Thomas Rowlandson (London 1756-1827 London) A Print Sale (original design for the print)

A portrait study for A Print Sale
Thomas Rowlandson, British (1757-1827)
Pencil, brush with grey ink and pink wash, 283 x 421 mm.
On laid paper with watermark: Grapes.
Provenance: Albert van Loock (L.3751)
Notes by Nicholas JS Knowles © 2023

#1 Thomas Rowlandson, Study for a Print Sale c1788 Pencil, brush with grey ink and pink wash, 283 x 421 mm.

This recently rediscovered preparatory study [Fig #1] for a well-known print by Thomas Rowlandson, (1757-1827) the prolific British artist, printmaker and celebrated caricaturist, is of considerable interest. Not only does it give an intimate glimpse into London print culture in the 1780s but also lends insight into Rowlandson’s working methods at that time. The unfinished drawing comes from the first decade in Rowlandson’s professional career, in the period when he was developing his print making skills and very unusually for Rowlandson, it contains a series of 24 small pen and wash portrait sketches.

The scene depicted is an auction at the premises of Hassel Hutchins of King Street, Covent Garden, a London auction house that specialised in books and prints. Hutchins himself ‘as honest an Auctioneer as ever was of that professio’[1]  is seen, gavel in hand, at centre; his clerk Judd faces away writing at a small table. Around him, posed in groups of four or five persons, bidders stand and sit in conversation as they examine the lots for sale, including a pair of large folio volumes being held up by two saleroom porters on either side. Against the walls in the background, sketched in faintly, are pictures and statues. The bystanders are recognizable personalities among the regular attendees at London print auctions; for example, the seated figure at the centre of the group on the right of the drawing being shown a large volume is Dr. Lort (1725-1790), antiquary and librarian to the Duke of Devonshire.

An account of the resulting print [Fig #2] is given in Joseph Grego’s 1888 book Rowlandson the Caricaturist.

1788. A Print Sale. A Night Auction. (Hutchins, auctioneer, and his wife.) Grego i.241
“The rooms of an old auctioneer, where night sales of pictures, drawings, and prints, were held. The auctioneer is seated under a candelabra, at his desk, which is placed upon a circle of boards running round the apartment, and forming a trestle for the display of engravings. The customers, connoisseurs, collectors, artists, &c., are seated on the outside of the circle, and on either side of the seller. The sale-clerk, and the men who are showing the lots, are in the space within the centre.

Contemporary references further describe these 'night auctions,' where the caricaturist's drawings frequently figured, and which Rowlandson occasionally attended, in company with his friends Mitchell the banker, Parsons and Bannister the comedians, Antiquity Smith, Iron-wig Heywood, Caleb Whiteford, and other dilettanti.”.

#2 Thomas Rowlandson A Print Sale 1788. Etching, 187 x 277 mm. British Museum, London M,40.29

The drawing
The study drawing, while demonstrating Rowlandson’s extraordinary facility at designing complex friezes of interlocking figures, is nonetheless relatively stiff and tentative compared to his usual fluent draughtsmanship; the figures and furniture flat and static, almost as if traced with a camera obscura rather than his bravura freehand. There is no attempt to capture the shadows of a candlelit room, so atmospheric in the print, but rather the focus is on placing the different individual portrait heads in plausible juxtaposition. The heads themselves, economically caught from many different angles with a few dabs of ink, are unmistakeably by Rowlandson. Ruled lines, aligned to a central vanishing point, have been used to establish the perspective of the room and the walls – mechanical details not often exposed by Rowlandson who, from the evidence of many other drawings, was capable of drawing complex scenes straight from his mind’s eye. The squaring in particular is unusual, being found on only a few surviving Rowlandson working drawings for prints [2], and is probably explained by the need to reduce the size: the dimensions to the frame line in the drawing (258 x 374 mm) are considerable larger than those of the resulting print (167 x252 mm). Normally Rowlandson designed to the same scale as he etched and transferred simply by scoring directly through the outlines onto the blackened plate (or occasionally via an intermediate piece of tracing paper). Rowlandson made nearly 3000 prints in his lifetime and a large number of other preparatory drawings for prints by Rowlandson survive. These range from rough concept sketches to outline an initial idea that must have taken several further iterations to perfect (such as the series of pencil drawings in the British Museum for political satires for the Westminster election); to finished designs almost exactly corresponding to the resulting print.

Quite apart from the added chandelier and indications of night, there are many other significant differences between our preliminary portrait study and the etching for A Print Sale. While the overall composition and the placement of the auctioneers, porters and the line of figures is similar (albeit in reverse), in the etching, many of the individual figures and most of the likenesses have been caricatured, some quite grotesquely. For example, in the portrait study, the young man in a hat standing above the central figure of Hutchins is a handsome young man (possibly Rowlandson’s close friend from boyhood, the actor Jack Bannister); in the print he has been caricatured as a grinning, sharp faced, older man. Several figures have been added in the print; one between Hutchins and the right hand porter, and three more on the far right, including a boy and a woman who, according to Grego, is Hutchins’ wife who also attended his auctions.

Another study drawing for the same print in the Tate Gallery, London [Fig #3] provides an intriguing comparison. A rougher, but much more animated pencil sketch, it is closer to the print in spirit and composition and has an energy and spontaneity that is lacking from the portrait study. The extra figures seen in the print are present and the faces, in so far as they are delineated, tend towards caricature. The drawing is midway in size (180 × 269 mm) between the portrait study and the print. The chandelier, and some shading take us towards the night and the lighting effects that Rowlandson plays with in the print.

The arrangement of a line of figures in different postures and angles along a curving arc was a favourite device of Rowlandson, seen for example in his juvenile masterpiece An Artist’s Bench [3] In both the etching and the Tate drawing, the curve of the auctioneer’s trestle tables around the viewer has been noticeably increased compared to the portrait study, giving the design a more energetic appearance and helping to draw the viewer into the scene.

One might speculate that Rowlandson first created the preliminary drawing by placing portrait heads from earlier individual thumbnail studies, adding in figures to connect them as he did so, then resketched the whole as a more satisfying - and satirical - caricature design, as in the Tate sketch, before arriving at a smaller final design for the print in which he added in lighting effects and background detail.

#3 Thomas Rowlandson A Print Sale c1788. Graphite on paper. 180 × 269 mm. The Tate Gallery, London T09195

Imitations of Modern Drawing
The Print Sale is one of a small number of caricature etchings included in an important series of nearly forty prints by Rowlandson, now known as The Imitations of Modern drawing, that came out between 1784 and 1788. Rowlandson is usually given as the publisher, but it is likely that several other London printsellers, notably Elizabeth Jackson, Thomas Cornell and Henry Brookes were also involved [4]. Although Rowlandson had already established his name as a leading caricaturist by 1786, most of the prints in the series are not satires, being reproductive prints after contemporary British artists such as Thomas Gainsborough, Francis Wheatley, George Barrett, Paul Sandby, John Hamilton Mortimer and others. Rowlandson also included at least seven caricatures after his own designs including A Print Sale, and A Fencing Match [5] as well as some of his own non-satires such as the fantasy Love in the East [6].This can be read as a statement that his new 'humorous' art should be placed on an equal footing to more traditional genres such as landscape. The individual prints from the series were also sold separately.

The best preserved copy of the Imitations is in the Gainsborough’s House Museum, Sudbury still bound in its original wrapper with a stamp from Henry Brooks on the front [7]. An image of A Print Sale can be seen printed in brown ink on the same page as another caricature of a hunting clergyman, Going out in the morning. [Fig 4#]

#4 Page from Imitations of Modern Drawing with etching of A Print Sale.

Identifying the characters
Night auctions, such as those of Hutchins, were social occasions where collectors, print dealers, connoisseurs, and dilettanti from different walks of life met and discussed the merits of the works coming up for sale. They are mentioned in several contemporary sources, giving us valuable clues as to the individuals depicted by Rowlandson.

The artist and publisher William Henry Pyne (1769-1843), who wrote under the pseudonym Ephraim Hardcastle, reminisced in 1823:
“I look back with pleasure to former days, when old Mr. Greenwood used to hold the print auctions by candle-light, and have a perfect recollection of his good-humour and upright dealing. I well remember, too, a number of artists and amateurs who constantly attended his room, to purchase etchings of the old masters for themselves and friends…. Old Parsons, as he was called, and young Bannister, the celebrated comedians, were both collectors and amateur artists : the latter was considered an excellent judge of prints. Rowlandson, the humorous draughtsman, and his friend and patron Mr. Mitchell the banker, of the firm of Hodsols, were also frequently of this evening rendezvous of artists, amateurs, and connoisseurs.'

John Thomas Smith, the whilom pupil of Nollekens the sculptor (with whose life he favoured the public), and one of Mr. Reid's predecessors as Keeper of the Print Room of the British Museum, in his loquacious Book for a Rainy Day rambles into the subject of picture sale-rooms, and notes the eccentric characters, collectors, and their individualities, to be met with thereat in his time. …. I must not omit to mention another singular but most honourable character, of the name of Heywood, nick-named "Old Iron-wig." His dress was precise, and manner of walking rather stiff. He was an extensive purchaser of every kind of article in art, particularly Rowlandson's drawings; for this purpose, he employed the merry and friendly Mr. Seguier, the picture-dealer, a school-fellow of my father's, to bid for him.”[8]

This also confirms that the subject of A Print Sale reflected a personal interest; Rowlandson himself was a keen collector. After his death in 1827, the sale at Sotheby’s of his considerable collection, along with the contents of his studio, took four days and included a large variety of old master prints as well as ‘modern’ prints and drawings by his contemporaries.

Pyne‘s memoire above mentions the ‘loquacious‘ Book for a Rainy Day of the artist, antiquary and curator John Thomas Smith (1766–1833), who in his entry for 1786 begins:

Possibly the present frequenters of print sales may receive some little entertainment from a description of a few of the most singular of those who constantly attended the auctions during my boyish days. The elder Langford, of Covent Garden, introduced by Foote as Mr. Puff, in his farce of The Minor, I well remember; yet by reason of my being obliged to attend more regularly the subsequent evening sales at Paterson’s and Hutchins’s—next-door-neighbour auctioneers, on the north side of King Street, Covent Garden, I am better enabled to speak to the peculiarities of their visitors than those of Mr. Langford.

Smith goes on to provide detailed descriptions of the appearance, occupation, character and foibles of a number of the attendees. The two samples given here from a long list – for Dr Lort and Hutchins himself – give a sense of his verbal thumbnails.

Dr. Lort, the constant correspondent of Old Cole, was a man of his own stamp, broad and bony, in height nearly six feet, of manners equally morose, and in every respect just as forbidding. His wig was a large Busby, and usually of a brown appearance, for want of a dust of powder. He was chaplain to the Duke of Devonshire; and as he wore thick worsted stockings, and walked anyhow through the mud, considered himself in no way obliged to give the street-sweepers a farthing. He had some wit, however, but it was often displayed in a cowardly manner, being mostly directed towards his little opponent, Doctor Gossett, who was unfortunately much afflicted by deformity, and of a temper easily roused by too frequent a repetition of threepenny biddings at Paterson’s. Paterson sold his books singly, and took threepence at a bidding.

Hutchins was about five feet nine inches, but in appearance much shorter by reason of his corpulency. His high forehead, when compared with a perpendicular, was at an angle of forty-five. He was what Spurzheim would call a simple honest man: his wife was of the same build, but most powerfully possessed the organ of inquisitiveness, which induced her to be a constant occupant of a pretty large and easy chair, by the side of the fire in the auction-room, in order that she might see how business was going on.

Smith ends his list of characters with a reference to the etching of A Print Sale.

I shall now close this list by observing that my early friend and fellow-pupil, Rowlandson, who has frequently made drawings of Hutchins and his print-auctions, has produced a most spirited etching, in which not only many of the above-described characters are introduced, but also most of the printsellers of the day. There is another, though it must be owned very indifferent, plate, containing what the publisher called “Portraits of Printsellers,” from a monotonous drawing by the late Silvester Harding, whose manner of delineation made persons appear to be all of one family, particularly his sleepy-eyed and gaudily-coloured drawings of ladies.

Since a number of able artists attended these informal occasions, it is not surprising that the collectors were themselves collected. The Royal Collection has series of portrait sketches by Paul Sandby sketched into the margins of sale catalogues [9] and some of the Sandby sketches were later made into the print mentioned by Pyne and published by Sylvester Harding in 1798 [Fig #5]. The Sandby originals have not yet compared been with Rowlandson’s portrait study heads. There are also four small likenesses on old sales catalogue pages by Sandby in the British Museum. [10]

#5 Paul Sandby Sketches taken at a print Sale. 1st Feb 1798 Etching dimensions British Museum 1876,1209.612

Judd and Hutchins and his Clerk Judd, along with 20 leading London printsellers are sketched in another etching, Printsellers of London 1784, two impressions of which are in the British Museum. Both are inscribed in ink in a contemporary hand with identifications of the characters [Fig #6].

#6. Anonymous Printsellers of London 1784 Etching British Museum 1852,0214.313

Although further work is needed to examine the Sandby sketches and other potential portrait sources, the existence of thumbnail sketches of attendees at the London print auctions lends some credibility to the idea that Rowlandson composed A Print Sale from individual portrait sketches by himself or others. Sketching heads of politicians onto cards was a routine practice for caricaturists of the age (a number of James Gillray’s thumbnails are in the British Museum). It is also worth noting Rowlandson would have known Sandby through attending the Royal Academy. He even included two landscape prints after Sandby in his Imitations of Modern Drawing.[11] 

Earlier Provenance and other drawings of Auctions
The portrait study has the collectors mark (L.3751) of Albert van Loock (1917-2011?) the Brussels based art dealer, but does not appear to have been previously described in the literature. There is an intriguing mention of a drawing of a print sale in Grego’s 1888 book on Rowlandson, but his description sounds more like the Tate sketch than our portrait study.

“The editor of this work has seen a drawing by Rowlandson of this very auction, the cognoscenti gathered round the long tables lighted with flickering candles, and peering over the engravings, glasses on nose, while the auctioneer was endeavouring to excite the interest of the company in the prints brought to his rostrum.” Grego i.70

There are a number of other known drawings by Rowlandson of auctions however. The Berlin Kupferstichkabinett has a drawing A Sale of Books [12] which has some similarities and there are several versions in public collections of drawings for a print of Christies Auction room [13] The latter relate to a print that appeared in 1808 in Rudolf Ackermann’s Microcosm of London. A vigorous drawing from the 1780’s A furniture Auction has appeared twice at sale in the past 20 years, most recently at Rosebery’s London 20 Mar 2019, Lot 21.

It may also be remarked that Rowlandson depicted auction scenes in caricatures throughout his career, for example A State Auction (1784); Mock auction or Boney selling stolen goods (1813); Dr Syntax at an Auction (1820), etc

The portrait study for A Print Sale is a notable addition to Rowlandson’s canon and is especially interesting for revealing some of the planning and deliberation that underpinned his apparently effortless and ever inventive art.


[1] Diary of the British painter Joseph Farington (1747-1821)
[2] For example, Horsemen Colliding in the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven B1975.3.133.
[3] An Artists Bench, Tate gallery, London T08142.
[4] Nicholas JS Knowles. ‘Encouraging Rowlandson – The Women Who Mattered’ in Female Printmakers, Publishers and Printsellers in the Eighteenth Century: The Imprint of Women in Graphic Media, 1735–1830 edited by Cristina Martinez and Cynthia Roman, Cambridge University Press, 2023.
[5] Metropolitan Museum New York 33.7(24).
[6] Metropolitan Museum New York 33.7(32).
[7] Gainsborough House Museum, Sudbury, Norfolk 1994.083
[8] Somerset-house Gazette and Literary Museum, London 1823, p360.
[9] Oppé, A. P., The Drawings of Paul and Thomas Sandby in Phaidon Press Ltd, Oxford and London, 1947.
[10] British Museum, London 1979,0407.4, 1979,0407.5, 1979,0407.6, 2017,7068.1
[11] British Museum, London 1904,0819.860, 1904,0819.861.
[12] Kupferstichkabinett , Berlin 4383
[13] British Museum, London 1899,0420.99

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