A rare self-portrait by the caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson will be going under the hammer at Bonham’s UK auction house in a few weeks time. The pencil, ink and watercolour sketch shows Rowlandson (on the left) and his friend and fellow artist Henry Wigstead checking their luggage at the office of a coaching company shortly before departing a journey. Rowlandson and Wigstead undertook several excursions together during the course of the 1780s and 90s, visiting France, Wales and various places on the south coast of England. These tours provided an opportunity for the pair to sketch and paint landscapes and topography but inevitably also resulted in the production of humorous sketches reflecting on the experience of travel itself. Many of these ideas would later resurface in the illustrations which Rowlandson produced for the Dr Syntax series from 1809 onward.
The drawing comes from the collection of Major Leonard Dent, DSO, “whose group of 39 works by Rowlandson is still regarded as one of the great collections” of the artist’s work. A set of drawings from the same collection achieved record breaking prices when they were sold in 1984 and that presumably explains why this sketch carries an estimate of £10,000 – £15,000.
The catalogue entry reads as follows:
Thomas Rowlandson (London 1756-1827)
The coach booking office, the artist and Henry Wigstead paying their fares
pencil, pen, ink and watercolour on paper
17.7 x 28.6cm (6 15/16 x 11 1/4in).
The Earl of Mayo
Captain Desmond Coke
His sale, Christie’s, London, 22 November 1929, lot 28 (bt. Sabin, 46 gns)
With Frank T. Sabin, 1936 where acquired by
Major Leonard Dent, in 1939
His sale, Christie’s, London, 10 July 1984, lot 2 (£16,200), where purchased by
With Leger Galleries, London, 1987, where purchased by the present owner
London, Frank T.Sabin, Watercolour Drawings by Thomas Rowlandson, 1933, no. 93, ill.
Reading, Museum and Art Gallery, Thomas Rowlandson: Drawings from Town and Country, 1962, no. 64
London, Richard Green and Frank T.Sabin, Thomas Rowlandson, 1980, no. 2, ill. (loaned by Major Dent)
London, Leger Galleries, English Watercolours, 1984, no. 37
New York, The Frick Collection; Pittsburgh, The Frick Art Museum & Baltimore, Baltimore Museum of Art, The Art of Thomas Rowlandson, 1990, no. 16
London, Lowell Libson Ltd, Beauty and the Beast: a loan exhibition of Rowlandson’s works from British private collections, 2007, no. 31
H. Faust, ‘A Note on Rowlandson’, Apollo, June 1936, ill.
The Illustrated London News, 12 Sept, 1936, ill. p. 452
F. Gordon Roe, Rowlandson: the Life and Art of a British Genius, 1947, ill, pl. XI
R.R. Wark, Rowlandson’s Drawings for a Tour in a Post Chaise, 1963, p.13 note
L.M.E. Dent, Hillfields: Notes on the Contents, 1972, p. 19
J. Hayes, The Art of Thomas Rowlandson, 1990, pp.58-9
L. Libson, H. Belsey, J. Basket et al, Beauty and the Beast: A loan exhibition of Rowlandson’s works from British private collections, London, 2007, pp. 74-5, ill
Henry Wigstead (c. 1745-1800) was, over a 20 year period, one of Rowlandson’s closest friends as well as being a neighbour in Soho. He had been an executor to the estate of Rowlandson’s aunt whose support had been fundamental to the artist’s development as she financed his attendance of the R.A. schools. Wigstead and Rowlandson made three trips together, the first a 12 day sortie to Hampshire and the Isle of Wight in 1784 which produced around 70 sketches entitled A tour in a post chaise, the majority of which were acquired in the 1920s by Henry E. Huntington. Their format is somewhat smaller than the present drawing. Several of the prints emanating from the trip are said to be ‘after Wigstead’ but they are clearly by a more skilful hand and it is likely that it was Rowlandson who brought to life compositions suggested by his companion. Drawings from the subsequent trips made by the pair to Brighton in 1789 and Wales in 1797 were published in books with text by Wigstead and illustrations by Rowlandson. As the present work is not reproduced in print it has not so far been possible to identify the expedition to which it relates.
Very little is recorded of Rowlandson’s life through documentary evidence so what we do know of him is largely through his artistic output, making the present drawing of particular interest. He is known to have spent time in Paris in his early years and the influence of French artists is particularly evident in this work. He has turned his assured and fluent penmanship to describing a moment during one of the tours when he and Wigstead find themselves in a coach booking office with a yawning postillion and a porter lugging a trunk and an armful of game. He achieves a sense of depth not just with the use of dark foreground washes but by varying the ink used for the outlines, darker in the foreground and paler as the composition recedes. It is first and foremost an anecdotal record of their journey but Rowlandson was nothing if not an acute observer of his fellow men and he adeptly captured the foibles of those he encountered en route. The drawing was once in the collection of Major Leonard Dent, DSO, whose group of 39 works by Rowlandson is still regarded as one of the great collections; it was sold as a single-owner sale in 1984 achieving the highest price for a drawing by Rowlandson ever to be sold at auction (a work now in the Getty Museum, California), a record that still stands today.