Inspired perhaps by the recent publication of William Gilpin’s 'picturesque tour’ of the Lake District (Observations, relative chiefly to picturesque beauty, made in the year 1772, on several parts of England; particularly the mountains, and lakes of Cumberland, and Westmoreland), 1786, and its encouragement to artists and tourists, James White, Towne’s executor and lifelong friend, wrote to Towne on 8 July 1786 to inform him that their plan for a 'Northern Expedition’ with John Merivale, another lawyer and friend, was now fixed. He continued that 'we both heartily wish to have you for a companion’. White proposed that he and Merivale should meet Towne in Manchester and then 'to pursue our adventures either in diligences on horseback or on Foot, just as we find agreeable’. The party had reached Ambleside by 7 August and remained there until 23 August, making day trips to various nearby locations or staying in the village.
It was during this period that Towne executed four of his most magnificent watercolours depicting English views, including the present work. The series depicts the secluded waterfalls of Stock Ghyll: see T. Wilcox, Francis Towne, London, 1997, pp. 122- 126, nos. 57-59 for the other three watercolours, (Oppé collection, Tate Gallery, Victoria and Albert Museum, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) The watercolour at the Ashmolean (fig. 1) was drawn from the same angle as the present watercolour but closer in, the wide expanse of foreground being abandoned. The view is now so close to the waterfall you can almost hear the water thundering down and where the descending streams join together they have been split around a protruding rock. This double waterfall clearly appealed to Towne and he must have been recalling the Piranesi etching of the double falls at Tivoli.
The view made a powerful impact upon Towne. Timothy Wilcox, op. cit., p. 122, says of these watercolours, 'This subject meant most to Towne during his entire time in the Lake District. He was able to resume the concentrated study of trees and rocks in a secluded corner of nature which had been a favoured subject towards the end of his stay in Rome, with the vital addition at Ambleside of the waterfalls, thin streaks of brilliant light plunging almost, but not quite, vertically through the composition.' The secluded, almost inaccessible nature of the vantage point, one for only a hardened traveller, was, however, one which allowed the artist to be immersed in the powerful subject matter that it provided. It may have been the reason why Towne returned to this spot rather than the more famous Lake District falls, more often commended to the traveller.
William Hutchinson in 'An Excursion to the Lakes of Westmoreland and Cumberland in August 1773’ was also taken by the immediacy and intimacy of the waterfall 'The rushing of the waters seemed at once as if it was bursting over our heads and tumbling beneath our feet.. We could look upwards from the place where we stood for about one hundred perpendicular yards, where we saw the river in two streams pouring through the trees… It was almost impossible for the steadiest eye to look upon this waterfall without giddiness - its beauties for a painter were noble and various; the wood which hung above the rocks over the stream were of mixed hues the trees projecting from each precipice knotty and grotesque the cliffs were black and fringed with ivy and fern…..no fancy could exceed the happy assemblage of objects which rendered this view picturesque' (pp. 171-3).
The majority of Towne’s Lake District views were drawn and worked up on the spot, as he has continued his Italian working methods on this subsequent English tour. The integrity of Towne’s artistic vision is clearly seen in his Lake District sketches. The immediacy of the sketchbook page and the possibility it offered to Towne to capture the immediate effect of the view upon the artist, is seen with great effect in the present watercolour. The sketchbooks used on this tour provide a great variety of formats; vertical, horizontal, single, double pages or panoramic views and there is an almost complete lack of later repetition, perhaps displaying Towne’s respect for his initial response to his original inspiration and his unwillingness to compromise his artistic vision. The value he placed on these four watercolours of the waterfalls is shown by the fact that Towne executed these works on four sheets of his precious Italian paper. The version that was previously with Agnew's (Wilcox, no. 59) and the version in the Victorian and Albert Museum are both inscribed 'NB The paper this is drawn in I brought myself from Rome’.
The present watercolour, in remarkable fresh condition, executed in 1786, is arguably one of Towne’s finest works to appear on the market.
We are grateful to Timothy Wilcox and Richard Stephens for their help with this catalogue entry.