Evidently Rowlandson’s watercolours are a bit like buses – You wait ages for one and then two come along at the same time. This one will also be going on sale in London in the next few days. It’s a pencil and ink sketch with a watercolour and ink wash. It carries not title, date or signature, but was verified as being Rowlandson’s work by the art department of Sotheby’s when it was sold at auction on a previous occasion in the late 1990s.
I doubt it will be to everyone’s taste, but nonetheless it still offers us a pretty atypical example of the sort of smutty schoolboy humour with which Rowlandson was so commonly associated. The scene is set in the interior of a tavern, where a group of elderly men are preparing to take advantage of a young woman who has been plied with copious quantities of booze. As the girl lolls unconscious in her chair, one of the men leans over to pull back her shawl and expose her chest to the approving leers of his companions.
While an incident like this would probably be a matter for the police these days, Rowlandson clearly had no qualms about turning out such images and is known to have produced dozens of bawdy, lewd and pornographic prints during his career. Voyeuristic scenes such as this seem to have been a particular favourite, and were turned out regularly and with varying degrees of explicitness. Their popularity not only reflects the artist’s own obsession with sexual imagery, but the popularity of such erotica among the print-buying public.
Details of the trade in pornographic prints in eighteenth-century London are difficult to come by, not least because it was highly illegal and therefore largely carried out behind closed doors. Shop-owners who were found guilty of offering such items were sale could expect to receive a hefty fine, jail-time and the possibility of being forced to stand in the public pillory. The printseller James Aitken was arrested on at least two separate occasions for selling indecent books and prints during the 1790s and 1800s. On the second occasion he was placed in a set of specially constructed stocks which had been erected opposite his shop in Castle Street and pelted by the crowd. His wife Ann took over the business while he was in jail, but she too was caught offering indecent prints to her customers and jailed for one year with hard labour. While the risks associated with dealing in indecent prints were great, so were the potential financial rewards. Evidence gathered for the trial of the itinerant printseller Baptista Bertazzi in 1803 suggesting that an erotic print could be sold for two to four times the price of a caricature.
Evidently there is still some truth in this, as this particular piece of under-the-counter humour is estimates to fetch between £700 and £1,000.