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Thomas Rowlandson, 1756–1827, British

The Exhibition Stare-Case, Somerset House

Additional Title(s):

The Exhibition 'Starecase,' Somerset House

ca. 1800
Watercolor and pen and ink on medium, slightly textured, cream wove paper
Sheet: 17 1/2 x 11 11/16 inches (44.5 x 29.7 cm)
Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Copyright Status:
Public Domain
Accession Number:
Drawings & Watercolors
Prints and Drawings
Subject Terms:
cane | dog (animal) | Feathers | genre subject | hats | interior | men | nude in art | sculpture | staircase | stockings | women
Associated Places:
City of Westminster | England | Europe | Greater London | London | Somerset House | United Kingdom
Accessible by request in the Study Room [Request]
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Dr. Johnson thought the acid test of fitness was climbing to the top of the exhibition staircase at Somerset House without stopping (Samuel Johnson to William Heberden, 13 Oct. 1784, in Redford, 1994, p. 418). This stairway was designed by Sir William Chambers and led the way to the Great Room, where the Royal Academy held its annual exhibitions. Although the Academy promoted them as “easy and convenient,” the stairs became notorious (Baretti, 1781, p. 15). Owing to the cramped site, Chambers squeezed three continuous flights of stairs into a semicircular space. The unhappy result was a vertiginous staircase, the final flight of which was the steepest and narrowest. While Chambers hoped to make climbing the staircase a metaphor for the ascent of Parnassus, Rowlandson depicts an angry altercation at the top of the stairs and a rampant dog wreaking havoc lower down. To the horror of some onlookers and delight of others, the ladies trip and tumble headlong down the stairs, their skirts flying. The right-hand niche is occupied by a smiling Callipygian Venus, the goddess who admires her own beautiful posterior. By joking about the kind of beauties the exhibition visitors really want to see, Rowlandson also mocks the elevated pretensions of the Academy itself. In this satire, Rowlandson demonstrates the superior appeal of real bodies as opposed to the idealized works of art on view upstairs. Not only does this allude to Hogarth’s famous dictum “who but a bigot, even to the antiques, will say that he has not seen faces and necks, hands and arms in living women that even the Grecian Venus doth but coarsely imitate,” but the composition also embodies Hogarth’s famously anti-academic “Line of Beauty” (Hogarth, “Analysis of Beauty”, p. 66). Unsurprisingly, some have detected Rowlandson borrowing from Last Judgment imagery in these chaotic, tumbling figures (Sitwell, 1937, p. 15). Rather than a dignified ascent of Parnassus, as Chambers intended, Rowlandson suggests a comic equivalent of the descent into hell.

Giuseppe Marco Antonio Baretti, Guide through the Royal Academy, Thomas Cadell the younger, London, 1781, p. 15, Available online in Orbis

John Baskett, Paul Mellon's Legacy: a Passion for British Art: Masterpieces from the Yale Center for British Art, , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2007, p. 274, no. 68, pl. 68, N5220 M552 P38 2007 OVERSIZE (YCBA)

Michael Glover, Scenes from Afar, The Times (London), Saturday, September 22, 2007, p. 28, Available Online : Times Digital Arcive Also available on Microfilm: Film An T482 (SML)

Mark Hallett, The Great Spectacle: 250 years of the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts, [London], p. 24, cat. 4, N5054 .H35 2018 (LC) Oversize (YCBA)

William Hogarth, Analysis of Beauty, Written with a View of Fixing the Fluctuating Ideas of Taste , London, 1753, p. 66, N70 .H7

Samuel Johnson, Letters of Samuel Johnson, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1992-1994, p. 418 (v. 4), PR3533 A4 1992

Robin Simon, Royal Academy of Arts: History and Collections, New Haven, p. 35, fig. 27, N1100 A869 2018 (LC) Oversize (YCBA)

Sacheverell Sitwell, Narrative pictures, a survey of English genre and its painters , B.T. Batsford, London, 1937, p. 15, ND466 S5 (YCBA)

Giles Waterfield, Mr Mellon, RA : the magazine for the Friends of the Royal Academy, No. 96, Autumn 2007, p. 71, V 1905 (YCBA) Detached from RA, no.96 (2007:Autumn)

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