In 1784, British artist Thomas Rowlandson submitted two watercolors to the Royal Academy member’s exhibition: The Serpentine River and Vauxhall. They were recognized by the critics and at 28 years-old, Rowlandson emerged as an artist of note. The later work was engraved by Robert Pollard for wide distribution the following year. One of the finest aquatintists of the period, Francis Jukes (1745-1812), was hired to recreate the look of the watercolor and the print was published by John Raphael Smith (1752-1812), one of the leading printmakers of the day, who published prints after Gainsborough, Reynolds, and Romney.
In Vauxhall, figures are caricatured but identifiable, including Mrs. Weichsel singing from the front balcony and Mr. Barthelemon leading the orchestra. Below is a supper party with James Boswell, Dr. Samuel Johnson, Mrs. Thrale, and Oliver Goldsmith. Boswell did frequent Vauxhall and said “I am a great friend to pubic amusements; for they keep people from vice. You would now have been with a wench had you not been here.” Playwright and columnist Captain Topham is looking through a spyglass at the Duchess of Devonshire and her sister, Lady Duncannon. Further to the right, the Prince of Wales flirts with his former mistress Perdita Robinson, who remains on the arm of her husband.
Vauxhall Gardens originated in 1661, was renovated in 1732 and remained a popular venue well into the 19th century. As described in Boswell’s Life of Johnson, “There being a mixture of curious shew, gay exhibition, musick, vocal and instrumental, not too refined for the general ear; for all which only a shilling is paid; and, though last, not least, good eating and drinking for those who choose to purchase that regale.”
Rowlandson liked to go there in the evening to watch and draw. He created at least two watercolors and several prints featuring the Garden. However, there is no recorded impression of this image “drawn and engraved by Rowlandson” as the Princeton print claims. The inscribed border of our print gives the publisher as Richard Powell, with no date, and names many of the celebrities in the scene, but there is no listing of such a print in Grego’s catalogue raisonné. Most likely it is one of many illegal reprintings of Rowlandson’s popular prints.
Joseph Grego (1843-1908), Rowlandson the Caricaturist (London: Chatto and Windus, 1880) Graphic Arts Collection (GA) Oversize Rowlandson 703.3q
James Boswell (1740-1795), The Life of Samuel Johnson (Printed by Henry Baldwin, for Charles Dilly …, 1791) Rare Books (Ex) 3804.3.59