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Thomas Rowlandson’s Lower Orders

March 8, 2011
by the gentle author

Great News!

Although Thomas Rowlandson had the unexpected good luck to inherit a fortune of £7,000 from a French aunt, he was born as the son of a wool and silk merchant in Old Jewry in the City of London, who went bankrupt when Thomas was just two years old. Yet due to a profligate nature, Thomas’ inheritance got quickly squandered and he turned to caricature as a means of income, achieving memorable success. A series of life experiences which may permit us to surmise that Rowlandson’s use of the term “Lower Orders,” in the title of his “Characteristic Sketches of the Lower Orders” (a set of fifty prints published in 1820), was not entirely without irony.

While many sets of images of the “Cries of London” over the centuries presented a harmonious social picture in which hawkers knew their place, I treasure Rowlandson’s work for the exuberant anarchy that he brings to his subjects who stride energetically through the London streets like they own them, gleefully lacking any sign of subservience. Rude, rambunctious, horny and venal as rats, these are Londoners that we can all recognise and, even though Rowlandson’s vision is not a flattering view of humanity, his lack of sentimentality endears us to his subjects, in spite of their flawed natures.

In Rowlandson’s work, the drama of the city is all-consuming as everyone strives for gratification, whether making a living, seeking sexual pleasure, or purely to assert their being. And, to the outside eye, these inhabitants appear almost childlike in their preoccupations, because nobody has time for self-conscious reflection when everyone is too busy pursuing life.

In the Newspaper Seller and the Cab Driver, the “lower orders” are placed in relation to their “superiors” and, in each case, the tension of the relationship is obvious. The Paper Sellers’ trumpet and loud cries are irking their customers by awakening them in the early morning, while the Cabbie is affronted by his meagre tip and challenges his passengers. And neither shows any regard for those who are offended by their lack of manners.

By contrast, in the plates of the Postman and the Rose Seller, the tension is erotic – the Postman checks out his young female customer while a voyeur cranes from a balcony above and the Rose Seller assumes a faux innocence when an old lecher chucks her under the chin – in each instance proposing transactions both covert and overt. Then there are the clownish Cat & Dogs’ Meat Seller, beset by hungry dogs, and the senile Night Watchman, oblivious of burglars. Only two hawkers demonstrate humility, the Knife Grinder preoccupied with his work and the Curds & Whey Seller sitting to watch the happy young mother and her children with tacit envy. Finally, the China Sellers and the Tinker mending pots and kettles are grotesques. The China Sellers ingratiate themselves in a predatory manner, but the Tinker meets his match in the demanding old hag.

There are some appealingly scruffy spontaneous lines here that would not be out of place in a drawing by Quentin Blake. By his early sixties, Rowlandson had sacrificed the precise elegant flowing lines of his early career for these off-the-cuff sketches which communicate character with great immediacy.

Ultimately, the central ambiguity and source of drama in Rowlandsons “Characteristic Sketches of the Lower Orders” is the question – Who is playing who? And even in this selection, of just ten from the set of fifty, it is apparent that there is no simple answer. Instead, Rowlandson presents a series of precise scenarios that trace delicate lines of social and economic distinction with wit and humanity, avoiding any didactic or moral conclusion. Above all, these wonderful prints illustrate that moral worth does not equate with the “Lower” or “Higher” orders, and their relative economic worth. Thomas Rowlandson’s Londoners are just as good and as bad each other.

Wot d’yer call that?

Cats and Dogs’ Meat?

Letters for Post?

Past one o’clock and a fine morning!

Buy my Sweet Roses?

Knives and Scissors to Grind?

Curds and Whey?

Any Earthenware? Buy a Jug or a Teapot?

Pots and Kettles to Mend?

2 Responses leave one →
  1. melbournegirl permalink
    March 8, 2011

    These are very interesting. I find them oddly disturbing. Your comments about London life are typically astute; they recall Dickens’s characterisation of the city as his ‘magic lantern’.

  2. Ree permalink
    February 11, 2012

    One can feel the robust energy of street life…

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