Man seated at a table with a skeleton, c. 1800
William Daniell RA (1769 - 1837)
RA Collection: Art
This caricature drawing shows a man seated at a table with a skeleton. The man holds a bottle with an illegible inscription on it, possibly a drug or poison, and appears to be in discussion with the skeleton. The skeleton sits casually at the table in the manner of a living figure and the man appears not to notice that he is conversing with a skeleton. Confrontations between the living and the dead appear in other drawings in this album, along with other opposite pairings such as sleep and activity, or noise and silence.
This album contains caricature drawings by George Dance and his friend and fellow Academician, William Daniell. An architect by profession, Dance spent much of his spare time drawing elegant profile portraits of friends, acquaintances and prominent public figures. He declared that this hobby provided him with 'a great relaxation from the severer studies and more laborious employment' of his architectural pursuits. A source of even greater entertainment and artistic liberation was his penchant for caricature and humorous sketches of the type found in this album.
In this genre, Dance followed in the footsteps of his elder brother Nathaniel, who gave up painting professionally after his marriage to a wealthy widow and confined his artistic output to caricature and occasional portraits. Whilst some of the brothers' humorous drawings conform to the Georgian model of political and social satire, George Dance's "Gigs, odd Roaring, Ranting, Smiling, Frowning, Cap'ring, Sluts, Booby's, Kings, &c. with Chimera's dire!" in this album are mostly - with a few exceptions - whimsical explorations of the absurd, the dramatic and the grotesque.
Several themes recur throughout the album, including theatrical depictions of supernatural apparitions and sketches mocking couples and the rituals of courtship. Many of the drawings simply exaggerate and make fun of generic human vices such as gluttony and laziness. In particular, both Dance and Daniell include many figures drinking, smoking, sleeping and arguing in their sketches, often creating a comic effect by juxtaposing these figures with their opposite counterparts. Some of the drawings are appended with humorous captions and in several cases these seem to have been added later, transforming straightforward sketches or preparatory drawings into caricatures.The liveliest and most recurrent theme, however, consists of Dance's "Chimeras dire", that is, imaginary hybrid creatures and anthropomorphic figures.
However, whilst the sketches generally revel in the absurd, some of them are evidently influenced by contemporary thought and historical events. Dance even titled the album "The Sublime and the Beautiful', a light-hearted reference to Edmund Burke's highly influential On the Sublime and the Beautiful of 1756. A set of caricatures of dignitaries satirises ineffectual foreign administrations and at least one can be linked specifically to the events of the Peninsular War, in which Dance's son William took part. A number of the drawings are also connected with plays and operas which were staged during the period. This is perhaps unsurprising given the Dance family's strong theatrical connections. James, eldest of the Dance brothers (d. 1774), was a somewhat roguish actor and writer who ran a theatre in Richmond and performed at Drury Lane and his son, William (d. 1840), was a musician in the King's Theatre Orchestra.
Dance's profile portraits were well known to his contemporaries but his caricatures seem to have been reserved for his own private entertainment and that of his family and friends. Nevertheless, while staying with Sir George Beaumont at Coleorton, Dance frequently entertained his host and patron by 'drawing humorous figures'. The album was possibly assembled for Dance’s own family, and the inscription on the first page reminding “Nobody (so well known to Everybody)” to “put their fingers, toes, or elbows &c. upon the Gigs in pensil only” certainly suggests that he anticipated its use by persons perhaps less respectful than Sir George Beaumont.
William Daniell’s contribution to the album was probably instigated by Dance and, four of his twenty six drawings are copies after original images by Dance. Despite an apparent talent for the genre, Daniell seems not to have produced many humorous drawings. However, some of his illustrations to W. Wood’s Zoography; or, the Beauties of Nature Displayed (London 1807) employ distortions of scale which are close to caricature in effect.
There are two similar albums in the Tate collection by both Dance brothers. The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge also has a large group of their comic drawings and a number of the brothers' caricatures also survive in private collections.
107 mm x 182 mm
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