802 etching entitled Doctor Convex and Lady Concave. The quotation at the bottom of the print reads ‘Man is the only creature endowed with the power of laughter, is he not also the only one that deserves to be laughed at?’ This is a sentiment that might more generally represent the golden age of satire, although for Heard it is Rowlandson’s engagement with his audience that makes him unique: “[Fellow caricaturist, James] Gilray tends to be sort of snarling in the corner from behind his pen but Rowlandson is nudging you and saying, this is amazing.”

Rowlandson’s targets were often royalty, in particular the future George IV the Prince of Wales and his brother the Duke of York. In a rather manic cycle of satirical consumption, the Prince of Wales would collect and commission prints by Rowlandson. “He gets very, very offended by certain satirical prints” Heard explains, “and he is also playing the market - he pays for prints to be produced to promote his point of view. So he’s trying to have his cake and eat it and have another cake as well.”

A particularly juicy royal scandal came to the public’s attention in 1809. The Duke of York’s former mistress Mary Anne Clarke had added names to the lists of army commissions signed off by the Duke. While he was cleared of wrongdoing, the Duke was forced to resign. A Rowlandson print documents ‘The Prodigal Son’s Resignation’ in a scene with his father George III saying to him “Very naughty boy. Don’t do it anymore.” Clarke the jilted mistress issued the love letters sent to her by the Duke and another Rowlandson print sends up their syrupy appellations: ‘my little angel... my little darling...’

Pride of place in the exhibition goes to a scrap screen assembled by a professional printmaker’s around 1806-7, featuring clippings from many satirical prints of the time, a number of them by Rowlandson. “This is how Georgian viewers would have encountered satirical prints,” says Heard. “It was a very popular pastime to clip out prints and paste them to walls, to screens, to other pieces of furniture. The imagery on [screens such as this] tends to be quite masculine [...] because you can fold the screen up and remove it before the ladies enter the room. For that reason, often the imagery it not what Victorians would have appreciated so [screens] were often not preserved into the Victorian period.”

Prints were not considered high art but nor were they dirt cheap. Another way of encountering Rowlandsons at the time of their publication was the street theatre of the print shop windows. “it is notable that print shops were based often around the palaces,” Heard explains. “This is where their audience and their market is; this is where fashionable society hangs out, as it were. But you can imagine [what it must have been like] for the Prince of Wales; having to leave Carlton House, get in his carriage and go past all those print shop windows, outside which there were crowds of people looking for the latest prints.” A busy wall in the exhibition is a tribute to the feel of a Georgian print shop window display.

Another wall shows Rowlandson’s exuberant and detailed depictions of cultural pursuits such as theatre going. The lack of topicality of these works made them more lucrative as they didn’t have a sell-by date. Their inclusion in the exhibition provides a useful social context for the political works, which include anti-French propaganda, the beleaguered Duke of York pleading with a washed up whale and the unfairly pilloried Duchess of Devonshire kissing a butcher.

From the sprightly animation introducing the display, featuring the unmistakable voice of Brian Blessed, High Spirits retains its air of boisterous fun to the end. And there is no need to choose between Rowlandson and The Age of Vermeer: both exhibitions are included on the same ticket.

For more information and to book tickets, see website.