The Huntington Art Gallery's proper British front has never precluded a bit of fun. A witty drawing here, a raucous caricature there and, upon occasion, a whole show of humorous illustrations by the likes of George Cruikshank have established the gallery's longstanding relationship with the institution of English wit.
Huntington Curator Robert R. Wark, a charming gentleman and an erudite scholar, seems to delight in trotting out curiosities and other outrageously funny stuff--all tempered by the propriety we have grown to expect at the most genteel of art museums. His current public offering, a show of about 50 pen-and-watercolor drawings by Thomas Rowlandson, is jolly holiday fare.
Though Rowlandson (1756-1827) also presents his sober (landscape, genre and portrait) side in this show from the Huntington's vast collection, he is at the top of his comic form in such drawings as "Catsqualani," which caricatures Italian soprano Angelica Catalani. The bellowing singer's irreverent title and her state of dishevelment suggest that her voice bears a frightening likeness to a feline in distress.
In "A French Frigate Towing an English Man o' War Into Port," another delicious blend of caption and image, the "French Frigate" is a seductive young woman and the "Man o' War" in her tow is a jowly, potbellied old lecher who prances in lock step with her--despite having to navigate on a peg leg and cane.
That Rowlandson perceived himself as an upright, handsome, intelligent fellow in a world of grotesque fools is suggested by "The Life Class." Here, an artist portrayed as a delicately inspired being in a room of rough-hewn hacks is said to be Rowlandson himself.
This angelic self-image holds true, but far more subtly, in a group of drawings from "Rowlandson's Tour in a Post-Chaise," documenting his 1784 journey through Southwestern England. The artist appears to be young, comely and vulnerable as he sets forth his sketchbook travelogue, often in his most elegant hand. These drawings were done at a turning point, when Rowlandson was beginning to enrich his fluid pen work with watercolor.
Some earlier works, such as the uncharacteristically grisly and stiff drawing, "The Dissection," were crosshatched in such detail that they resemble engravings. Drawings done near the end of his career tend to run flaccid. The exhibition concentrates on Rowlandson's prime years while representing most aspects of his varied oeuvre.
The producer of an estimated 10,000 drawings, Rowlandson was the most prolific comic artist working in England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and his work is perennially popular. When his wit runs dry, decorative qualities and incisive draftsmanship tend to mollify that lack. And if he took few risks with his comic art, he has entertained a broad audience for more than two centuries.
Avoiding the wicked political parodies of Gillray, he focused his benign humor on middle-class customs and manners and on human foibles and mishaps. A vintage Rowlandson cartoon depicts the upset of a dinner party, a prostitute picking the pocket of her trick or employers sizing up the physical attributes of prospective servants.
He punctures pretensions by lengthening a nose or exaggerating a paunch and sets up an undertow of commentary in vignettes acted out by domestic animals. Cognoscenti and connoisseurs get the back of his hand, while gluttons seem destined to drown in their orgies.
Rowlandson does laughable debauchery better than righteous indignation. When he depicts sailors dropping from exhaustion or "The Press Gang" forcing a young man into military service, the effect is flatly preachy.
In the end, it's the cumulative effect of little moments of brilliance that forms a favorable opinion of Rowlandson. One can't point out many masterpieces in his career; what remains in memory after an extended encounter with Rowlandson is his adroit draftsmanship and a warm sense of humor that enhances life even as it flaunts all its ragged edges.
The exhibition will prolong holiday cheer through Feb. 24. The Huntington is open from 1 to 4:30 p.m., Tuesdays through Sundays.