Francis Towne (c. 1739-1816)
Pen, ink and watercolour.
Towne had a very particular method of producing his watercolours. First he drew the scene on the spot in graphite and ink, often inscribing the exact time and location on the reverse. Secondly, after a period of time, he filled in the scene with a colour or monochrome wash. After that he would go back over the original line drawing, which would have been partially obscured by the wash. Lastly, Towne would title and number the works on the reverse and in some cases paste them onto board and draw wash lines round them.
Francis Towne is now considered one of the most innovative watercolourists of his age. The son of a corn chandler, Towne was baptised at All Saints', Isleworth, Middlesex on 19 August 1739. At the age of thirteen, he was apprenticed to Thomas Brookshead, a London coach painter. His progress was acknowledged seven years later, near the end of his apprenticeship, when he was awarded a first prize for 'an original design' by the Society of Arts. He then undertook some further study at St Martin's Lane Academy, and began to exhibit paintings, usually in oil, at the Society of Artists (1762) and the Free Society (1763).
Around 1763, Towne was employed by the coach painter, Thomas Watson. It was in this capacity that he first visited Exeter, the city that became the centre of his activities for the next two decades. He acted as a drawing master and, though he considered that title demeaning, attracted a number of loyal pupils, including the prominent lawyer James White and his nephew John White Abbott. He continued to show work in London, but in 1768 declined an invitation to exhibit at the newly founded Royal Academy; he later regretted this decision and would only ever intermittently exhibit at that institution. However, in 1770, he was elected instead as a Fellow of the Society of Artists. In the early 1770s, Towne undertook commissions to draw the estates of Lord Clifford (1773) and Viscount Courtenay (1774) and, as a result, established his reputation among Devon aristocracy and gentry. Then, in the summer of 1777, he made a pioneering tour of North Wales with James White. The tour gave rise to work which fully revealed his mature watercolour manner, a highly restrained and geometric combination of flat washes over brown pen outlines.
In August 1780, Towne left England to travel alone and independently to Rome. Arriving in the city in October, he met up with his London friend William Pars and became the sketching partner of John 'Warwick' Smith. He responded to the warmth of Italy by shifting his palette from greys to browns, and began the novel practice of noting the exact time of day on his drawings. He was led partly in his choice of subject by the example of Claude Lorrain, and drew not only such buildings as the Colosseum but also the surrounding Campagna. In January 1781, he travelled to Naples, and there drew with Thomas Jones, another London acquaintance. In May he returned to the area of Rome, and worked at Tivoli and Lake Albano. In August, he began his return journey to England, in the company of 'Warwick' Smith. While travelling through Switzerland, Towne produced some of his finest works, responding to the mountain landscape in a sublime economical vein.
From 1782, Towne shared his time between London and Devon. He received far fewer commissions from Devon landowners than he had in the previous decade. However, he was employed by Sir Thomas and Lady Acland, of Killerton, to make a group of large views of Devon and North Wales (1785). He also made a tour of the Lake District with James White and John Merivale (1786).
In 1788, Towne made the first of ten unsuccessful applications to become an associate of the Royal Academy. However,the foundation of the Society of Painters in Water-Colours, in 1804, encouraged him to reevaluate his work, and finally consider his watercolours as seriously as his oils. A year later, in 1805, he took the innovative step of mounting a large watercolour retrospective at Henry Tresham's Gallery, though the exhibition passed almost without notice.
Following a brief marriage, ended by his wife's death in 1808, Towne again spent much of his time outside of London. He returned regularly to Devon, and also visited Cornwall (1809), Wales (1809, 1810), Edinburgh (1811) and Oxford (1813). He exhibited for the last time in 1815, at the British Institution, and died in London in the following year, on 7 July 1816.
Though not well known in his lifetime, Towne had an enormous influence on English watercolourists of the twentieth century, following the rediscovery of his work, in the 1930s, by the scholar and collector A P Oppe.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Ashmolean Museum, the Fitzwilliam Museum, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (Exeter) and the National Gallery of Scotland.
Article By: Dave Roberts.
First Published: 2007.
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