I spotted this nice watercolour scene by Rowlandson in an auction catalogue this morning.
It shows a group of pedestrians descending Wapping Old Stairs towards a small wherry which is being loaded with passengers wishing to cross the River Thames. A young girl and her elderly father stand closest to the viewer. The old man is a former soldier, dressed in a pensioners uniform, who hobbles along on a wooden leg with the help of his daughter and his walking stick. Ahead of them strides a young soldier, perhaps heading off to join his regiment, who carries a large drum on his back and a sheathed sword in his hand. He is being greeted with great enthusiasm by an oarsman who is no doubt attempting to lure him into another nearby boat with the promise of a reduced fair or a quicker crossing. Behind them, beneath the windows of the inn, a woman, presumably a prostitute, canoodles with a bearded man. In the distance, oarsmen can be seen helping other passengers onto a rowing boat next to the indistinct form of the bow of a collier ship. The scene plays out beneath the open windows of The Salutation public house, whose proprietor, according to the sign which hangs above is a Mr Ben Block. A group of carousers can be seen inside, drinking smoking and consorting with the working girls who evidently frequent the place.
Rowlandson had engraved a similar caricature for Thomas Tegg’s Miseries of London series in 1812. This watercolour version is set further back from the waterline and has a slightly smuttier subtext, placing a greater, albeit still subtle, emphasis on the more debauched aspects of London’s docksides. Some elements of the drawing are based on real life, Wapping Old Stairs and the eighteenth-century public house which stands next to them are still there today. However, the pub in question was (and still is) named The Town of Ramsgate. Rowlandson presumably changed it to The Salutation as a punning reference to the various forms of greeting which are taking place in the street outside. Ben Block was a contemporary placeholder name, similar to ‘Joe Bloggs’ or ‘John Doe’ today, and is probably also fictitious. The watercolour may have been a preparatory sketch for the 1812 engraving that Rowlandson kept and subsequently sold, or he may simply have regurgitated the idea two years later in order to turn out an original piece for a collector.