Interesting find in an upcoming auction catalogue. It’s an original proof version of Thomas Rowlandson’s Britannia’s support or the conspirators defeated which was published by William Holland in February 1789. It’s been executed in pen and black ink with a thin wash of grey watercolour applied to denote shading.
A quick comparison with a copy of the printed version shows that the image was closely copied onto the plate. Indeed it seems likely that someone, possibly Rowlandson or another engraver working for Holland, simply traced the drawing onto the copperplate, engraved over it and then began printing. This would explain why the image has been reversed in the printed edition.
It’s easy to imagine that proof versions of caricatures such as this being hawked around London by artists looking to secure commissions from the city’s printsellers. Needless to say, very few of these original proofs have survived, as they were never conceived as fully-fledged works of art and were designed purely to give a prospective publisher an idea of what the caricaturist had in mind. Surviving proofs should therefore be considered as museum pieces and / or must-have items for collectors with sufficiently deep pockets.