There is a veritable bonanza of Rowlandson watercolours appearing at auction in London this month. Here’s a couple of highlights.
This image of a London coachman arguing with his passengers over the fare for a late-night cab ride appeared in two printed versions. The first was Miseries of London, or a surly saucy Hackney coachman, which Rowlandson published himself in June 1814. A copy of the original copperplate carrying the design can still be found in the Museum of London collection. It was then rechristened Hackney Coachman and reused as one of the plates in the series Characteristic sketches of the lower orders, which were produced for the publisher Samuel Leigh between 1820 and 1823.
The second watercolour is a classic piece of Rowlandson comic smut. Dubbed The Leering Coachman in the auctioneers catalogue, the painting shows a grotesque coachman flirting outrageously with a voluptuous barmaid in the doorway of a roadside coaching inn. The printed edition was published under the slightly more cumbersome title of A bait for Kiddies on the north road. Or that’s your sort prime bang up the mark by Thomas Tegg in May 1810. In this version, Rowlandson has turned the level of innuendo up a notch by placing the canoodling couple under a sign which identifies the tavern as The Cock and Bottle. He also includes a second female figure, who stands in the tavern doorway beneath a sign that reads: “Genteel Accommodations“; hinting that refreshments may not be the only thing on offer to those within.
The third painting offers a comic grotesque vision of a group of revelers gathered by the fireplace. Once again, Rowlandson introduces a sexual subtext by having the hands of the pretty young woman rest on a set of bellows which lays across the lap of the revolting old gent to her right. The design does not appear to have been published in print form but the themes of sensuality, the contrast between young and old and the simple pleasures of drinking, smoking and socialising, are ones that reoccur throughout Rowlandson’s work in caricature.
Finally, we have a drawing entitled How to lose your way, showing riders battling against a strong headwind on the highway. It is interesting to note that, despite the fact that this sketch was evidently executed with some degree of haste, Rowlandson was still able to add little touches which really bring the image to life. The way in which the rider’s horse has its head set low against the wind, the attitude of the two men riding on the carriage in the distance and the frenetic rendering of the foliage in the background, all helps to convey a sense that there is a howling gale blowing across the page.