This is one of a number of small watercolours by Thomas Rowlandson that are coming for auction in London in a couple of weeks time. Whilst tavern scenes are, to put it mildly, not exactly uncommon in Rowlandson’s catalogue of prints and drawings, this scene is particularly interesting because it depicts a place that Rowlandson, James Gillray and other members of London’s engraving fraternity are known to have frequented.
The title of the piece, which has been written in the lower left corner of the picture, is The Cole Hole. This is presumably a reference to The Coal Hole tavern* in Fountains Court, the Strand. The tavern is mentioned in a short biography of Gillray which appeared in the Somerset House Gazette, and Literary Museum No. 26 in 1824:
He [Gillray] was a careless sort of cynic, one who neither loved, nor hated society… For years he occasionally smoked his pipe at the Bell, The Coal-hole, or the Coach-and-Hourses; and although the convives whom he met at such dingy rendezvous knew that he was that Gillray, who fabricated those comical cuts… He neither exacted, nor were the inclined to pay him, any particular homage. In truth, with his associateds, neighbouring shop-keepers and master-manufacturers, he passed for no greater wit than his neighbours. Rowlandson, his ingenious compeer, and he, sometimes met, they would, perhaps, exchange half-a-dozen questions and answers upon the affairs of copper and aquafortis; swear all the world was one vast masquerade; and then enter into the common chat of the room, smoke their cigars, drink their punch, and sometimes early, sometimes late, shake hands at the door – look up at the starts, say it is a frosty night and depart one for the Adelphi, the other to St James’s-street, each to his bachelor’s bed.
The picture may therefore offer us a rare glimpse into a scene from the everyday lives of the two great artists of late eighteenth-century England caricature. And I must admit, it doesn’t look like a bad spot in which to spend a couple of hours unwinding after a long day at work.
The picture measures 6 x 9 inches and carries Rudolph Ackermann’s shop stamp on the verso, which helps date it to sometime after 1800. The current estimate is between £800 – £1,200.
* The Coal Hole is apparently still trading as a public house today.
Update: Rowlandson painted another version of this painting sometime between 1810 and 1815 which can be found in The Birmingham Museum & Gallery collection. Sadly no images are available online but a colour photograph of the painting can be found in Payne & Payne’s biography of Rowlandson (Plate XXXII). The authors note that the Coal Hole was one of Rowlandson’s “nearest and favourite watering-holes” and that he would regularly carouse there amongst a clientele that consisted of artists, engravers, writers and other creative types (Regarding Thomas Rowlandson… p.342.)