Regency artist who lampooned politicians was on state payroll

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The Independent Culture

The 18th-century artist Thomas Rowlandson, known for his savage mockeries of royalty and politics, was actually a paid-for propagandist, according to a new biography.

Rowlandson, who studied at the Royal Academy Schools and was one of the foremost British caricaturists of his time, was paid to produce favourable imagery of the Prince of Wales during the 1788 regency crisis.

The crisis, made famous by Nicholas Hytner's 1994 film The Madness of King George, saw George III descend into a bout of insanity. His illness was accompanied by a power struggle between parliamentary Whigs loyal to the Prince of Wales, who wished to wrest power away from the king, and William Pitt the Younger, who was prime minister.

"The Prince's coterie began a propaganda campaign, to include the publication of caricature prints favourable to the Prince and ridiculing the ambitions of William Pitt's opposing faction," said Matthew Payne, whose biography, co-written with his father James, Regarding Thomas Rowlandson, 1757-1827: His Life, Art and Acquaintance, is released this month.

"The prints were to be sent 'per Mail Coaches to every town throughout the Kingdom'. It shows Rowlandson was perfectly happy to lend his pen in support of a princely cause, if the price was right."

Mr Payne discovered Rowlandson's propagandist position by rifling through architect Sir John Soane's personal archives. Soane had investigated the Prince of Wales's extravagant expenses, and possessed previously unseen bills relating to the commissions in question. They had belonged to Rowlandson's friend and patron, house painter Henry Wigstead, who had gained access to the Prince of Wales's inner circle through his work at the Brighton Pavilion.

Wigstead acted as a broker between the Prince and Rowlandson over the sale of some show pictures, and the propaganda work followed. Caricatures produced for the Prince include "The English Address", where Pitt is shown leading a chained Prince to an audience of asses.

That's not to say Rowlandson had any allegiances. "He himself was not politically minded," said Mr Payne. "At the same time as he was producing propaganda in favour of the Prince and his Whig supporters, he was equally happy to turn out caustic ant-Whig satires for others."

The caricaturist is considered one of the great names in the "golden age" of caricatures, which ran for 50 years from around 1780. He entered the Royal Academy Schools at 16, then spent two years in Paris before exhibiting at the Royal Academy from 1775 onwards. A prolific artist, Rowlandson worked for many of the print sellers of the day, both from his own designs and by developing designs produced by others.