Lowell Libson & Jonny Yarker Ltd

  • Pen, sepia ink and grey washes
  • 10 ½ × 8 1/16 inches · 267 × 205 mm
  • Engraved: Etching, published by S.W. Fores, June 20, 1799.
    Drawn c. 1799


  • Sotheby’s, 14th July 1994, lot. 21;
  • Private collection to 2024

This fluid pen and ink drawing by Thomas Rowlandson was made in preparation for a print published in 1799. The drawing depicts a perennial joke: Rowlandson shows a group of men intently viewing a painting of a naked Venus with Cupid and labels the print ‘connoisseurs’, thus eliding the appreciation of art with a consumption of pornography. In the published print Rowlandson makes his meaning more explicit by including an ‘old master’ hanging on the wall depicting Susanna and the Elders, the ‘Elders’ with physiognomies identifiable amongst the ‘connoisseurs’ leering at the painted Venus.

By the end of the eighteenth century, British artists had come to satirise the structural imbalance in the art market. Most collectors and potential patrons preferred the art of the past to contemporary productions and more specifically a narrow list of Italian old masters. As Robert Campbell noted in 1747: ‘we have ransacked all the Closets in Italy, and laid out more Money in one hundred years in Italian, or pretended Italian Originals, than would have purchased the whole island at the Time of the Conquest; but notwithstanding this almost universal Taste, or rather Fancy, for Painting, there is but small Encouragement for good Painters in the Historic way in our own country.’[1] A rich visual language of humour emerged around the concept of the ‘connoisseur’; in 1771 an anonymous print maker showed a man looking at a completely black canvas through a large glass, titling it: ‘A Connoisseur admiring a dark night piece.’

Rowlandson saw the potential for humour in the activities and infrastructures of the flourishing market in old master paintings. Rowlandson’s image of Christie’s designed for the Microcosm of London (1808) shows a group of grotesque male spectators clambering to acquire yet another reclining Venus. As Ronald Paulson first identified, Rowlandson saw in the largely male-dominated world of art collecting the possibility to rehearse some of his favourite jokes: particularly the idea of the inattentive older husband blind to his younger wife’s infidelity. Rowlandson invariably depicts his ‘connoisseur’ examining art works through a glass; this was an established idea, the lens forming a barrier to enlightenment, rather than an aid. In Modern Antiques, the aged connoisseur admires a statue of Antinous, whilst his young wife is embraced by a dashing young officer. In the present drawing Rowlandson captures in his highly assured ink line four eager men fixated on the painting of a recumbent Venus, the seated man closest to the easel is shown admiring the canvas through a glass. Around 1800 the noted collector of antiquities Sir William Hamilton, his young wife Emma and her very public liaison with Nelson offered real-life parallels to the well-worn joke. Both Rowlandson and James Gillray capitalised on the story, showing the cuckolded Hamilton more interested in admiring his antiquities than his wife.

Thomas Rowlandson
Published by S. W. Fores (London)
June 20, 1799
Hand-coloured etching
10 11/16 × 8 7/16 inches; 272 × 214 mm
The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1959
Accession Number: 59.533.644
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Thomas Rowlandson
The Connoisseurs,
Watercolour with pen and red, brown and black ink over graphite
9 x 12 inches; 229 x 305 mm
c. 1790
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1975.3.106.


  1. Robert Campbell, The London Tradesman, London, 1747, p.96.