A collection of original works by Thomas Rowlandson

There’s a veritable flood tide of original works by Thomas Rowlandson coming up for auction in the UK at the moment. These include genre scenes, character studies and a few humorous pictures. Perhaps the most interesting is The Wigsteads: A Christening which depicts Rowlandson’s friend and fellow caricaturist Henry Wigstead (1745 – 1800) and his family. Although I also have a soft spot for the untitled caricature of a group of drunken students being sternly regarded by their tutors. It appears as though some things never change.

I should point out, before anyone gets all excited and starts emailing me to enquire whether I’d be willing to sell this drawing or that drawing, that none of these pictures belong to me and I’m not offering them for sale. The images are taken from various sale catalogues and are being shared here in order to record original works which would otherwise disappear into anonymous private collections once the auctions have taken place.

 ‘The Afternoon Visit’, n.d., pen, ink and watercolour, 15 x 24cm

‘The patient’, n.d., pen, ink and watercolour 16.5 x 11.5cm

‘Interior scene’, n.d., pen, ink and watercolour, 10 x 17.5cm

The Wigsteads: A Christening, n.d., pen, ink and watercolour 17 x 30cm


‘Outside the Oyster Room’, n.d., pen, ink and watercolour, 13 x 9.5cm

Chamber Council, n.d., pen, ink and watercolour, 15 x 19cm

Oakhampton, Cornwall, 1816, pen, ink and watercolour, 16.5 x 24cm


‘At the Cottage Door’, n.d., pen, ink and watercolour, 14.25 x 9.5cm



‘Student drinking club’, n.d., pen, ink and watercolour, 26.5 x 32.5 cm




Thomas Rowlandson, The Fire at the Key, 1806

Shortly before midnight on 4th June 1806, a heavily inebriated man stumbled through the door of the Key Hotel in Chandos Street and ordered a meal. He was a cheerful character in his late 30s, and he dressed in a refined if somewhat sombre fashion which led many casual observers to assume that he was a priest of some kind. Unfortunately, his dress was the only sober thing about him that evening, as member of staff at the Key would later attest that he had visited the establishment several times in the last few weeks and was always the worse for drink.

The guest washed his meal down with a bottle of wine and ordered a further two bottles to be taken up to his room. The historical sources are silent on the quality of the repast but it probably mattered little to our friend, as food, drink, and accommodation, were all incidental to the main service that The Key provided to its guests; it was one of the most notorious bagnios in all of early nineteenth-century London and allowed resident and strolling prostitutes alike to ply their trade openly within its walls.

At around 2.30am the guest retired to bed with a young lady. A chambermaid was dispatched to their room a few minutes later in order to help the prostitute undress, but she reported that the man had passed out in stupor on the bedroom floor and that his companion had gone to bed without him. Fearing that he might wake up in the night and not know where he was, she lit a candle and left it on the floor next to the man before returning downstairs. Fifteen minutes later, the hotel was filled with sound of a woman screaming. A waiter, who ran up from the dining hall, found the prostitute standing on the landing in her night gown in hysterics, thick smoke and the flicker of flames emanating from the open bedroom doorway next to her.

The room was already engulfed in flames and the waiter immediately concluded that any attempt to rescue the drunken guest would be folly. Instead, he calmed the young lady and they then ran from door to door, rousing the other guests and alerting them to the danger. Chaos ensued as half-dressed working girls and their unsuspecting punters scrambled to save themselves. Many panicked, being unaware that the fire had yet to properly take hold of the building, and clambered from first floor windows, dropping into the street below. Their desperation was such that one old man, whose clothing had become entangled as he tried to escape, was left dangling above the street in ignominy; until someone was eventually able to haul him back into the hotel and help him flee via another route.

Crowds assembled in Hanoverian London at the drop of a hat and the spectacle of the Key’s destruction provoked a large assembly of slack-jawed gawkers, who mingled indiscriminately with hard-pressed parish fire-fighters and stunned prostitutes, as the building collapsed in front of them. It seems likely that Thomas Rowlandson was amongst the crowd, as his apartment in the Adelphi Buildings was just a few minutes walk from Chandos Street and would surely have been within earshot of the commotion. He later produced this watercolour of the scene, which is it seems safe to assume was heavily embellished with some of his stock comic characters in order to add humour and vitality to the proceedings.

Thomas Rowlandson, pen, ink and wash, 14.5 x 24cm. Signed and titled ‘The Fire at The Key, Chandos Street’.

The European Magazine, and London Review, Volume 49 pp. 480 – 1.
Morning Chronicle, Friday 6th & 7th June 1806
Caledonian Mercury, 15th August 1806

Dick Swift taught a lesson

Perhaps rather oddly for a medium which was otherwise concerned with high politics and high society, there was an notable link between eighteenth-century London’s satirical print trade and the reporting of crime. Caricaturists, who were noted for their ability to quickly capture accurate likenesses, and typically cheaper to employ than ‘proper’ artists, were frequently dispatched to make courtroom drawings of noted felons. These images were then engraved in prints which were sold to rich and poor alike, such was the desire for news of lurid and extraordinary across all levels of Hanoverian society.

The fantastically named Dick Swift was one of those criminals fortunate enough to have his image preserved for posterity at the hands of a satirist. The print Dick Swift, Thieftaker of the City of London. Teaching his son the commandments was published anonymously in 1765 with copies being sold at a shilling a piece. The print was evidently popular enough to prompt lower quality imitations, a example of which survives in the British Museum collection, that were presumably sold to less affluent consumers at a reduced price. The image is a parody of Robert E. Pine and James Watson’s mezzotint Arthur Beardmore, Common-Council Man of the City of London, Teaching his Son Magna Carta, which had been published by Robert Sayer 20th May 1765, a copy of which has been loosely delineated on the wall behind Swift.

Conflicting accounts of Swift’s life were published in the decades after his death, but the most convincing of these suggest that he was born into a poor family living somewhere in the vicinity of St Luke’s Church in Old Street. He was apprenticed to a turner at an early age but gradually drifted into a life of heavy drinking and petty crime. He sweet-talked his way into a job as a publican, managing the Coach & Horses public-house in Shoreditch, which he quickly transformed into a major clearing house for stolen goods. Swift was eventually apprehended in May 1764, when a thief who had been caught taking goods from the back of a wagon parked outside a public house in Aldgate turned King’s evidence against him. He was sentenced to be transported to the colonies for a period of 14 years, but spent no more than a few months in America before absconding aboard a ship bound for Liverpool. He was eventually apprehended and transported from London again on 24th April 1765, from whence he sailed into historical anonymity.

One source suggests that Swift had obtained the title ‘thief-taker’ as a result of his association with a notorious gang of thief-takers with whom he associated in order to avert attention from his own criminal practices. However, it’s also possible that the title was awarded ironically, in reference to Swift’s willingness to take stolen goods with no further questions asked.

The print shows Swift sitting at a table holding a tattered copy of the Bible open to reveal the ten commandments. The page containing the eighth commandment has been ripped so that the text now reads “thou shalt… steal”. An instruction which his equally sly looking son immediately acts upon by relieving his unsuspecting father of his handkerchief. The pair are surrounded by symbols associated with crime – a set of lockpicks hangs from the draw along with a schematic of a set of stocks, a noose also hangs behind them. The boy holds a slate on which he has started to write out the alphabet, the task seemingly being abandoned after he has reached the letter ‘B’. The phrase “Get you gone Raw Head & Bloody Bones. Here is a child don’t fear you” are engraved on a piece of paper which hangs from his pocket. Raw Head & Bloody Bones was a bogeymanlike figure typically used to scare children into obedience. The reference here therefore conveys the sinister message that Dick Swift Junior fears nothing and is consequently prepared to do anything. The image undoubtedly speaks to middle class fears about the morals and behaviours of the poor in a way which unfortunately still resonates with modern tabloid news reporting.

Further Reading

The Newgate Calendar, 1795, pp. 296 – 299.

The Lives and Portraits of Remarkable Characters, 1819, pp. 99 – 101.

Old Bailey Online:




Bilston Enamel Box c.1786

On 2nd August 1786, George III was alighting from his carriage outside St James’s Palace when a poor woman dashed towards him holding out a piece of paper. As he reached out to take the paper, which he assumed to be a petition of some kind, the woman lunged at him with a large table-knife she had concealed in her other hand. The knife had sharp edges but a blunt point and it failed to penetrate the king’s topcoat. She was quickly seized but the king shouted out: “the poor creature is mad, do not hurt her. She has not harmed me.” Upon which, the would-be regicide was led away quietly.

The lady’s name was Margret Nicholson, a former maidservant who had fallen on hard times and apparently drifted into insanity, eventually believing that she was the rightful queen of England and George and a usurping impostor. She was immediately certified insane and committed to the ‘incurables’ ward of Bethlem Royal Hospital, colloquially known as ‘Bedlam’, where she would remain for the rest of her life.

The incident proved to be something of a propaganda coup for the royal family and spawned a wave commemorative prints and other commercial tat with which loyal subjects could demonstrate their thanks for the king’s deliverance. This enamel box was probably manufactured in the West Midland’s town of Bilston, which was then the centre of the English enamel trade. It measures 2.5 cm, 3.5 cm wide and 5 cm deep and consists of a pink enamel body and hinged lid decorated with a (sadly slightly damaged) image of Margaret Nicholson’s attack.

The Up Shut or Bonny-Fire

This interesting creamware jug caught my eye whilst browsing through some auction catalogues this week.

It’s 15cm high and probably dates to circa 1815. The body is decorated with two transfer-printed designs. The first and most substantial of these is a caricature entitled The Up Shut or Bonny-Fire. It depicts Napoleon, bound and gagged, hanging from a gallows above a pile of combustible materials to which John Bull is about to set light. The following text has been crudely etched into a speech bubble above John’s head:

Fore George! You’ve quieten’d him, He’s made a stir in’t world long enough, now’s my turn. I’ll stir him when my fire lights. 

Whilst most satirical designs which appear on creamware during this period were copied from printed caricatures, I’ve been unable to identify a source print for this image. Therefore, I can only assume it’s either an original image created by the potter, or that it has been copied from a print which has subsequently been lost to history.

In contrast to the scene of gleeful immolation displayed on this side of the pot, the observe is decorated with a nice bunch of flowers.