Francis Towne (Middlesex 1739-1816 London)
Francis Towne (Middlesex 1739-1816 London)
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Francis Towne (Middlesex 1739-1816 London)

The source of the Rhine with Mount Splügen

Francis Towne (Middlesex 1739-1816 London)
The source of the Rhine with Mount Splügen
inscribed 'On the side of the Rhine near the source coming down/ mount Splugen/ light from the left hand/ Sept. [partially erased] August 29th. 1781’ and numbered 'N. 15' (verso), and with inscription '60 B.P.' (verso)
pen and grey ink, blue and grey wash on paper watermarked C & I Honig
11 1/8 x 18 ¼ in. (29.5 x 46.5 cm)
Bequeathed by the artist in 1816 to
James White of Exeter (1744-1825) and by bequest to
John Herman Merivale (1779-1844) and by descent to his granddaughters
Maria Sophia Merivale (1853-1928) and Judith Ann Merivale (1860-1945), 1915.
with Squire Gallery, London, September 1934.
Gilbert Davis, by 1949; Sotheby’s, London, 19 March 1958, lot 103, (£340 to Colnaghi).
with Colnaghi, London, where probably purchased for the present collection.
H. Lemaitre, Le Paysage Anglais a l'Aquarelle 1760-1951, Paris, 1955, p. 163.
R. Stephens, A catalogue raisonné of Francis Towne (1739-1816), online edition, FT357.
[?] London, Squire Gallery, The Squire Gallery Summer Exhibition of Early English Watercolours & Drawings, 1934, no. 5.
Exeter, Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Three Exeter Artists of the Eighteenth Century: Francis Hayman RA, Francis Towne, John White Abbott, 1951, no. 25.
London, Arts Council of Great Britain, British Drawings and Watercolours form the Gilbert Davis Collection, 1955, no. 11.
Special notice

This lot has been imported from outside of the UK for sale and placed under the Temporary Admission regime. Import VAT is payable at 5% on the hammer price. VAT at 20% will be added to the buyer’s premium but will not be shown separately on our invoice.

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Lot Essay

This drawing, untraced since its sale with Colnaghi in 1958, is an exciting re-discovery. It is one of a highly prized group of drawings, executed by Towne in September 1781 in the North Italian lakes and over the Splügen Pass, on large sheets of C & I Honig paper. Twenty-four of the series survive, all but three sharing the uniform grey-brown wash seen here. Others from the group are in the National Gallery, Ottowa, the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Tate, London, and the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven.
The earliest dated drawing in the group is a view of Mendrisio (R. Stephens, op. cit, FT343) from 24 August, and Towne continued with the paper, and the series, until he reached Pantenbruck on 3 September (R. Stephens, ibid, FT371).
Towne had travelled to Italy in the summer of 1780, and the year he spent on the continent proved the most fruitful of his career. Having spent time with Thomas Jones (1742-1803) in Rome, the Campagna, and Naples, in August 1781 he set off for England, possibly alongside John ‘Warwick’ Smith (1749-1831). Towne’s drawings give a fairly full account of their route and itinerary, although there are a few gaps. On the 28 August, he spent the night at Domaso, near the northern tip of Lake Como. The next day’s passage through the Splügen pass clearly particularly fascinated Towne, as there are eleven drawings all dated 29 August, some of his most vibrant and dramatic; five on the ascent, three on or near the top, and three more, including the present drawing, were made on the descent. In other places his recording was less fastidious – as Richard Stephens notes, there are only eight extant works from the three weeks it took to travel from Rome to the Italian lakes, and a single drawing provides a record of his passage through Germany. Whilst it is of course likely that sheets have been lost, the incredible number made and surviving from 29 August attest to the day’s importance for Towne.

Towne had a copy of William Coxe’s travel guide to Switerzerland - it was the 1781 French edition and he probably travelled with it. Although Switzerland had not quite become the tourist destination for the British that it would in the early part of the 19th Century, Coxe writes that the path Towne was travelling over Splügen was actually a very busy trading route: ‘This passage over mount Splugen is principally used for the transport of merchandise to and from Coire.’ (W. Coxe, Travels in Switzerland, 1789, vol 3, p. 162). Coxe saw ‘at least a hundred horses laden with merchandise’ as he crossed over Splügen, and said that three hundred horses passed daily in warm season. Despite the busyness of the route, the mountains were only just beginning to be widely regarded as awe-inspiring, wondrous and sublime rather than danger-filled and terrifying. Here, Towne utilises the single tiny figure in the foreground, standing beside the trail, to give a sense of the monumentality and emotive power of the landscape.
Though he refers to the source of the Rhine in his inscription on this drawing, Towne can only have been anticipating its existence at that point, based on what his guide or Coxe’s travel book were telling him; for the source is actually at the bottom of the valley he was just then entering, about ten to fifteen miles west of Splügen village itself. This was, in fact, only one of two branches of the Rhine, and is known as the Hinterrhein.

Towne’s papers provide interesting markers of his travels. Whilst his initial drawings in Rome and on the journey there were made on a Whatman paper brought from England, he later used a thick wove Italian paper, which he enjoyed so much that he used it again from his tour of the Lake District in 1786 (see Christie’s, New York, 28 January 2020, lot 125). On the journey back, large sheets of C & I Honig paper were used alongside a smaller laid paper with a continental watermark. Both of these seem to have stitch-marks on some sheets, and so it seems likely that these were sketchbooks of two sizes. Honig paper, made in Holland, was prized for its bright white colour and much-used by artists in Rome at this time. There are also two more, less readily identified papers, used for just a few drawings on the return journey. On 29 August, he seems to have used the smaller book as he made his way up the mountain, perhaps with less time available to stop, reverting to the larger book here as he makes his way safely down towards the village.
We are grateful to Richard Stephens for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.

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