Towne spent 27 August 1781 on Lake Como, and the next day set off to climb up towards to Splügen Pass and into Switzerland. He reached the top two days later, on 29 August. This route was perhaps not one of the classic approaches, but it was the one followed by Towne'’s friend, the artist William Pars, on his tour of the Alps with Lord Palmerston in 1770. The two had renewed their friendship in Rome, and the advice of Pars must have been of considerable value to Towne in planning his own return to England across the Alps. In his account of the tour, Palmerston called these 200 metre-high falls at Madesimo 'one of the finest Waterfalls I ever saw'’, but no painting of it by Pars is known (A. Wilton, William Pars: Journey through the Alps’ Zurich,h 1979, p. 19). Towne was perhaps making up for the lack by painting it on a larger scale than any other subject in the whole of his alpine tour (except a panorama of Lake Geneva, made by joining three smaller sheets; see Tate 1997, cat. 41).
The sketch of the waterfall was made on two sheets of an unusually large sketchbook he took with him, even though the join is scarcely perceptible today, as the artist has married the separate sheets so expertly. Other removed sheets from the same large sketchbook still bear traces of stitch-marks on the longer edge, suggesting that the pages were bound when he used them. This was evidently no handicap, as once he got in amongst the mountains, Towne made almost continuous use of this large paper, so much so, that by 3 September, when he made the drawing numbered '29' ('Patenbruck' in Leeds City Art Gallery), he had used it all up, and had to revert to smaller sheets, often joined together. Other sheets removed from the large book are now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, the Courtauld Institute and other public and private collections.
When he returned to England, there seems to have been little demand for Towne'’s Swiss views. This subject of the grand waterfall between Chiavenna and Splugen is the exception, as Towne painted two later versions of it, on the same scale. One, signed and dated 1784, formerly in the Oppé collection, was sold Sotheby's, London, 11 November 1982 lot 59 (see Fig. 1); the other, dated 1784 and 1785, formerly in the Gilbert Davies collection, is now in the Huntington Library, San Marino, California. Worsely'’s extraordinary commitment to bringing together related works by Towne is seen again in the fact that he also owned the sheet Towne drew in the large sketchbook immediately before these ones, inscribed, 'Madonna St Giacomo in Chiavenna/Evening Sun from the right hand/August 28th 1871' and numbered '13' (Christie's, London, November 1984, lot 73).
The present watercolour and lots 38 and 47 were in the collection of C.R.N. Routh, a master at Eton College where Sir William Worsley first saw them.