In this blog, I’ve mentioned books I refer to regularly for research and those that are occasionally useful for specific eras. But there is also another category, due to having too many books (if such a thing is possible). And that is, books that I’d forgotten I possess!
I briefly said last week that some scenes in my Regency WIP, Town Bronze take place in an upmarket brothel in London’s Covent Garden. I was mulling over clothes and costume (particularly dress and undress) that isn’t immediately apparent in my crop of costume books.
Then I suddenly remembered my copy of Amorous Illustrations of Thomas Rowlandson. I found it on a distant bookshelf and dusted it off. As I had guessed, there’s nothing like erotic illustrations so give a clear idea of ladies’ and men’s undergarments of the Regency period! This book is of its time and so depicts only heterosexual sex. But rather than bowing to societal norms of the early 19th century, this preference seems to reflect Rowlandson’s personal tastes.
Rowlandson was born in the mid-18th century and apart from being a brilliant draughtsman and caricaturist, he was very much a man of his time. As a young man, he inherited a fortune and quickly squandered it on the tables of London’s notorious gaming hells. But despite the permanent injury to his health due to this period of drink and debauchery, he rallied to regain his early artistic success and maintained a prosperous career until the end of his life in 1827.
Bill Smith of Bibliophile Books says in his fascinating introduction to Amorous Illustrations that Rowlandson’s erotic cartoons are from the latter part of his career from 1812 onwards, “gently mocking the sexual deficiencies of old men,” most likely including the illustrator himself. But his depictions are “inclined to perceive the ludicrous” rather than being cruelly satirical or exploitative. His virile young bucks are handsome and eager and his drawings of women reflect his admiration for the fairer sex. As Bill Smith notes, “He drew women with notable grace and accuracy.”
These erotic drawings reflect “a rumbustious, bawdy age” and cheerfully celebrate sexuality with “sheer exuberance” in a good-humoured way for public consumption. Rowlandson’s depictions of “indisputably beautiful” sexually empowered women and their chosen bed partners reflect a period of openness. Although that was imperfect and unequal in many ways, I’m always reminded how the shadow of Victorian morality soon descended to drive sexual expression of all kinds furtively underground for at least the rest of the century.
Also, as I’d hoped, the illustrations confirm exactly how ladies’ stockings were tied below the knee and that some gentlemen (whichever gender they preferred) kept their Hessian boots on in bed!