This unpublished and exceptionally well-preserved drawing of the deck of the Boulogne packet boat shows some interesting characters passing the time during the crossing, two reading books, and attests to Rowlandson’s facility with pen and wash. The ladies wear the lampshade hats, voluminous skirts and elaborate fichus fashionable in the late 1780s. He made several other drawings of the deck of a packet, evidently a good place to sketch.
Henry Angelo’s Reminiscences records a summer visit in 1787 to France organised by J.R. Smith, ‘a party having been made between him, Rowlandson, Westmacott (father of the present eminent artist), and Chasemore… to go to Paris, a large party were previously invited- Peter Pindar (Doctor Wolcott), Morland, Rowlandson myself, & c.- to finish what Burgundy was left in his house, as a prendre congé. This was in the month of July…’.Rowlandson would have been a useful member of the party as he spoke excellent French, unlike Smith.
The younger of the two seated men reading may possibly be John Raphael Smith (1751-1812) on his way to Paris two years before the French Revolution. It is tempting to suggest that there is also a possibility that the sleeping figure in the foreground may be Rowlandson’s friend George Morland, wearing the same clothes as those in which he is shown in Rowlandson’s portraits of him in the British Museum (868,0328.335 and 1868,0328.337).
Jean-Georges Wille the Paris print dealer and artist mentions Smith's visit in his memoirs (although not Rowlandson in person),
" Recently, Mr Smith the celebrated London engraver, came to see me with several other Englishmen who were his interpreters, because Mr Smith does not speak French..… he also immediately asked me for dinner in his rooms with the other Englishmen, whose number was seven. " (Mémoires et Journals de J.G. Wille I, pp. 417-8).
Whether or not Rowlandson was part of the Smith party, he evidently travelled to Boulogne in 1787. Another Rowlandson drawing of Samer, Near Boulogne from the 1787 trip carries the same inscription ‘drawn on the spot in 1787’ (private U.S. collection) and was included in The Art of Thomas Rowlandson, 1990, The Frick Collection, New York, The Frick Art Museum Pittsburgh and Baltimore Museum of Art, pl. 37, ill.)
From 1781 until he sold his stock in 1802, J.R. Smith was a prime mover in London's publishing world, issuing his own prints as well as editions after his work and after other artists. He hired more than thirty printmakers to produce plates or who worked as apprentices and pupils. From 1776 until 1806 the latter group included William and James Ward, Charles H. Hodges, Thomas Girtin, J. M. W. Turner, S. W. Reynolds, William Hilton, and Peter De Wint. Smith distributed prints throughout the provinces and in such European centres as St Petersburg, Milan, and Paris.
This drawing has an illustrious provenance. It appears to have been purchased from the eminent 5th Avenue dealers Scott & Fowles by Mrs John D. Rockefeller Jr. Abby Green Aldrich (1874-1948) married John D. Rockefeller Jr. (1874-1960) in 1901. The couple had six children, the youngest of whom, David, (1915-2017) inherited this drawing in 1963. The drawing would seem to have been first kept at the 10 West 54th Street and subsequently at the Rockefeller mansion at Kykuit in the Pocantico Hills overlooking the Hudson river.