Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827)

Thomas Rowlandson was born in London and by 1772 had enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools. He was a fine draughtsman, obtaining a Silver medal at the Academy in 1777. By 1778 he left the Academy and began a long career as an exceptionally fine watercolour portrait artist.

Painter of scenes and a satirist

In the 1780s Rowlandson established a reputation for brilliant and often cutting images of contemporary life. These ranged from political commentary to domestic strife and genre caricature. His watercolours are often used to illustrate Georgian society and especially some of the great public gatherings associated with sport, art and entertainment. In his Vauxhall gardens of 1784, which he exhibited that year at the Academy, his powers of composition and humour combined to produce a painting both historically important and artistically impressive.

He was never simply a painter of interesting scenes: his keen eye for satire brought a life and human pathos to almost every drawing. Rowlandson was influenced by the French, particularly Rococo artists such as Watteau and Fragonard. From that school, he obtained the interest in delicate colouring combined with semi-pastoral compositions which could be read allegorically. Another aspect of French art tradition is the pure landscape, and Rowlandson perfected his style over many years producing numerous studies from observation.

Rowlandson's work at the National Library

The bulk of the Rowlandson collection at the National Library of Wales stem from his landscape studies in Britain with the majority representing the Welsh landscape. The founder of the Library Sir John Williams, purchased the Welsh drawings from a London dealer early in the last century. They are almost all pen and wash drawings in the classic style of British late 18th century topographical works. All were taken on the spot and reflect Rowlandson's gift for creating immediately pleasing scenes with free and vigorous wash work.

In 1797 the author Henry Wigstead toured Wales with "my friend Mr Rowlandson". It is likely that the artist was employed not only as a companion but as the artist for a project to publish a short tour through Wales. Wigstead published his volume Remarks on a tour to North and South Wales in 1799 with 22 aquatints mainly after Rowlandson's drawings now at the Library, but also from examples of his own drawings executed in a harsh and rather slavish hand.

The series of drawings are interesting because they illustrate not only the grand sites of Chepstow Castle or Pont Aberglaslyn but also little known village scenes such as the view at Newcastle Emlyn. Rowlandson's love of activity is clearly evident in the depiction of Aberystwyth. As a collection these drawings provide a coherent pictorial account of rural Wales in the summer of 1797 through the eyes of an artist who was able to combine Picturesque landscape with accurate observation.

Recording landscape

Rowlandson was part of a long British tradition for recording landscape and combining art with prose or poetry to create a literary work. In that genre the author would have decided which examples were to be included and a comparison between the original series of drawings and the aquatints shows Wigstead's preference for simple illustrations without ambiguities.

The Library has a number of tour drawings and these are amongst the best. Perhaps the finest composition in the series is the large watercolour of Dolbadarn where Rowlandson contrasts the genteel tourists embarked upon Picturesque discoveries on Llyn Padarn with the peasants who, to a man, can only gaze across at the visitors in wonder.