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Why Francis Towne is having a moment

Dr Richard Stephens, curator of Light, time, legacy: Francis Towne’s watercolours of Rome at the British Museum, tells Florence Waters why the artist has come back into fashion

After his death in 1816, landscape artist Francis Towne sank into obscurity. Today, 200 years on, his bold, strikingly flat and modern watercolour compositions are highly regarded and sought after. During Classic Week at Christie’s London, we present five works by Towne in the the Old Masters and British Drawings sale (5 July).

Despite being rejected by the Royal Academy 11 times and failing to win fame in London, Towne, who was born in 1739, was fairly prosperous in his lifetime. When he died, he left his vast portfolio to a former student, John Merivale.

It wasn’t until 1916 that scholarly collector Paul Oppé (1878-1957) came across the Merivale family. By chance he found Towne’s work in a cupboard, untouched for a century. Oppé used the discovery to write an article for the Walpole Society which launched Towne into the public consciousness.

Over the last century Towne’s renown has grown. His work is now in major global collections, including the Tate, the Louvre, the Rijksmuseum, and the British Museum, to whom Towne had the foresight to bequeath 75 works.

Here, Dr Richard Stephens, curator of Light, time, legacy: Francis Towne’s watercolours of Rome at the British Museum (until 14 August) sheds further light on Towne’s time and legacy.

Francis Towne (1739-1816), Inside the Colosseum, 1780. Watercolour with pen and ink, 317 x 472 mm © The Trustees of the British Museum

Francis Towne (1739-1816), Inside the Colosseum, 1780. Watercolour with pen and ink, 317 x 472 mm © The Trustees of the British Museum

Who was Francis Towne, and what was his preoccupation as an artist?

Dr. Richard Stephens: I think that what Towne was doing and what he thought he was doing might have been two different things. What he thought he was doing was working in the tradition of Claude Lorrain and Richard Wilson in classical, quite academic landscapes. What he was actually doing was making very beautiful drawings with a lovely sense of line. I think he’s a really nice example of a very talented artist who lived outside of London and tried to live outside of London’s influence.

Francis Towne (Middlesex 1739-1816 London), A Study of a Tree Blown Down in Peamore Park, Near Exeter. Pencil, pen and grey ink and watercolour, on a double sketchbook page, laid down onto the original mount,. 11 x 17 in. (28 x 43.2 cm). Estimate £8,000-12,000. This lot is offered in Old Master & British Drawings on 5 July at Christie’s in London

Francis Towne (Middlesex 1739-1816 London), A Study of a Tree Blown Down in Peamore Park, Near Exeter. Pencil, pen and grey ink and watercolour, on a double sketchbook page, laid down onto the original mount,. 11 x 17 in. (28 x 43.2 cm). Estimate: £8,000-12,000. This lot is offered in Old Master & British Drawings on 5 July at Christie’s in London

What do you mean by ‘London’s influence’?

There was a widespread criticism in Georgian society, a little bit like now, of corrupt elites and bankers, and so on. Towne was living in Exeter and developed a critique of London life. He did a lot of teaching, which didn’t help his chances of recognition in London either. To be a drawing master, in the eyes of elite artists, was just to be a kind of talentless drudge.

The funny thing was that he wasn’t living in poverty. Many artists of that era spent their lives either drunk or in penury. So Towne achieved something quite rare in being outside the charmed circle of the RA, and having at the same time become financially independent. He travelled to Rome and in Europe under his own steam, without the support of a benefactor.

There was an ideology that went with that. To be financially independent you were in nobody’s pocket. You could judge matters with truth. Towne has helped us understand a lot more about what the 18th century was for an independent artist — that it could even accommodate someone like him.

His father was a grain merchant in Richmond, so he had some money behind him. Did he receive any classical training?

He was trained in London as a coach painter. The seven-year apprenticeship cost £50, which was a lot of money. He actually learned to paint flowers because coaches in those days were decorated with floral designs. I always think that it’s through his training that he learned to play with the pen, to create flat patterns and colours that don’t have any great meaning. They’re just beautiful and elegant, and I really love that about him.

Francis Towne (1739-1816), Near the Arco Oscuro, 1780. Watercolour with pen and ink. 318 x 470 mm © The Trustees of the British Museum

Francis Towne (1739-1816), Near the Arco Oscuro, 1780. Watercolour with pen and ink. 318 x 470 mm © The Trustees of the British Museum

You have spent 13 years compiling his catalogue raisonné, just published in a gorgeous online archive by the Paul Mellon Centre. Tell us about the first time you saw Towne’s work. 

I was 14 and the British Museum had a display of watercolours of Roman ruins. It was Arricia, one of his best-known works, which stuck in my memory. It’s a particularly good example of his very flat, economical, ‘modern’ watercolours. Unlike many pretty 18th-century watercolour landscapists his work has a lot of clarity and sharpness about it. It seems to give off a sort of energy.

Francis Towne (Middlesex 1739-1816 London), View of the Mountains Between Wesen and Glaris, Switzerland. Pencil, pen and grey ink, grey wash, watermark chonig. 11 ⅜ x 18 ⅜ in. (28 x 46.7). Estimate £40,000-60,000. This lot is offered in Old Master & British Drawings on 5 July at Christie’s in London

Francis Towne (Middlesex 1739-1816 London), View of the Mountains Between Wesen and Glaris, Switzerland. Pencil, pen and grey ink, grey wash, watermark 'chonig'. 11 ⅜ x 18 ⅜ in. (28 x 46.7). Estimate: £40,000-60,000. This lot is offered in Old Master & British Drawings on 5 July at Christie’s in London

Your current exhibition at the British Museum is about his time abroad, in Rome and the Alps. It’s wonderful how clearly you can see the effect it had on him.

Yes his work gets much bolder, more colourful and larger in scale. Before he went to Rome he would have drawn a ruin far away and you’d have been able to see the whole thing. But after a few months in Rome he was going right up close to it and you would see one part of a wall, so that you feel really close to it — it becomes less factual, and more impactful.

Francis Towne (Middlesex 1739-1816 London), View of Lake Como. Pen and brown ink and watercolour, on paper with a deckled edge, fragmentary watermark. 6 ¼ x 8 ¼ in. (15.9 x 21 cm). Estimate £12,000-18,000. This lot is offered in Old Master & British Drawings on 5 July at Christie’s in London

Francis Towne (Middlesex 1739-1816 London), View of Lake Como. Pen and brown ink and watercolour, on paper with a deckled edge, fragmentary watermark. 6 ¼ x 8 ¼ in. (15.9 x 21 cm). Estimate: £12,000-18,000. This lot is offered in Old Master & British Drawings on 5 July at Christie’s in London

You can also see him working that way in his landscapes and his waterfalls, such as the one in the Ashmolean. You feel incredibly close to the action of the cascade.

Yes, that’s a really nice one.

Francis Towne (Middlesex 1739-1816 London), View of Stock Ghyll Force Waterfall, Ambleside, Lake District. Pen and brown ink and watercolour, lightly incised, on a sheet of roman paper with deckled edges. 14 ⅞ x 10 ⅜ in. (37.8 x 256.4 cm). Estimate £50,000-70,000. This lot is offered in Old Master & British Drawings on 5 July at Christie’s in London

Francis Towne (Middlesex 1739-1816 London), View of Stock Ghyll Force Waterfall, Ambleside, Lake District. Pen and brown ink and watercolour, lightly incised, on a sheet of roman paper with deckled edges. 14 ⅞ x 10 ⅜ in. (37.8 x 256.4 cm). Estimate: £50,000-70,000. This lot is offered in Old Master & British Drawings on 5 July at Christie’s in London

Is that also where he started his bold use of shadow, splitting the page with these broad washes and contrasts that we see in his Swiss mountainscapes?

I wouldn’t say it totally started there, but yes it seemed to coalesce into something that was more powerful. I don’t know why, perhaps it was after looking at Piranesi’s prints — because they are very bold and tightly organised with huge areas of light and shade, with foregrounds that are really in your face.

Is Towne ‘having a moment’?

I hope he is. There aren’t many works by him that come on the market, but his works have risen in value massively. [A watercolour of Lake Albano achieved a record sum of £289,250 in 2010.] I hope curators and collectors who come to London for Classic Week will see the British Museum’s show, and see that Towne is a serious figure worth having in their collection.

Light, time, legacy: Francis Towne’s watercolours of Rome is at the British Museum until 14 August 2016