History of Henry Wellcome's unique collection, £19.99
Height: 484.000 mm
Width: 317.000 mm
Gift of William Smith
Prints and Drawings
Thomas Rowlandson, Exhibition Stare Case, a print
London, England, around AD 1811
Victims of the steep staircase reveal all
This print is based on a drawing which was probably made in around 1800. It shows visitors to the Royal Academy tumbling down a steep staircase at Somerset House, now the Courtauld Institute of Art. The first major contemporary art exhibition in London was staged in 1760 by the Society of Artists. The Royal Academy held its first exhibition in 1769, but it was not until 1780 that the Academy exhibited at the newly rebuilt Somerset House. Here Sir William Chambers designed a new complex of government buildings with the Royal Academy as its centrepiece. He proclaimed it 'an object of national splendour as well as convenience' and 'a monument to the taste and elegancy of His Majesty's reign'.
These boasts form the background to Thomas Rowlandson's caricature. The first exhibition attracted 61,381 visitors and, inevitably, the building became extremely crowded. Rowlandson suggests that the architect was more interested in the visual effect of his staircase than in its practical utility. He also plays with two commonplace observations about exhibition audiences: that some female spectators came to be seen as much as to see and that some male spectators were more interested in living flesh than in painted nudes. Put these three factors together and you get a typically energetic and mildly erotic composition.
Around 1810 Rowlandson etched a number of plates for the publisher Thomas Tegg, who sold cheap and crudely coloured caricatures like this one.
A. Griffiths, Prints and printmaking: an int, 2nd edition (London, The British Museum Press, 1996)
M.D. George, Catalogue of political and per (London, Trustees of the British Museum, 1935-54)
J. Brewer, The pleasures of the imaginati (Harper Collins, 1997)