Thursday - 02 October 2014

A Rowlandson revolution? Drawing conclusions as major-name works come up for sale again

29 June 2004Written by ATG Reporter

BACK in July 1984, Christie’s took £75,000 (£81,000 with premium) for Thomas Rowlandson’s (1756-1827) pièce de résistance watercolour of Box-lobby loungers.

Depicting a Covent Garden scene packed with London's high society, this marvellous composition was an important historical document as well as a fine item of art.

Little surprise, then, that at the time it proved an auction record for the artist and one few imagined would be surpassed.

However, records are there to be broken and so it was just eight months later when Sotheby's gavel came down at £85,000 (£93,500 with the then premium) for Rowlandson's Place des Victoires, Paris. Nearly two decades on, and the work returns to Sotheby's this Thursday (July 1) to be featured in their sale of Important British Pictures.

Despite inflationary factors during the intervening years the estimate has been set at just £60,000-80,000.

Painted in the early 1780s, and etched and published by S. Alken in 1789, just four months after the storming of the Bastille, this important work highlights the decadence of French society in the years before the French Revolution.

As can be seen in the illustration right, Rowlandson has used artistic licence by introducing the twin towers of Notre Dame, which, in reality, are some distance away from the Place des Victoires. This deception was to help the British viewer recognise without doubt that the setting was indeed Paris.

Describing the condition of the 14 x 21in (36 x 54cm) drawing as good, Henry Wemyss, the head of British Watercolours at Sotheby's, points out that the price it achieved in 1985 still remains the highest auction price for a Rowlandson.

Mr Wemyss says of the composition: "It's amusing and compelling and shows Rowlandson as good as he got."

Rowlandson, described in 1828 by Henry Angelo as the artist who burlesqued even the burlesque, was one - if not the - most prolific artists of his generation.

This means his work is plentiful and, apart from the odd exceptional composition, the bulk tend to sell below the £10,000 mark, with some pen and ink sketches commanding just a few hundred pounds.

Some idea of just how available Rowlandson watercolours are can be gleaned from Sotheby's British Sale, also on July 1, where 11 examples are featured.

Upper estimates range from £2000, for A Study in Life Drawing, to £24,000 for the exuberant and flowing pen and ink and grey wash sketch believed to be artist's first depiction of an auction taking place.

July 1 seems to be a bit of a Thomas Rowlandson day because the auction of British and Continental Watercolours at Christie's South Kensington offers 10 examples, none of which carries expectations beyond £1500.

And at Christie's King Street on June 3 no fewer than 18 works turned up, all bar one - La Place de Mer, Antwerp - finding buyers.

The exception was an impressive, large-scale, detailed watercolour of the square with numerous figures, horses and carts. Twenty years ago it had commanded £26,417 but, given today's market, expectations of £40,000-60,000 on this occasion proved more than buyers would go to.

The 17 sellers went out at between £1400 for the postcard size How to pass a carriage and £4500 for a Thames River scene, all pretty well as expected.

There was, however, one that seemed to stimulate extra interest - The Parson and the Milkmaids - a title which is, for those familiar with Rowlandson's more explicit output, pretty well self-explanatory.

Against hopes of up to £6000, it was acquired by the trade at £9500.

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ATG Reporter

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