This small (6 x 8.5 inches) watercolour by Thomas Rowlandson is coming up for sale in the UK in a couple of weeks.
Images such as this were often sold surreptitiously in many of the satirical printshops of late 18th and early 19th-century London. These pictures often ranged from bawdy designs that could be sold discreetly but safely over the counter, to outright pornography which was usually exchanged clandestinely beneath it.
The illicit nature of the trade means that we inevitably know very little about it. What is clear however is that the illegal nature of indecent images meant that they commanded a premium price which even the most respectable West End printsellers found hard to resist. Some dealers even began trading in original erotic artworks which were more expensive still. Ann Aitken for example, the wife of the satirical printseller James Aitken, seems to have sustained the family business on little more than pornographic drawings in the years following her husband’s arrest and imprisonment in 1801. She would eventually follow her husband to prison in 1803, after being tricked into revealing her stock of pornographic pictures to an informer of the Society for the Suppression of Vice.
Rowlandson’s involvement with the world of Georgian erotica and pornography is well-known and he seems to have embraced the trade with an enthusiasm which cannot have been based on commercial considerations alone. This painting, which is small enough to have been pasted into a gentleman’s scrapbook or tucked away in some other discreet hiding place, was presumably produced to be sold directly to a private client of the artist’s, or to a printseller who dealt in such items.
The auctioneer’s estimate on this picture is £600 – 800.