This marvelous watercolour is a particularly impressive example of Rowlandson’s large scale social cartoons. Rowlandson’s exquisitely rendered drawing is a masterpiece in social commentary. Rowlandson paired the subject, when it was printed, with a composition entitled Grog on Board, offering a satire on the courtship rituals of officers and men. Preserved in exceptional condition, this watercolour exemplifies Rowlandson’s abilities both as a draughtsman and humourist.
Rowlandson was trained at the Royal Academy schools, where he unusually developed as a draughtsman rather than as a painter. He was not, like so many aspiring artists, an eager devotee of the president, Sir Joshua Reynolds, but, following the Hogarth tradition, responsive to more popular forms of art, the fashion for drawing caricatures and the proliferation and profitability of printselling. A design for publication attributed to Rowlandson dates from 1774, but his œuvre as a printmaker does not really begin until 1780, when his works were printed by a variety of publishers, including Hannah and W. Humphrey and S. W. Fores. A close friend of James Gillray, he produced, until the end of the 1780s, numerous political as well as social caricatures, though without Gillray's venom and partisanship. Writing shortly after the death of Thomas Rowlandson, his friend, Henry Angelo noted: ‘Everyone at all acquainted with the arts must well know the caricature works of that very eccentric genius: the extent of his talent, however, as a draughtsman is not so generally known… His powers indeed were so versatile, and his fancy so rich, that every species of composition flowed from his pen with equal facility.’
The elegant domestic scene depicts two officers being entertained to tea. To the left the corpulent, middle aged hostess is being offered a biscuit by a black page, whilst talking to a Naval officer taking snuff; to the right, the daughter of the house is flirting with a young officer, whilst in the center of the composition the head of the household is reduced to filling the teapot from a steaming kettle so engrossed are his wife and daughter in their visitors. The hostess has clearly dressed for the occasion – Rowlandson piles a forest of feathers on her head to suggest an exaggerated adherence to fashion – and is shown in rapt attention at the story of the visiting officer, whilst her daughter, elegantly posed in a picture-hat, is equally fascinated by the young officer. Rowlandson has added Hogarthian touches to amplify the meaning: a pair of caged birds are shown embracing, mirroring the flirtation of the daughter and young officer; a performing dog underlines the status of the black page, exotically – and anachronistically – dressed in a turban.
The composition was published by Rowlandson in 1789 along with its pendant Grog on Board. The exceptionally rare first stage of the print published in 1784 (one recorded impression in the Royal Collection) shows the woman on the right wearing long trousers and a large hat as seen in our drawing. The re-issue (second state) of 1794 she is shown without a hat and wearing her hair in a shorter style, fashionable in the 1780s. Neither of the two issues of the print show the elaborate picture frame seen in the watercolour. The two scenes offer a perfect contrast of high and low life in port. Whilst Tea on Shore shows the officers being entertained and flirting in an elegant interior, Grog on board depicts ‘Sweet Poll of Plymouth’ being entertained below deck. The earthier depiction of life below deck was designed to highlight the similarity between the two arenas – particularly where courting was concerned – and perhaps strip away the artificial formalities of the elegant interior depicted in Tea on Shore. The sheet itself is an unusually elegant and beautifully executed watercolour completed by Rowlandson at the height of his powers, the subject matter is handled with unusual subtlety and sophistication and whilst the social commentary is softer than Hogarth the visual puns and ferocious caricature show Rowlandson to be the true inheritor of Hogarth’s comic genius.
We are grateful to Nick Knowles for his help in cataloguing this drawing.