The Exhibition Stare Case, Somerset House by Thomas Rowlandson

The Exhibition Stare Case, Somerset House by Thomas Rowlandson (c. 1800)

My Daily Art Display today is something different from the usual paintings I feature.  It is a print by the English artist and caricaturist, Thomas Rowlandson.  In some ways it reminds me of what is termed the “saucy” seaside postcards which were extremely popular twenty or thirty years ago and are still sold at seaside resorts in Britain.

Rowlandson was born in London in 1756.  His father was a successful local merchant.  It is said that Thomas Rowlandson learnt to draw before he learnt to write.  He was so enthralled in drawing that his early years were solely spent in drawing.  He attended Eton and after that enrolled to study art at the Royal Academy.

In 1772, at the age of sixteen he travelled to Paris where he remained for two years, during which time he was a student at a drawing school in Paris.  After his stay in France he returned to London and opened a studio in Wardour Street from where he sold his portraits.    At this early point in his artistic career he was looked upon as being somebody who would become a great portrait painter.  He had been awarded the Silver Medal by the Royal Academy in both 1777 and 1778 and was becoming known as a very fine watercolour portrait painter. In the 1780s Rowlandson’s output of his portraiture decreased and he concentrated most of his time on drawings.  These were much in demand and he had a lot of his work published in journals such as the English Review and The Poetical Magazine.   Rowlandson found another means of earning money; that of illustrating novels and many of the great novelists of the time, like Henry Fielding and Oliver Goldsmith had him produce illustrations for their famous works of literature. He also di d illustrations for Tobias George Smollett, whose radical books resulted in him being sent to prison for libel.  Some of Rowlandson’s political cartoons also got him in trouble and he was accused by his critics of being “coarse and indelicate”.
 However fate was to take a hand in changing his future life and lifestyle with the death of his French aunt and the inheritance of £7000 he received.  This was an exceptionally large sum of money at this time and unfortunately Rowlandson could not handle being wealthy and within a short time had gambled it all away and had become penniless.

Rowlandson needed to earn some money but instead of concentrating on his watercolour portraits he, because of his friendship with the great political satirist, James Gillray, decided to concentrate his artistic efforts on socially satirical caricatures.  There was a good market for such works at the time and he was aware that this was an excellent way to improve his finances.  Rowlandson preferred to use watercolours for his caricatures and he was so successful with what he produced that for the rest of his life he had no need to revert to watercolour portraiture.  His trademark for his caricatures was the lecherous old man and the buxom female and accompanying the picture he would add a title or the odd line of prose or verse which enlightened the viewer as to what the caricature was all about (if it was ever needed!).  The caricatures were often moralistic and were in some ways like the moralistic paintings of Hogarth.   Whereas the great caricaturists of Rowlandson’s time such as James Gillray and George Cruickshank concentrated mainly on political cartoons Rowlandson favoured the socio-cultural caricatures and their satirized morals. Although some of his caricatures were criticised for being crude and unseemly, this was nothing compared to the criticism he received for his erotic prints and woodcuts which even today would be met with censorship for their pornographic nature.  Rowlandson by any standards lived a hard lifestyle and eventually this was the cause of prolonged illnesses in later life.  He died in 1827 aged 71.

My Daily Art Display today features the caricature print entitled The Exhibition Stare Case, Somerset House which Thomas Rowlandson completed around 1800.  This print is based on a drawing which Rowlandson made earlier.   In his print he points fun at the people attending the art exhibition and the male penchant for caring more about the “living” pictures that provide additional, or even preferred, entertainment to the works on display at the Exhibition.  Look at the facial expression on the lecherous old men ogle the elegant ladies who have tumbled haplesslydown the staircase, limbs akimbo and tender parts exposed. It is interesting to note how Rowlandson has depicted the under-dress of the women.  He shows them wearing stockings but not much more beneath those gauzy muslins.  So are we to believe that females of that era wore few or no under-garments or is it Rowlandson’s way of adding a touch of erotica to his work.  

The setting for this work is the Royal Academy of Art, which was founded in 1768 and housed in Pall Mall, and then Old Somerset House before it moved to New Somerset House in 1780.  It remained there for almost ninety years when in 1868 it transferred to its present site, Burlington House, on Piccadilly.  The title of the work is a pun on the word stare (as in looking fixedly) and stair (part of a staircase) and the artist is poking fun at the people who have come to see the works exhibited at the Royal Academy exhibition.  In Rowlandson’s mind there were two kinds of viewers who came to Somerset House: those who wanted to see the paintings and sculptures, and those who came to ogle the ladies whose legs and ankles were exposed walking up those prominent stairs.  Of course with such lack of attention to what they are doing the inevitable accident happens as people trip over one another and fall down the stairs in a domino effect.  The print shows the large ornate staircase which leads to the Great Room at Somerset House.  This was a steep and winding staircase and at times when the Royal Academy was well attended it would have been difficult to negotiate a safe passage up and down it. 

In the alcove at the bottom of the staircase we have a statue of Venus.  This is a later print of Rowlandson’s work as in the original instead of the statue of Venus, there was just an urn.

Dian Kriz, the American art historian’s book “‘Stare Cases’: Engendering the Public’s Two Bodies at the Royal Academy of Arts.”  and in Art on the Line: The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House, 1780-1836 recounts a number of comments regarding the Exhibitions made in the reviews of the RA exhibitions at the time.  One commented on the exhibitions and the attendees describing it:

” …. as a place where art and female bodies vied for the male gaze…”

She quotes the Morning Post of May 3rd 1875 and its view on the visitors:

“…“there are two descriptions of persons who visit the Royal Academy some perambulate the rooms to view the heads others remain at the bottom of the stairs to contemplate the legs…”

Finally in the World, Fashionable Advertiser of May 8th 1787 it notes:

“….“Exhibitions are now the rage and though some may have more merit, yet certainly none has so much attraction as that at Somerset House; for, besides the exhibition of pictures living and inanimate, there is the raree-show [peep show] of neat ancles up the stair-case which is not less inviting…”

One can see that Rowlandson could well have got the idea for his caricature from these press releases.   What I love about this painting is that all the people are different.  They are all doing different things and it is a joy to scan each individual closely to see the facial expression and their role in the picture.  Look how absorbed they are in what is going on around them.  Note the lecherous looks on the faces of the old men as they gaze at the disheveled attire of the falling and fallen females.

When I was researching the works of Thomas Rowlandson I was astounded at the sexual nature of some of his caricatures.  I have talked on a number of occasions about the fine line in paintings between what is considered sensuous and what is considered erotic.  With some of Rowlandson’s caricatures there is a very fine line between what is erotic and what is pornographic.  I think that if ever there was an exhibition of his works the media would have a field day on discussing whether some of his works should be censored.  I will leave you to look at some of these works on the internet and decide for yourself.  Erotic/pornographic cartoons and caricatures of course are not just a thing of the past as in the present time we have the Japanese Hentai comics and Japanese Anime (animation).