Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection

THOMAS ROWLANDSON
1756-1827

68 Sir Joseph Banks about to Eat an Alligator (also known as 'The Fish Supper') 1788

Pen and black ink and grey wash on laid paper 16 x 21.2 (6 1/4 x 8 3/8) on laid paper support 16.1 x 21.3 (6 3/8 x 8 3/8)

T08469

69 Two Women Sewing by Candlelight

Pencil, pen and ink and watercolour line and wash on cream wove paper 15.2 x 23.8 (6 x 9 3/8)
Inscribed bottom right in pencil 'R'

T08273

From his time as a student in the Royal Academy right up until his death Rowlandson was admired as a draughtsman of uncommon powers. Such were his abilities that it was inevitable he would be marked out from the very beginning as a genius who would add lustre to the British School. Rowlandson equally clearly set out, in his easygoing way, to be seen as one. His lifelong friend Henry Angelo later commented on the fact that 'his studies from the human figure at the Royal Academy, were made in so masterly a style, that he was set up as a rival to [John Hamilton] Mortimer' (T08277">no.39) though, of course, in looking to Mortimer Rowlandson was inviting such a comparison. Angelo went on to describe Rowlandson's powers as 'so very versatile, and his fancy so rich, that every species of composition flowed from his pen with equal facility' (Angelo 1828, vol.1, p.233). These two drawings show two extremes of Rowlandson's style and subject matter.

Sir Joseph Banks illustrates lines from a satirical poem by Rowlandson's friend Dr John Wolcot whose pen-name was Peter Pindar. The poem, Peter's Prophecy; or, The President and Poet; or, An Important Epistle to Sir J. Banks was published some time before November 1788 with Rowlandson's drawing as a frontispiece etched the same size in reverse by the artist and without a title. Pindar's target was the President of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), who was about to face the annual re-election for the Presidential chair. Banks, who had accompanied Captain Cook on the Endeavour, was criticised by some for his snobbery, his flattering ways and his excessive interest in natural history rather than the great philosophical issues which had concerned eminent predecessors in the Society like Isaac Newton. In his poem Pindar warns Banks that the members of the Society want more than a continuing diet of dragonflies, snails and frogs (all visible in the etching but not the drawing) and snakes. He has Banks rising to the challenge, and incidentally demonstrating his stupidity, by showing his fellow members that he is prepared to eat something more substantial: 'Tell, then, each pretty PRESIDENT CREATOR, G-d d-mn him, that I'll eat an Alligator.' Banks, looking very like his official portraits, lifts up his knife in anticipation of the feast.

The vigour and inventiveness with which Rowlandson used a reed pen, as seen here, is unique and was admirably suited for translation into the rapid, fluid lines created by the etching needle. Both the conception and the execution of the design are in complete harmony with the verve and wit of Pindar's attack. By contrast, in the later (though Rowlandson's work is very difficult to date) Women Sewing we see Rowlandson responding in a completely different way to another world. Angelo noted that Rowlandson 'always carried his sketchbook with him', and this work may well have started as a slight pencil drawing in a sketchbook which he then worked up with pen and ink and watercolour washes with the outlines strengthened using a fine brush dipped in dark red watercolour. With an unerring eye for detail Rowlandson has captured the two very different expressions on the faces of the women as they reach two different stages of using the needle and thread - similar in spirit, in fact, to a drawing of the same subject by his contemporary John Flaxman (repr. Irwin 1979, p.76). Unlike the two other Rowlandsons illustrated [T08142">nos.67 and 68] this is more characteristic of most of his output in its use of delicate watercolour washes.

Robin Hamlyn

Published in:
Anne Lyles and Robin Hamlyn, and others, British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection with a Selection of Drawings and Oil Sketches, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, p.172 no.68, reproduced in colour p.173