John White Abbott

Richard Stephens

Oil on panel, 16.4 × 13.9 cm, circa 1820

John White Abbott (1763–1851) was Towne’s most celebrated pupil, both during his life and since. The nephew, heir, and executor of Towne’s executor James White, he was an apothecary and surgeon who worked and socialised in the same genteel Exeter circles that Towne inhabited. Hardly any biographical information is known about White Abbott. It is unclear when and where Towne taught him, but it must have been well before White Abbott’s 1791 tour to Scotland and the Lake District. As White Abbott adopted Towne’s methods and style so comprehensively, it is difficult to imagine him having had any other teacher; Towne must have known White Abbott as a child and the tuition no doubt began then. White Abbott was born ca. 1764, so his tuition probably began in the mid-1770s, when Towne’s reputation in the West Country as an artist and drawing master was growing; James White, who accompanied Towne to North Wales in 1777, was responsible for Abbott’s upbringing.

White Abbott was the subject of a study by Paul Oppé that drew on the large collection of the artist’s drawings still owned by his descendants, which was dispersed ca. 1992 to 2002.1 Among these, Oppé identified

a large series of very elaborate copies from Towne’s Swiss and Italian drawings. They are on paper bearing a watermark of 1813, and as they are mostly, if not all, from sketches which Towne bequeathed to James White, they were probably made by Abbott after Towne’s death in 1816 and before that of White in 1825, when the originals passed into the possession of J. H. Merivale.2

Although about one thousand drawings by White Abbott survive, only drawings from the group of Towne copies are described here (FT814 to FT836). As Oppé suggested, Abbott probably drew these after Towne’s death; as he copied none of the works White gave to the British Museum, he was probably working after these donations were completed in 1818. White Abbott’s copies of Towne are valuable for several reasons. Firstly, they supply information about drawings by Towne that are now lost. Secondly, they demonstrate the value White Abbott placed on Towne’s work even after Towne’s death, when Abbott was himself a mature and fêted artist: it is almost as if White Abbott, who rarely left Devon, could vicariously experience a continental tour by making the copies and felt the need, after Towne’s death, to renew his acquaintance with his old mentor.

The attribution of some works by Towne and White Abbott have been confused, and occasionally drawings have been attributed to White Abbott that are clearly the work of less able pupils of Towne. Such attributions to John White Abbott date from an era when all Towne-like works that were clearly not by Towne himself were given to his only known pupil. However, Abbott’s qualities as a draughtsman have become much clearer since the dispersal in the 1990s and early 2000s by his descendants.


About the author

  • Independent Art Historian


  1. 1 Most of this was sold at Sotheby’s on 19 November 1992, 11 November 1993, 10 April 1997, 25 November 1998, 15 July 1999, 21 March 2001, and 21 March 2002. Other large sales, to the Fine Art Society and Agnew’s, took place earlier in the twentieth century’ (Rosetta Frances Dobson sold 25 White Abbotts to Agnew’s in December 1937), and works were given by White Abbott’s descendants to the Victoria and Albert Museum. A large group of drawings was sold at Christie’s on 7 April 1992, 14 July 1992, and 17 November 1992, having been given away by the artist’s daughter.
  2. 2 Oppé 1925, p.76.


Article title
John White Abbott
Richard Stephens
Article DOI
Cite as
Richard Stephens, "John White Abbott", A Catalogue Raisonné of Francis Towne (1739-1816), (London: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2016),

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