The Overdrove Ox (Mad Bull on London Bridge)
Engraved: by Thomas Rowlandson, 1787 & 1790, published by William Holland, etching with aquatint
Sotheby’s, London, March 15 1990, lot 371
Spink, London, 1991, no.13
Robert K. Johnson, South Carolina
Elizabeth Philips, Marianne Moore, 1982, p.35
Margarette Lincoln, Trading in War: London's Maritime World in the Age of Cook and Nelson, 2018, p.23
Thomas Almeroth-Williams, City of Beasts: How Animals Shaped Georgian London, 2019, p.169
He was ‘the greatest master of pure line that England has ever had the good fortune to produce’.
Sir Osbert Sitwell’s assertion is one which has been iterated time and time again by those who have studied the work of Thomas Rowlandson. This eminent pen line, highly versatile in its many capabilities, was always expressive, often economical and rarely imprecise. In just one drawing Rowlandson’s line can rangefrom flexible, graceful and serpentine yet continuous and looping, to strokes which are broken, contracted and impliable, seen perhaps, in the internal modelling of a figure’s torso, or, possibly in the ‘roughing out’ of shadows already painted in with grey wash. Regardless of the technique employed, it is this line, this idiosyncratic calligraphy, which endowed his forms with considerable vigour, abounding life and the indispensable comic gesture. In consequence, these figures were invested with the possibility to be any form and to move in any way.
La Comédie humaine, presented by Rowlandson in its many and varied manifestations, is typically set on an English stage and acted out by caricatured types. The extent of each individual caricature is determined to a lesser or greater degree by the respective demands of each composition’s intended effect, and no less significantly, by the interrelationship of the accompanying characters. The obscure line, the hidden code which Rowlandson was instinctively aware of within the ambit of the tragi-comic spectacle, a seam which at once joins and divides tragedy and comedy, is manipulated, through the artist’s formidable inventiveness, to illustrate situations which in their very essence are morbid, frightful and quotidian but after Rowlandson’s skilful legerdemains, delightful occasions for humour: “That we respond to the drawing as humour is due to a complex intermingling of various factors: caricature, action, pictorial arrangement, verbal labels, and, ultimately, the actual medium the drawing is executed. There is nothing unequivocally comic about any of these factors in isolation any more than there is about the situation itself, but they come together to create an effect that is unmistakably comic.”
The present watercolour is a good example of typical Rowlandsonian gallows humour, the subject - pandemonium caused by an untamed ferocious ox on London Bridge - was not an unusual incident in London at this time but one that occurred frequently and often resulted in a variety of gruesome casualties and occasional mortalities. The horror explicit in an event such as Rowlandson shows here, is never fully erased, nor could it ever be, instead however, Rowlandson chooses to omit the more gory effects of the terror - bloodletting and impaling - and with great skill directs our attention to the comedic vagaries of the situation. Skaters on the Serpentine (1784), Vauxhall Gardens (c.1784), The French & English Reviews (c.1785) and The Prize Fight (1787) are arguably the finest works Rowlandson ever created. The present watercolour (c.1787) dates from the end of this period.
The scene is set on the north bank of the Thames with the church of St Magnus-the-Martyr, which still survives to this day, standing at the end of London Bridge. Dickens described the spire of the church in Oliver Twist as a “giant-warder of the ancient bridge” whilst almost a century later, T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land wrote "the walls of Magnus Martyr hold/Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold”. The houses which had lined the bridge for almost 600 years were demolished in 1761 and the following year, under the direction of George Dance the Elder and Sir Robert Taylor, major and greatly overdue renovations began. With the new available space, the carriageway was widened to 46 feet, a central arch (the Great Arch) replaced two existing arches, so as to better accommodate the navigation of larger ships, a Gothic balustrade framed the bridge’s parapets on either side, and, fourteen stone, ten-feet tall alcoves were rhythmically interposed within the balustrades.
By the time this watercolour was made, in around 1787, London Bridge was one of only three road-crossing bridges in central London. Drovers who entered the city from the counties of Kent, Surrey and Sussex were obliged to cross London Bridge with their cattle in order to reach Smithfield Market, an area of five acres lying within the ward of Farringdon, and the nexus of London’s livestock trade during the 18th Century. The exponential rise of urbanisation during this period allayed with the ensuing and ever increasing demands for meat, fated an inevitable crowdedness between cattle, horses, and people, within a decreasing amount of space in metropolitan thoroughfares. Bullocks were certainly not the easiest animals to tame. A required level of force was demanded from the drovers to keep these beasts - who were used to grazing in open fields - moving through this confined and unfamiliar hustle and bustle. Additionally, bull-terriers or ‘butchers dogs’ were used to pressurise the cattle into keeping in motion, by nipping at their feet, indeed, Rowlandson shows three of them in pursuit of the maddened bull in the present watercolour. Such tactics were not only patently cruel but often provocations for a bull going ‘mad’ in the first place. Incidentally, the still widely-used idiom ‘like a bull in a china shop’ originated from actual situations of mad bulls causing frequent damage to shops in London around the time Rowlandson painted this scene. Nonetheless, the phrase ‘over-drove’ clearly implies that if a bullock ran wild it was the sole fault of the drover, through an excess of goading, slack conduct or cruelty. The drovers were easy scapegoats and routinely castigated by an increasingly frustrated public, but, manifestly not the root of the problem. Between 1784-96, a tenth of all recorded street associated offences in London were related to the mistreatment of cattle. This could range from a pedestrian pelting cattle with stones, startling them with noise or chasing them.
The socio-political symbolism of an untamed bull charging through the streets was utilised most effectively by James Gillray in Promis’d Horrors of the French Invasion, 1796. Its prevailing connotations with mob rule, a feared French proletariat invasion and anarchy unleashed, engendered the use of this symbol in several other satirical cartoons made during the French Revolutionary Wars. In Rowlandson’s watercolour - which predates the Storming of the Bastille by only two years - the quiddities embodied by both the rampaging ox and the fomenting mob behind (complete with sticks and clubs) are almost indivisible. Nevertheless, Rowlandson’s interest in prescient and profound political linkages within his art, was never great. His works are far too much fun and expansive to let themselves be anchored down by dogma. Studying the composition of The Overdrove Ox it becomes quickly clear that it is established on a strong receding diagonal, a recession which is echoed by the shape, curve and direction of the bridge. Nearly everything is absorbed into this main diagonal, distinct groups of figures form ‘falling diagonals’, while the church acts as a stabilising vertical within the arrangement. The heavily shadowed repoussoir scene on the left of the watercolour is itself a ‘falling diagonal’. As the post-chaise crashes into a tangle of market sellers, the contortions of the figures, lurching horses and upheld horse’s whip, fix themselves into the form of a pyramid. Within this group one of Rowlandson’s greatly employed comic devices has been made use of. The operation of contrast. On the left of this particular vignette a legless beggar holds a dismissive hand up to the approaching collision, he may well be blind as he seems to still be begging and shows no signs of discomposure. On the right of this scene and seated within the post-chaise is a gentleman who looks with almost stolid enquiry at a man in mid fall from the bridge. Both of these figures are positioned upright and ‘looking’ out in front of them. These two figures contrast with those who are positioned between the two of them: two screaming woman, a crying child and a whining horse. All four of these figures look up and to the right, their positions are sloping and angular. A straight declining diagonal of open and ‘shrieking’ faces - from top left to bottom right: horse, woman carrying a bundle on her head, market seller then child in an upturned fruit seller’s basket - a diagonal thrust of fear contrasting the vertical composure of the beggar and gentleman in the carriage.
“The surge of violent movement was where Rowlandson excelled.” The interplay of movement and the inevitable areas of counter-movement within the picture interestingly, en passant, shows all three of Newton’s laws of motion in operation. The frieze-like arrangement and continuous spiralling undulation of the central scene is cleverly contrived to “offer maximum opportunity for the development of narrative incident.” Some of the figures are interlocked, some falling, others climbing, one man (probably the stagecoach’s armed guard) takes aim at the ox with a flintlock blunderbuss over the carriage’s (Greenwich to Blackheath Machine) rear wheel. In front of the carriage, a lecherous old man has conveniently fallen onto the back of a young attractive woman, indecorous in her fallen state. His expression reveals his joy at this unexpected good fortune. It may well be his last. An archetypal matriarch is shown screaming at the ox from the tipping coach’s window, arms flung out and wearing an enormous bonnet. Rowlandson was to use this motif again a couple years later in ‘The Cockermouth Post Coach’, a watercolour now in The Royal Collection. Rowlandson captures to perfection, routinely with a satirical edge, the attitudes and expressions of his intimately commingled dramatis personae. As Vic Gatrell determines, ‘For Rowlandson the moment when chaos descends is no time for pity, alarm or moralising. Rather, it catapults people into a betrayal of their unveneered and common humanity, and thus becomes a moment for high comical observation.’
“The whistling, the hooting, the hallooing, and the running of the drovers in pursuit—men, women, and children, scampering to get out of the way of the infuriated beast—the noise and rattling of carriages. Here, a poor half-starved and almost frightened-to-death brat of a Chimney-sweeper, in haste to escape, had run against a lady whose garments were as white as snow—there, a Barber had run against a Parson…”
Real Life In London (1821)
1. Osbert Sitwell, Famous Watercolour Painters, VI - Thomas Rowlandson, 1929, p.7
‘At his best he was the most distinguished performer in the medium of drawing that England has produced.’ Robert Wark, Drawings by Thomas Rowlandson in the Huntington Collection, 1975, p.16
2. Robert Wark, Drawings by Thomas Rowlandson in the Huntington Collection, 1975, p.6
3. Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, 1838, p.401
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land and other poems, 1940, lines 263 to 265.
4. Inadvertently, the creation of the Great Arch resulted in an overall weakening of the bridge’s structure, as well as, exciting a dangerous effect on the river’s current.
5. The other two bridges were Westminster and Blackfriars. This statistic excludes Old Battersea Bridge which was opened in 1771 but only 24 foot wide and not, even by today’s measurements, in Central London.
6. In 1774, legislation was passed after decades of public complaint against the ‘Smithfield gentry’: an Act to Prevent the Mischiefs that arise from driving Cattle within the Cities of London and Westminster.
7. ‘a mad Bull in a china shop.’ St James’s Chronicle, 20 August 1793
8. D. Gray, Crime Prosecution and Social Relations: the summary courts of the City of London in the Eighteenth Century, 2009, p.118
9. The lively sketch of the riotous crowd in pursuit is barely delineated yet full of life and dynamism.
“The fewer the lines, the greater the life.” - John Hayes, Rowlandson; Watercolours and Drawings, 1972, p.97
10. The figure of a man falling from the bridge calls to mind this quotation by Eugène Delacroix: ”If you have not sufficient skill to make a sketch of that man throwing himself out of that window, in the time it takes him to fall from the fourth floor to the ground, you will never be capable of producing great machines.” Charles Baudelaire, L'Oeuvre et la vie d'Eugène Delacroix, II, 763-764.
11. This excludes the driver painted in blue, who although clearly frightened, is not positioned within the falling diagonal of the other four figures.
12. Rowlandson reinforces this diagonal by the use a triangular section of light which intersects at the market seller’s mouth.
13. John Hayes, Rowlandson; Watercolours and Drawings, 1972, p.46
14. Robert Wark, Drawings by Thomas Rowlandson in the Huntington Collection, 1975, p.23
15. In the etching, taken from this watercolour, the stagecoach is inscribed on the door with ‘Greenwich to Blackheath Machine’.
16. Vic Gatrell, City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London, 2007, p.45
17. Pierce Egan, Real Life In London, Vol. I, 1821, p.115