My Favourite Painting: Ronald Searle

One of the 20th century's greatest cartoonists chose his favourite painting for Country Life.

This week, we delve into the Country Life archive for our My Favourite Painting column — back to 2010 when we spoke to cartoonist Ronald Searle as he approached his 90th birthday. Mr Searle died on December 30, 2011, at the age of 91.


Ronald Searle on Vauxhall Gardens, 1784 by Thomas Rowlandson

‘Obsessed as I am with the magical, satirical pen line, I am very much aware of its roots – its forebears, those who created it with genius: Hogarth, Gillray, Rowlandson, Cruikshank. But if I must declare a favourite, I confess that I feel closest to Rowlandson.

‘That living line, that freshness of colour, that beautiful reflection of rural nature, all stirred in with a penetrating dissection of character. It all comes together beautifully in Vauxhall Gardens.’

Art critic John McEwen on Rowlandson

‘No greater compliment could be paid Rowlandson than being chosen by today’s doyen of ‘the magical satirical pen line’. Rowlandson and Searle have the rare ability to make us laugh outright, yet the ‘living line’ is the key, so an artistic tour de force is chosen. Rowlandson was born and raised in London, but his sensibility was markedly French thanks to his surrogate mother, his Huguenot aunt Jane. ‘French sophistication, elegance and delicacy’ were cited by the art historian John Hayes for Rowlandson attaining English preeminence as a draughtsman in his 18th-century prime. Had he painted in oils, his artistic status would be properly honoured.

As it is, we think of him primarily as a cartoonist and illustrator, professions he found better suited to his convivial taste for drink and gambling. Vauxhall Gardens (now Spring Gardens) were in Kennington. At their height in the 18th century, they opened from 7pm between May and September, a place to be seen, to promenade or take a box, to dine or picnic and listen to music, popular and classical. The one-shilling entrance fee was open to all.

Rowlandson shows Samuel Johnson at the table, with Boswell (left) and Goldsmith (right), Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire and her sister Lady Duncannon (centre) and the future George IV with his married mistress, the actress and author Mary Robinson (right). The masterpiece was lost for 160 years and was bought by a keen-eyed tobacco dealer for £1 from a shop near Walthamstow in 1945. He immediately sold it through Christie’s for 2,600 guineas.