Graham Chainey: Caricaturist’s notable Brighton scenes

Rowlandson, In the Saloon
Rowlandson, In the Saloon

A notable precursor to the John Piper album discussed in my previous column (March 16) was the one published in 1790 by one of my favourite caricaturists, Thomas Rowlandson.  By using aquatints, Piper deliberately placed himself in a tradition going back to those days.

“An Excursion to Brighthelmstone, Made in the Year 1789, by Henry Wigstead and Thomas Rowlandson”, is of a slightly larger format, and even greater rarity, than the Piper. It contains just eight aquatint engravings, four of stops along the way, four of Brighton itself. Wigstead, a magistrate friend of Rowlandson’s, provided the text, which serves to promote Brighton’s burgeoning charms (the album is dedicated to the Prince of Wales). These included “the purity of the air, the ever varying prospects of the sea, the excellent accommodation of strangers, and the acknowledged superiority of the bathing machines”.

The first of the Brighton scenes shows the Steine with various promenading figures in the foreground, the prince’s newly built classical-style Marine Pavilion to the left. Wigstead glosses: “The Steine at Brighthelmstone is most beautifully situated. Three sides of it are formed by very neat and convenient lodging houses, the fourth is open to the sea. The rising Downs behind are a shelter and ornament … The lovely throng of females, in all the elegance of a light summer’s dress, woven in Fancy’s loom, who here suffer the sea breezes to riot on their charms, is exceedingly numerous.”

Another aquatint portrays the saloon of the Pavilion as it then was, with Aubusson carpet, chandelier, and seven courtly figures – the ladies in feathered hats and long skirts, the gents bewigged and breeched. Wigstead claims the room was “beautifully decorated with paintings by [Biagio] Rebecca, executed in his best manner” (they may be the ceiling panels).

A livelier scene shows a row of bathing machines below the cliff, with a horse drawing the nearest towards the water and a party of people descending the steps in a fresh breeze – a gent’s tricorn hat has just blown off – while in the foreground fishermen mend nets or heave a boat. Curiously, the clifftop windmill, near West Street, was actually no longer there, having been moved to Black Rock in 1759. Rowlandson may have copied the scene from an old print, finding that the mill provided an interesting focus for his picture. Wigstead: “The number of beautiful women who every morning court the embraces of the watery god, far exceeds that of any other bathing place in the kingdom.”

Finally comes a lively view of the Race Ground, with the original grandstand, built in 1788, to the right (it burnt down in 1803 and was replaced with a grander version, which features in an 1816 Rowlandson view of the same scene). Four horses can be seen racing while a crowd looks on, some of them seated in carriages, with the odd pickpocket and thimble-rigger among them. Wigstead: “The race ground is one of the most beautifully situated spots in the world. The prospect is wonderfully extensive and magnificent.”

Another view from about the same date but not engraved (two versions survive) shows the fish market on the beach, with hog-boats, fish-wives, and more bathing machines. A similar undated watercolour of “Brighton Beach” is in the V&A.

Among other Rowlandson images, “Embarking from Brighthelmstone to Dieppe” of 1787, now in the Tate, shows an animated scene with boatloads of passengers being pushed off in rough weather. A drawing of 1790 entitled “A Dressing Room at Brighton” shows three gents having their hair curled. Two or more “Scenes at Brighton” of 1807 show the pleasures of the high life and their attendant miseries. Finally, by this incomparable draughtsman, a drawing of 1809 shows a coach being got ready to depart outside the Ship Inn.