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Old Master Paintings

Luck and Debauchery: Thomas Rowlandson Depicts Gambling in the Georgian Era

By Halina Loft
Inspired by Chatsworth: A Selling Exhibition features two remarkable works by Georgian era artist and caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson. The exhibition in New York is free and open to the public until 13 September, alongside Treasures from Chatsworth: the Exhibition .
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A portrait of Duchess Georgiana Cavendish by Thomas Gainsborough, circa 1785, on display at the Chatsworth Exhibition, Sotheby's New York

A ristocrats in Britain’s Georgian age enjoyed a life of seemingly endless leisure. In the country, the gentry whiled away the days with picnics, hunting and boating, not to mention lavish balls. But there were also less decorous games to play, for those who cared to try their luck. Gambling was a principal pastime of many elite lords and ladies, including Duchess Georgiana and her sister Lady Bessborough. At Devonshire House, the London home of the Dukes of Devonshire until the 19th century, the Duchess often hosted lavish gambling parties attended by society’s crème de la crème. Georgian era artist and caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson captured the raucous mood of these parties with vivid, sometimes critical etchings.

And while the Duchess was one of the artist’s best-known subjects, this watercolor is especially important, as it appears to be Rowlandson’s earliest known rendering of Georgiana. Titled A Gaming Table at Devonshire House, London: Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, Harriet, Lady Duncannon, the Prince of Wales and Other Gambling, the present work dates four years earlier than the other two drawings of the Duchess; one, dated 1791, sold at Sotheby’s London in 1990, and the other, similarly dated, is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, New York.

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Thomas Rowlandson, A Gaming Table at Devonshire House, London: Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, Harriet, Lady Duncannon, the Prince of Wales and Others Gambling, 1787. Asking Price $185,000.
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Pencil sketch portrait of Thomas Rowlandson by George Henry Harlow (d. 1819), currently in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Image in the public domain.

The work depicts a game of faro, a 17th-century French card game that enjoyed parallel popularity to poker, at Devonshire House. The Duchess and her sister are drawn wearing hats, one throwing dice, the other searching for more money from her purse. To the left, a young lady has run out of money and is being offered a loan by a young officer, while to the right, two gentlemen keenly await the fall of the dice. As the title suggests, one of the gentlemen present is the Prince of Wales. In the center, a woman appears to have dozed off at the table (or perhaps she's merely practicing her poker face).

But though Rowlandson showed no mercy caricaturing his subjects in the throes of sport, he himself was a rather avid (and skilled) gambler. In 1789, the artist inherited a substantial legacy from a deceased aunt, which he used, according to The Gentleman's Magazine, to “indulg[e] his predilection for a joyous life...was known in London at many of the fashionable gaming houses, alternatively won and lost without emotion”.

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Thomas Rowlandson, Countrymen and Sharpers, 1787. Asking Price $185,000.

In this second work, titled Countrymen and Sharpers, the artist represents himself (right, in the red jacket) as the leading card sharper among a group of companions; to the left, a naive countryman is seemingly encouraged to drink heartily (and, we can assume, make riskier bets). As art historian Joseph Grego notes, the work shows Rowlandson “with blustering front, [...] fleecing the simple youth at cards, in defiance of his well-accepted reputation for rigid integrity.” (J. Grego, Rowlandson the Caricaturist: a selection from his works with anecdotal descriptions of his famous caricatures, London 1880, vol. I, p. 47). The young countryman was drawn with the likeness of J.K. Sherwin, who engraved the subject in 1787.

Both works are highlights of Inspired by Chatsworth: a Selling Exhibition in New York, which is free and open to the public through 13 September. Stop by Sotheby’s New York to view the works and the exhibition in person.

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