On the Continent, 1780-1

Richard Stephens

2.1: The Journey to Rome, September 1780
2.2: Rome Series, October 1780–July 1781
2.3: Naples, March 1781
2.4: Italy Series, April to June 1781
2.5: Albano Series, July 1781
2.6: Small Sketchbook: Northern Italy, Switzerland, Savoy and Germany, August and September 1781
2.7: C&I Honig Series: Northern Italy and Switzerland, August and September 1781
2.8: Lake Geneva and Chamonix series, September 1781
2.9: Other Continental Studies, 1780-1

Towne travelled to Italy in the summer of 1780 and remained abroad for about a year. It was the most important year of his life, both in his own estimation and that of the early twentieth-century scholars whose attention to Towne raised him from obscurity and established him as a significant figure. The plentiful work that survives from 1780–81 have made the continental tour a promising vantage point from which to base a critical assessment of Towne, as 194 works are known from this single year, far more than the number that survive from the previous twenty years (‘1. Early Work’) or the ensuing twenty-five years (the Lake District tour of 1786 excepted) (‘3. England, 1781–ca. 1805’). Furthermore, the creative advancement that Towne experienced abroad, during which his sketching grew in boldness, simplicity, and decoration, left his continental work well attuned to early twentieth-century modernist sensibilities. Towne’s own sense of the tour’s importance can, perhaps, be taken for granted, but it is implicit in two letters. Firstly, in 1803 he briefly reviewed the major events of his career in a letter to Ozias Humphry that was intended to justify his accomplishments as an artist. Towne’s account concluded with the tour as if no further details were necessary: “After this time I went to Italy, its now twenty two years since my return to England.”1 Secondly, near the end of his life, in a letter written to James White in March 1815, he described bumping into someone during a visit to a Bond Street art gallery: “Here was a Gentleman who I found had travelled, who flattered & thanked me in the politest manner for the remarks which I made to him.”2 For Towne the fact of the gentleman’s travels validated him as someone worthy of Towne’s attention, and raised the value of his praise for Towne’s remarks. As Samuel Johnson put it, a man who has not been to Italy is always conscious of an inferiority from not having seen what it is expected a man should see.

1780-1: Summary of Towne's movements

Towne left the UK in the summer of 1780 and travelled to Rome (‘The Journey to Rome, September 1780’). Towne had reached the city by October, where he remained until March 1781 (‘Rome Series, October 1780–July 1781’). By this point he had suggested in correspondence with James White that he wished to return to the UK; White encouraged him to stay, arguing that he was in the very place where he should remain as long as possible.3 Perhaps as a response to dissatisfaction with Rome, in March Towne travelled to Naples where he spent a month in the company of Thomas Jones, whose decision to move south had also been coloured by unhappy experiences in Rome (‘Naples, March 1781’). On his return to Rome in early April, Towne spent much of the remaining time on excursions outside the city—to Tivoli, the Licenza valley (‘Italy Series, April–June 1781’), and during the summer the Alban hills (‘Albano Series, July 1781’). The countryside was rich in classical and artistic associations. He had spent five months in Rome prior to the month in Naples, but most of his output in the four months remaining before his departure for England was focused on the countryside. The impression is that Towne was not keen to return to Rome, preferring to immerse himself in scenery “formed in a peculiar manner by Nature for the Study of the Landscape-Painter”.4 It was a very productive period: he made as many drawings in the Roman countryside in under three months as he had made in Rome itself in twice as long a period.

Towne’s devotion to these areas is hardly surprising, given the excitement that the scenery excited among visiting English artists like Towne’s friends Ozias Humphrey and Thomas Jones. In his letter to Towne, dated 17 April 1781, Humphrey’s rapture is reserved mainly for the countryside rather than for Rome itself, and the buildings of modern Rome receive only a glancing reference.5 Even the usually light-hearted Thomas Jones was moved to describe his walk in the Alban Hills from Marino to Gensano in the following superlative terms:

This walk considered with respect to its classick locality, the Awful marks of the most tremendous Convulsions of nature in the remotest Ages, the antient and modern Specimens of Art, and the various extensive & delightful prospects it commands is, to the Scholar, naturalist, Antiquarian and Artist, without doubt, the most pleasing and interesting in the Whole World.6

In August Towne began the journey back to the UK with John “Warwick” Smith, travelling north via Lake Como over the Splugen Pass, then traversing eastern Switzerland through Thusis, Coire, Wallenstadt, and Glarus - a more detailed itinerary is given below. During this part of his travels Towne worked concurrently on two numbered series, on large and small sheets (2.6: Small Sketchbook and 2.7: C&I Honig Series). After 5 September, when he was at Urnersee, Towne's movements further west are unclear, until he reached Lausanne on 10 September. By this time he was working on a third series (2.8: Lake Geneva and Chamonix Series). Towne was still sketching in the area on 23 September, before he departed north on a route that took him along the Rhine. He was in London by 29 September.

October 1780 to July 1781: Rome, Naples and the Campagna

Towne created four series of watercolours while he was in Italy - which he named 'Rome', 'Naples', 'Italy' and 'Albano'. It is unclear that he ever finalised their arrangement but it seems as if he mainly worked on them sequentially, as he travelled in the vicinity of Rome and to and from Naples, although towards the end of his time in Italy there is some overlapping, as he worked on views both within and outside Rome at around the same time.

For this reason, detailed information about Towne's excursions is given in separate texts that introduce each of the various series of drawings, as follows:

By contrast, on his journey back to England in August and September 1781, Towne did not complete one series before starting another, but worked on two concurrently. Therefore, the catalogue provides a single account of Towne's activities during these months, that encompasses all of the numbered series of drawings that he created during that time. This text appears in the following section, below.

August and September 1781: the North Italian Lakes, Switzerland and Savoy

English attitudes to the Swiss Alps and the glaciers of Savoy changed during the eighteenth century in much the same way as they did towards North Wales.7 What was once bleak, primitive, and hostile became thrillingly untamed and awe-inspiring, the ultimate example of sublime landscape. Although by Towne’s visit Switzerland was not the heavily trodden tourist destination that Rome and its countryside had become, there were already established routes and favoured sights, especially among the English. Prominent among the travel guides was Revd William Coxe’s 1779 account of his Swiss tours, from which Towne quoted on one of his drawings (FT370). At his death in 1816, Towne’s library contained a map of Switzerland as well as a French edition of Coxe, probably the 1781 version, which rapidly became popular in Switzerland itself,8 or else a later one of 1787.

Using Towne’s drawings, it is possible to reconstruct an itinerary for some of his journey back to England, though large gaps remain. The first part of the journey, lasting more than three weeks, took Towne from Rome to the lakes of north Italy. He took the north road through Civita Castellana, Terni, Florence, and Bologna before turning north-west and heading for the lakes, perhaps via Milan. Towne probably left Rome in the last week of July 1781 (FT224); he was at Civita Castellana on 1 August (FT298), had passed Florence by 11 August (FT303), and reached Lugano on 24 August (FT306). Towne spent four days sketching the lakes, beginning at Lugano (FT306, FT309, FT310, FT343, FT344, FT345, FT346, FT347), then Lake Maggiore on 25 and 26 August (FT312, FT313, FT349, FT350), and Lake Como on 27 August (FT314, FT316, FT317, FT318, FT319, FT320, FT321), on this last day making his way up the western shore of the lake to Domaso, where evidently he spent the night (FT352, FT353). Then on 28 August Towne left the lakes behind and made the journey north to Chiavenna (FT325, FT326, FT354, FT355; see also FT879), and he crossed over the Splugen Pass into Switzerland on 29 August (FT327, FT328, FT329, FT330, FT331). Having sketched the Hinterrhein from near its source on the Swiss side of Splugen (FT332, FT357, FT358, FT359), Towne followed the river to its confluence with the Vorderrhein at Reichenau (FT361, FT362, FT363, FT364), which he reached on 30 August. He probably continued along the Rhine to the Walensee, where he was sketching on the morning of 1 and on 4 September (FT334, FT335). During the intervening days Towne explored the valley of Glarus (FT333, FT365, FT366, FT367, FT368, FT369, FT370, FT371), following the River Linth towards the end of the valley (FT369), with stops at Lake Klönthal (FT367, FT368) and at Pantenbruck at its far southern end (FT370, FT371). Towne and “Warwick” Smith perhaps spent the night of 1 September in the town of Glarus, as there is an evening view of the neighbouring town of Netstal (FT366). On the morning of 5 September Towne was at Urnersee, a lake celebrated in the myth of William Tell (FT336), and by 10 September he had reached Lausanne (FT384) about a hundred miles west, although his route there is unknown.9

Towne spent perhaps a fortnight sketching around Lake Geneva (FT341, FT374, FT375, FT376, FT377, FT379, FT380, FT384: sketches with dates of 10–13 and 20 September) and near Chamonix and Mont Blanc (FT338, FT339, FT340, FT383, FT384: dates of 16 and 17 September). No doubt the fame of Rousseau drew him to the Geneva area, which became known as the “pays de Julie” after the heroine of his 1761 best-seller.10 Towne’s friend William Jackson, travelling nearby in 1785, wrote of being on “sacred Ground as it reminded me of Rousseau”.11 The writings of Marc Théodore Bourrit (1739–1819) had done much to attract artists to the Chamonix valley. Dates on some of Towne’s drawings show that he moved clockwise around the north-east border of Lake Geneva towards Chamonix,12 and although he probably visited Martigny, his painting of it (FT557) was a tribute to William Pars’s much earlier sketch. The latest-dated drawing in the area, of 23 September, shows the waterfall at Rivaz near Vevey (FT341), but the final surviving drawing of Towne’s continental tour is a view on the Rhine, probably in Germany (FT342). Towne’s patron Arthur Champernowne alluded to this part of the journey some years later when he wrote to Towne: “[I] Shall be very happy to hear from you any hints about travelling down the Rhine & thro’ Germany which will greatly oblige.”13 Towne was back in London by 29 September, when William Jackson in Exeter wrote to Ozias Humphrey in anticipation of meeting him:

As our friend Towne is returned safe, let no one ever Talk of the dangers of Travelling – I am sure a child of ten years old is just as capable of avoiding scrapes or getting himself out of them as He is. I hope soon (indeed this evening, if your Information be right) to congratulate him on the happy Period he has had of all his “Hairbreadth ‘Scapes in the imminent Breach.” You teach me to expect much from his drawings, which must be doubly valuable from the Places they represent.14

As Jackson’s letter suggests, for Towne the effort and supposed danger of travel was an integral part of his enjoyment of Switzerland. As in North Wales, inaccessible landscapes were cherished all the more because of the difficulty of reaching them. 

Although the drawings are organised sequentially in this catalogue, the overlapping dates of three series (‘Small Sketchbook’, ‘C&I Honig Series’, and ‘Lake Geneva and Chamonix Series, September 1781’) indicate that Towne used different-sized papers concurrently. He worked on a small and a large paper in the north Italian lakes. He worked on the small and large paper in the north Italian lakes, over the Splugen Pass, and through much of Switzerland. For instance, on 29 August Towne made two views near the source of the Rhine, one on a small sheet of paper (FT332) and another on the largest size (FT359). Towne was obviously using both the small- and a medium-sized paper around Lake Geneva and on the glaciers of Savoy. On 16 September, for instance, he drew two views from Montanvert: a view of the Mer de Glace on the medium paper (FT383) and a view of a rock known as the Chapeau on the small paper (FT338). Perhaps management of the large sheets was a problem while Towne was on the road, which may explain why, when travelling up Lake Como on 27 August, he made so many sketches on the small paper, before finally making two large sketches when he had reached Domaso, where he evidently stayed the night.

Towne’s drawings show him to have been extremely industrious, and for all that survives, much more has probably been lost. For example, at least eight sketches, five of which are dated 24 August, were made at Lake Lugano (FT306, FT307, FT308, FT309, FT310, FT344, FT345, FT346), the central of the three largest lakes north of Milan; there are nine sketches of Lake Como from 27 August (FT314, FT315, FT316, FT317, FT318, FT320, FT321, FT352, FT353); and at least eleven were made as Towne crossed over Mount Splugen into Italy on 29 August (FT327, FT328, and FT354, FT355, FT356 were made on the ascent; FT329, FT330, FT331 were drawn on or near the top; and FT332, FT357, and FT359 were made on the descent). Yet only eight works by Towne can be identified from the three weeks’ travel from Rome to the Italian lakes (FT298, FT299, FT300, FT301, FT302, FT303, FT304, FT305); a single Rhine view (FT342) is the only remnant of the passage through Germany; and between 5 and 10 September, when Towne crossed Switzerland to reach Lausanne, there are no drawings at all. It was common for substantial quantities of drawings to perish during an artist’s life, especially during travels: Pars arrived in Rome in 1775, having lost all of his money and drawings on the way; in 1778 John Robert Cozens retrieved in Florence the studies his father had made and lost in Italy decades earlier; and on his return to England in 1783, Thomas Jones discovered his entire collection of prints and drawings lying ruined in a damp cellar. Several sketches originating in the journey from Rome to England are known only through copies by John White Abbott (FT311, FT316a, FT334a, FT337, FT386, FT373, FT378, FT378a) or by Towne himself (FT351, FT371a). Other lost works are known only through Towne’s 1805 exhibition (FT299, FT302, FT305, FT307, FT308, FT345, FT348, FT322, FT323, FT324, FT360, FT381).

There is a strong tradition that Towne travelled back to England in the company of John “Warwick” Smith. Confirmation may well exist in a lost letter concerning Towne that mentions “Smith”; it was sent by Henry Tresham to Ozias Humphry and dated 22 August 1781, during Towne’s journey through northern Italy. Oppé, who knew the letter, stated categorically that Towne did travel with Smith through Switzerland.15 Joseph Farington reported only that “Towne went to Italy with Smith of St George’s row, Oxford Turnpike”,16 something he appears to have picked up in conversation on a visit to Exeter in 1810. On the face of it, Farington’s assertion that Towne travelled to Italy with Smith is wrong, although he may have meant only that Towne had spent time with Smith. A number of views by Smith and Towne (FT304, FT327, FT340, FT343, FT350, FT355, FT361, FT366) from the journey through northern Italy and Switzerland are strikingly similar, although it is dangerous to read too much into such comparisons. It is possible also that the party of travellers included other artists, as drawings of Swiss views in Towne’s style exist that were not drawn by him nor, it seems, by Smith (FT877, FT878, FT879, FT879a, FT894), although equally these may be works made later than 1781. Swiss works by both Towne and Smith share a monumentality that derives from the mountainous archetypes of Alexander Cozens and also, no doubt, the bold compositions of Piranesi, although among Smith’s work are views of locations that Towne is not known to have visited. Even assuming that “Warwick” Smith was his travelling companion, the existence of Swiss subjects by Smith does not indicate with absolute certainty that Towne was also present when he made them, as Smith seems to have visited Switzerland before 178117 and may also have based some watercolours on sketches by others.18

As well as the standard travel literature for visitors to Switzerland, there was a wider literary tradition surrounding the Alps. Of huge interest to artists in London were Bourrit’s descriptions of the Savoy glaciers,19 which had been translated into English in 1775. The 1729 poem by Albrecht von Haller (1708–1777), Die Alpen, had appeared in thirty editions by the time of his death; it presented the mountains as centres of Arcadian simplicity in opposition to the corruption of urban civilisation, citing classical authorities including Pliny and Aristotle. Haller’s ideas of the moral power of Alpine landscape were developed by writers Salomon Gessner (1730–1788) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), whose works Towne owned, probably long before visiting Switzerland.

Towne had some knowledge of literary accounts of Switzerland and was well placed to be aware of the artistic precedents, since some of the best-known graphic representations of the country had been made by his close friend William Pars in 1770, partly in the company of Horace-Bénédict de Saussure. Seven were exhibited at the 1771 Royal Academy and five engraved by William Woollett in 1773 and 1774.20 According to Oppé, Towne “certainly possessed” these engravings,21 and they were praised by Towne’s friend William Jackson in 1784, although he lamented generally the lack of good representations of Italy and the Alps:

The view of Lombardy from the Alps – the Bay of Naples – the appearance of Genoa from the sea, &c.&c. are much talked of, but have never been drawn; or if drawn, not published. From this general censure I should except . . . above all, Gaspar Poussin’s drawings from Tivoli, and Pars’s View of the Glaciers.22

Towne may well also have seen or known of the sketches made by John Robert Cozens on his tour of 1776,23 as the two artists had Ozias Humphry and Thomas Jones as friends in common. Of artists based in Switzerland, Johann Ludwig Aberli (1723–1786) was popular in England during the 1770s,24 and Caspar Wolf (1735–1783) became known through the patronage of Swiss publisher Abraham Wagner (1734–1782), who commissioned from him 200 landscape paintings, several of which were published between 1776 and 1778.25 In 1780 many further Alpine views by several continental artists were published by Jean Benjamin de la Borde (1734–1794) in volume 1 of the Tableaux de la Suisse by the Frenchman Baron Zurlauben (1720–1799).26 Towne may also have known the work of the Swiss artist Samuel Hieronymous Grimm, as a 1774 Swiss view by this artist was among drawings sold from the Merivale family at Agnew’s in the 1940s.

Unsurprisingly for a body of work that encompasses Mediterranean and Alpine climates, lakes, waterfalls and rivers, mountains, and plains, Towne’s sketches of August and September 1781 are a diverse group, not only in the subject matter but in their treatment. Many of Towne’s lake views are distant and reposed, especially where they include cityscapes (FT344, FT346, FT347, FT350, FT374, FT375, FT376, FT384), but in other examples there is an almost confrontational sense of the mountains’ threat (FT319, FT321, FT325, FT379, FT383). Sometimes Towne was aiming for Gessner-like scenes of Alpine tranquillity (FT367, FT368) but more usually he was seeking sublime danger. It is easy to contrast this work with Welsh sketches of 1777 to see the effect of the intervening four years’ experiences. In 1777 Towne detailed every last rock of the mountains at Aberglaslyn (FT086, FT088), depicted lakes as expansive sheets of water bordered by timid mountains (FT072, FT092), and generally stood far back from his subject to let in wide open skies (FT085, FT093). In 1781 Towne was much closer to his subject matter and was concerned with the broad masses of mountains. He featured lakes in detail only, giving them far less significance than the adjacent rocks (FT326, FT379); his skies were compact, and often vigorous and moody (FT304, FT313, FT325, FT331, FT383). The waterfalls of 1781 seem far more fluid (FT341, FT355) than the static 1777 examples (FT079, FT082). All of this is partly about actual scale—Aberglaslyn is tiny compared to the dizzying heights of Mont Blanc—but more about experience. Towne was putting to use what he had learned in Rome, for instance at the Colosseum and Baths of Caracalla (FT191, FT195, FT202), about how bold composition enhanced not so much topographical correctness as emotive force. Indeed, the effect of his months in Italy is clear from the difference between Towne’s Swiss views of 1780, made on the way south (FT167), with those of 1781 (FT357). 


Apart from one Colosseum view (FT171), all of Towne’s drawings in his early weeks in Rome were made on a thinnish Whatman paper measuring ca. 210 x 270 mm, which Towne had brought with him from England and had used on the journey down (FT165, FT166, FT167). Judging from Towne's use of it to make several horizontal sketches across two sheets, perhaps these were pages in a sketchbook. However, in November and early December Towne began to make studies on paper far larger, measuring ca. 320 x 470 mm (FT184, FT185, FT187), and he continued to use this paper for the remainder of his Roman series, for his work in Naples and for many of the drawings in the Roman countryside.27 Like the smaller sheets, several of these larger sheets have a Whatman watermark (FT207, FT249, FT250, FT292, FT293). This larger paper was creased down its centre and Towne occasionally divided it to make smaller drawings, in Naples and in the Roman countryside. Towne used the full size at Albano (FT292, FT293, FT294, FT296) and Arricia (FT297), a half size (i.e. 212–37 x 311–30 mm) at Naples, Castello Madamo, Tivoli, and Frascati (FT236, FT237, FT247, FT248, FT249, FT250, FT266, FT270, FT276, FT285, FT287, FT288, FT289), and a quarter size at the Villa Adriana, Tivoli (FT272, FT273, FT274).

Towne also used locally-sourced paper. One was a thick wove paper measuring 368–98 x 495–513 mm, with somewhat irregular edges (FT257, FT258, FT279), or perhaps the full sheet was twice that size, judging from Towne’s large Tivoli waterfall now at Birmingham (FT260), which has a crease down its centre. Towne made drawings half the size of the Birmingham example at Tivoli, Frascati, and Nemi (FT256, FT257, FT258, FT259, FT261, FT263, FT264, FT267, FT270a, FT271, FT282, FT286, FT291) and half as small again (243–57 x 370–402 mm) at Tivoli, Rocca di Papa, and Frascati (FT252, FT253, FT254, FT265, FT278, FT279, FT280, FT281, FT283, FT284, FT290), and half as small again (240–53 x 180–94 mm) at Tivoli and Rocca di Papa (FT251, FT255, FT268, FT275). It would be necessary to undertake a closer study of the papers to properly understand whether they have a common source, but it could easily be that Towne bought a fairly large supply of paper that he cut up into several convenient sizes for use later on. He seems to have used the wove paper (at the roughly 265 x 375 mm size) to sketch the waterfall at Terni (FT300) on his way home to England, and again in the Lake District five years later (FT514, FT515, FT516, FT517, FT518, FT519, FT520, FT520a, FT521, FT522, FT523, FT524, FT525, FT526, FT528), when he inscribed several sheets with the notice “N.B. the paper this is drawn on I brought / myself from Rome” (FT514, FT515, FT518). As Wilcox pointed out, the greater absorbency of the Italian wove paper facilitated Towne’s experiments in applying coloured wash on the spot, and several of the Italian series works, such as at Frascati, show Towne’s thumb or finger prints, which confirm the improvised circumstances in which he was working. Several of John "Warwick" Smith's Rome watercolours, in which he uses a pure watercolour technique, use a heavy wove paper that perhaps has the same origin as Towne's.

On the journey back to England in August and September 1781, Towne used at least four kinds of sheet. The smallest was a laid paper measuring ca. 155 x 210 mm, with a continental watermark. It seems very likely that this was a sketchbook, or perhaps more than one, as binding marks are visible on some sheets (FT331, FT332, FT338), and in one case (FT332) the drawing has been continued onto the verso of another sheet (FT331), on whose recto is the adjacent drawing in the series, made the same day. The only reasonable explanation for this is that both drawings were bound as adjacent sheets in a sketchbook. At the same time, Towne used larger sheets of laid paper watermarked "C&I HONIG" and measuring ca. 280 x 470 mm. Given the presence of stitchmarks in several cases, this too was probably bound into a book. Paper from this Dutch producer was widely available across Europe in the later eighteenth century; among British artists who used it in Italy were John Downman in 1773–74 and Thomas Hardwick in 1778.28 The third sheet was a laid paper measuring ca. 250 x 325/350 mm, which Towne used in the vicinity of Lake Geneva. It has no stitch marks along the top edge and as all but one of the sketches are drawn across two sheets arranged horizontally, perhaps they were bound into a sketchbook stitched along the short edge of the sheet.29 One panoramic view of Lake Geneva is drawn across three sheets of wove paper measuring 263 x 379 mm, with stitch marks along the long top edge of the sheet (FT374, FT375, FT376).

After 1781: Towne's later use of his continental work

Back in the UK, Towne’s continental sketches became the mainstay of his commissioned work and, when he began to exhibit at the Royal Academy from 1788 onwards, of his exhibits. Detailed information about the watercolours that Towne made on commission, based on his continental sketches, is given in 3.11: Studio Watercolours, 1781-1800. As  few of Towne's oil paintings survive, it is difficult to be categorical about which sketches Towne used as the basis of exhibits, but three examples are known whose sources are watercolours now in the British Museum (FT572, FT616, FT617; the losses are summarised in 3.12: Oil Paintings, 1784-1801)

When using his continental sketches to generate commissions, on the whole Towne’s clients would have been shown loose sheets of paper and pages of sketchbooks, some drawings with and some without colouring, some dated but others not, and at least two comprising two sheets that were not joined permanently together but would have been placed next to one another for the duration of the client’s visit.30 As loose sheets, the method and order of displaying the drawings was not fixed and this no doubt suited Towne’s needs and those of his audiences; it was also typical for sheets of drawings in both domestic and commercial environments to be housed and displayed loose in portfolios, in which many remained as late as 1815.31

Gradually, though, the drawings ceased to perform this job: only nine commissions are known from 1790 onwards. Towne’s continental sketches began to take on a retrospective, memorialising function for him, one that probably deepened alongside his increasing failures to gain professional recognition for his achievements from the Royal Academy between 1788 and 1803. In the years around the turn of the early nineteenth century, when his work was no longer useful as working capital for his commissions business or necessary as tuition aids, Towne began to sort through and revise it systematically, adding new layers of colouring and wash, adjusting his compositions with incidental features, ordering them into numbered sequences, and placing them on stiff mounts. It is impossible to be certain exactly when all of this took place or how widespread it was, but there is much evidence that places it in the period towards and after the end of Towne’s working life and that it touched much of Towne’s continental work of 1780–81, and other works besides. Five Italian views are inscribed with dates between 1789 and 1811 (FT167, FT256, FT257, FT282, FT291, FT300). Sixteen drawings of 1780–81 are mounted on paper watermarked with dates of 1794, 1804, and 1811 (FT210, FT211, FT217, FT221, FT231, FT253, FT257, FT264, FT282, FT297, FT203, FT283, FT310, FT313, FT361, and probably FT325), and analysis of watermarks from the Oppé collection by Peter Bower has shown that some mounts of 1781 sketches are datable to the period 1795–1805.32 There is some evidence to suggest that these dated mounts were not used until long after the year in the watermark. An Italian drawing of 1781 that was mounted on 1794 paper was only completed in the 1800s; paper with the same date was used to mount a Devon view dated 1804 and a pupil’s drawing made in 1802 (FT282, FT629, FT881a). Another 1781 Italian work was mounted on 1804 paper in 1811, and there are other examples showing that the age of a paper is not a reliable sign of the date when it was used.33 In fact, the Whatman paper watermarked with the year 1794 that Towne used for at least eleven works was probably manufactured some years after 1794. The Excise Act of 1794, which created new duties on paper, offered manufacturers the opportunity to claim back duty on exported papers so long as they feature “a Watermark of the date in the following Figures, 1794, or in line manner of some subsequent year”. The manufacturers of Whatman paper used this sloppy wording—which seemed to allow paper to be watermarked with “1794”, whatever the year—to continue to use paper moulds dating from that year without having to update them with new watermarks.34

There are other indications that work was undertaken late in Towne’s life. It is not uncommon to find that coloured wash has strayed beyond the margins of an image and onto the mount, indicating that colouring took place when or after the image was mounted. The frail handwriting of Towne’s old age, which can be seen in his last sketchbooks of 1809 to 1815, is also present in some works of 1780 and 1781.35 Several sketches are bordered with a thin and shaky line of grey wash on their mount.36 Many of those works of 1780–81 where the mount or an inscription indicates Towne’s late interest also show clear signs of reworking in a manner consistent with Towne’s late-period watercolour paintings but unseen in his commissions of the 1780s.37 By inference from such signs, other works of 1780–81 can be assessed as having received attention late in life. For example, as FT253 is mounted on 1794 paper, it seems hardly likely that FT252 was not also treated much the same way around the same time. Similarly FT202 and FT203, and FT283 and FT284 were surely all mounted in 1811. Often drawings were reinforced with new washes, ink, or gum;38 figures and other foreground objects were inserted;39 loose masses were defined and details picked out that had formerly been merely implied with a few deft pen lines. Towne also returned to mounted drawings to erase and reinscribe certain dates, perhaps consulting his old diaries, as Thomas Jones did when revisiting his Italian drawings in retirement, or else, given the inconsistency that characterises these erasures, relying on his memory. However, Towne left many mounted works relatively or entirely untouched and there is a great difference in style between those works that have been revised and those that have not. Contrast, for example, FT171, FT183, FT212, FT237, FT257 (Italian, original state) with FT222, FT223, FT238, FT241, FT267 (Italian, revised state); or, from the Swiss work, contrast FT327 with FT328, FT326 with FT325, FT338 with FT329, and FT355 with FT361. It seems that the former groups are work entirely of 1780–81 and the latter substantially of the late 1790s or early 1800s. 

Of the surviving examples of the larger C&I Honig series, only three are coloured and mounted (FT353, FT361, FT362), as is one of the final series around Lake Geneva (FT384). Generally, Towne did not introduce new foreground elements to his Swiss studies when making later revisions, as he had done in some worked-up Italian views (for instance FT241, FT244, FT269), and this means that they remain compositionally closer to their original state as vigorous monochrome or lightly coloured sketches. At least, this is true of the small series of drawings, for in the three large examples (FT353, FT361, FT362) Towne added in new items such as boats and figures, and detailed the foreground area so much that the eye lingers on the bottom edge of the drawing, distancing the viewer from the scene beyond. Compare, for example, the relative inclusiveness of two large-series riverside views, one coloured (FT362) and the other monochrome (FT363). The same comparison can be made of two views near Mount Splugen (FT327, FT328), one of which is the only small-series drawing whose foreground has been altered significantly.

Of the sketches that Towne made on the journey from Rome to England, twenty-four have been substantially revised later in life by further colouring and mounting. These show overwhelmingly subjects in northern Italy and Savoy, rather than of central and eastern Switzerland. This probably reflects the market for views of scenery that were easily accessible in preference to less commonly visited areas of Switzerland; for instance, a critic called Towne’s Swiss Royal Academy exhibit of 1788 “a difficult subject” (FT646). If so, this may also account for the fact that only three of the twenty-four coloured drawings appear ever to have been owned by the Merivale family (FT314, FT316, FT338), suggesting that the rest left Towne’s possession during his lifetime or, as Wilcox suggested, shortly afterwards.40 Nevertheless, Towne’s choice of a view in the Grisons for the 1788 Royal Academy exhibition, when he was offering himself for election for the first time in twelve years, and of a Splugen view in 1803 (FT908), when he made his final bid for membership, indicates that he may have considered the views of the less visited eastern Switzerland to have been the more distinctive contribution to contemporary landscape. Several of the sketches made on the way home to England were commissioned by Towne’s clients in later years (FT346, FT350, FT351, FT355, FT364, FT382, FT383). 

It is impossible to organise these revisions into a tightly defined period of time, and perhaps the process was ongoing throughout the final decades of Towne’s life and was never completed or even capable of completion. Even so, it is fairly clear that mortality and Towne’s reputation were the driving forces, for almost all of the continental sketches that were transformed by late reworking and mounting were either exhibited by Towne at his large retrospective shown in 1805 or bequeathed to the British Museum, or both. Indeed, the omission from the British Museum bequest of continental sketches that Towne fully coloured and mounted may be a consequence of them either having left Towne’s ownership during his lifetime or having been bequeathed elsewhere. They comprise the group that Paul Oppé bought in 1910 (the most celebrated sheets were FT339 and FT340) and, as Wilcox suggested, may have been given to the art collector William Holwell Carr41 or some other close friend; one large watercolour of Tivoli that descended within James White’s family (FT259); and a watercolour from the Naples tour that appears not to have formed part of Towne’s bequest to the Merivales (FT241). The Oppé group is conspicuous by its absence from the copies of Towne’s continental sketches that John White Abbott made (‘John White Abbott’), probably in the period 1816–25, which is perhaps an indication that it had by this point become detached from the main remnants of Towne’s studio (which was bequeathed to James White until his death in 1825, when it passed to John Herman Merivale and his heirs).

1816 and 1818: Towne's bequest

Apart from the works, listed above, that appear not to have descended through the Merivale family, every one of the sheets from the continental tour that Towne mounted were bequeathed to the British Museum. Towne's bequest was not mentioned in his will, but his intent is clear from the following two notes that accompanied the delivery of watercolours in 181642. The first is in the hand of Towne's executor, James White, and the second is written by Towne's residuary legatee, John Herman Merivale who, as a London-based lawyer, perhaps organised the delivery:

Mr. White (of Exeter) Executor of the Will
of the late Francis Towne Esqr of Devonshire
Street Portland Place, artist, begs leave
to present his most respectful complimts
to the Trustees of "The British Museum"
and desires the Favour of their acceptance
of Two Portfolios with Drawings made at
Rome, by Mr.Towne, agreeable to a Wish
expressed by him, to Mr.White, on the
London, 15th August 1816
Presented by James White Esqr. of Exeter Executor
of Francis Towne Esqre., with the concurrence of J.H.
Merivale Esqre. his residuary legatee, in compliance with the
desire of the Artist, that his "Roman Drawings" should
be deposited with those of his friend Pars in the British

The museum's Standing Committee noted the arrival of two portfolios on 16 November 1816, 'views in the neighbourhood of Rome executed on the spot by Mr Towne, and by him bequeathed' to the museum. By February 1817 the curator, John Thomas Smith, had 'arranged Towne's drawings of Rome, and made a catalogue according to the original notes made by the artist on the back of each draing; 57 in all presented by Mr White of Exeter.'43 In fact, White had given 58 sheets, comprising two views of Geneva drawn before Towne's arrival in Rome, 50 from the Rome series, five views in Italy, and a stray fragment that had once belonged to a Roman view.44

White - Towne's close friend over decades who, we can assume, knew his work intimately - was probably not given precise instructions about what works Towne had intended him to give, for he omitted from his gift four of the Roman series and had included two views of Geneva. By 1818 White recognised that the donation was incomplete, when he made a further gift of 17 works, comprising two sheets from the Rome series, four of Naples, seven from the Italy series, two from Albano, and two views from the journey back to England.45 The following letter accompanied the gift:

My dear Sir,
I have the pleasure of sending you the accompanying drawings which appear to form a part of what Mr.Whyte and myself, as The Residuary Legatee of Mr. Towne, in conformity with a desire formerly expressed by that Gentleman, wished to have the honour of depositing in The Museum - and I have now to request that you will have the goodness to communicate that the next meeting of the Trustees, the following message which I am desired by Mr. White to present to them.
'Mr.White of Exeter (Executor of the Will of Francis Towne Esq) perceiving several deficiencies in the Volumes of Roman Drawings by Mr.Towne already in the Museum, most respectfully requests the Trustees of the B.M. to honour him by the Acceptance of the different views in Italy drawn by Mr.Towne and accompanying this note.
To the Ts. of the B.M. Exeter 2 Nov.1818'
I am &c J.H.Merivale
Woburn Place. Nov.6.46

It seems likely that White, having already made the earlier large selection of watercolours, on this second occasion simply forwarded all the mounted continental works that remained in his possession. For, although Towne had arranged his work into numbered sequences, such that it suggests that Towne had extremely orderly working habits, Towne left his continental sketches in various states, ranging from bare pen outline to highly finished and mounted work. Even among the mounted work there were monochrome studies and, of the coloured watercolours, some had undergone significant alterations in the years after the initial sketch, while others remained untouched. Even in the Rome series, two sketches remained in a monochrome state and were not given to the British Museum (FT206, FT220).

About the author

  • In 2006 Richard Stephens was awarded a PhD at Birkbeck College, London, for his thesis, A Catalogue Raisonné of The Works of Francis Towne, on which this website is based. In 2016 he curated the exhibition Light, Time, Legacy: Francis Towne's watercolours of Rome at the British Museum, London. He edits The art world in Britain 1660 to 1735, published by the University of York.


  1. 1 Letter from Francis Towne to Ozias Humphry, 23 November 1803.
  2. 2 Letter from Francis Towne to James White, March 1815.
  3. 3 Letter from James White to Francis Towne, 12 March 1781.
  4. 4 Jones 1951, p.66.
  5. 5 Letter from Ozias Humphry to Francis Towne, 17 April 1781.
  6. 6 Jones 1951, p.55.
  7. 7 Information on Switzerland and its literary and artistic precedents discussed in this and the next paragraph come from Hauptman 1991, pp.13–43, and Wilton 1979, pp.9–11.
  8. 8 Whyttenbach 1787, p.5.
  9. 9 Based on Smith’s drawings, Wilcox suggests plausibly that Towne travelled via Lucerne, Interlaken, Thun, Bern, and Fribourg: Wilcox 1997, p.90. Alternatively, Towne may have gone south from Uri to St Gotthard, Grimsel and Grindelwald, before reaching Thun.
  10. 10 Rousseau 1761; Hauptman 1991, p.17.
  11. 11 Jackson 1997, p.80.
  12. 12 Rather than anti-clockwise as Wilcox’s map indicates: Wilcox 1997, p.90.
  13. 13 Letter from Arthur Champernowne to Francis Towne, 20 March 1786.
  14. 14 London, Royal Academy Library, HU2/120-1.
  15. 15 Oppé 1920, pp.96–97
  16. 16 Farington 1978, p.3795.
  17. 17 A watercolour by Smith, sold at Sotheby’s on 29 November 1973, lot 26, showed the view from the tennis court at Berne and was signed and dated 1778.
  18. 18 If Smith’s drawings are acceptable as evidence of Towne’s movements, then a view by Smith of Laon, north of Reims, which was offered for sale at Sworders of Cambridge, lot 240, on 21 July 2009, suggests that the pair crossed the channel on the Dover–Calais route.
  19. 19 Many artists subscribed to the English translation of Bourrit’s work, including William Pars, Samuel Hieronymous Grimm, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Antonio Zucchi, William Woollett, Benjamin West, Joseph Nollekens, Alexander Cozens, Francesco Bartolozzi, Angelica Kauffmann, and George Moser; Bourrit 1776.
  20. 20 Some of these are reproduced in Wilton 1979, pp.19, 35.
  21. 21 Oppé 1920, p.116.
  22. 22 Jackson 1784.
  23. 23 Sloan 1986, ch.7.
  24. 24 Meusel 1779, p.18.
  25. 25 Broerlin-Brodbeck 2004; Meusel 1779, p.27.
  26. 26 Zurlauben 1780.
  27. 27 The dimensions noted range between 312-335 x 446-470mm.
  28. 28 Bower 1996, pp.12–13; Hardwick’s drawings are owned by the Royal Institute of British Architects.
  29. 29 One sketch is on a single sheet but was clearly intended to have formed the left part of a wider panoramic view of Lake Geneva (FT380).
  30. 30 Nos.FT230, FT355.
  31. 31 Typescript of letter from Louisa Heath Drury to Fanny Merivale, 13 February 1815, Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter.
  32. 32 No.FT321 is watermarked with an ornamented fleur-de-lis with a pendant “E&P” monogram typical of paper made in ca. 1795–1805 by Robert Edmeads and John Pyne of Ivy Mill, Maidstone; FT326 is watermarked “CURTEIS & SON” and was made in c.1795 by William Curteis of Carshalton Mill, Surrey. No.FT457 has the same watermark. Peter Bower has also examined many of the British Museum works of 1780–81 but this analysis has not been made available.
  33. 33 Most obviously on Towne’s Lake District tour of 1786 when he used paper he had bought in Rome in 1780–81 (for example FT514). A Netley Abbey view completed in 1809 is mounted on paper watermarked “J.RUSE / 1804” (FT601); a view of Holland House dated 1801 is on paper watermarked “I.Taylor 1795” (FT625); and a two-sheet view of the Thames from Millbank (FT596) is watermarked 1794 and 1796, but its mount is watermarked 1801.
  34. 34 Harris and Wilcox 2006, p.30.
  35. 35 Nos.FT174, FT202, FT203 (mounted in 1811), FT283, FT318. The frailty or otherwise of Towne's handwriting has not been routinely recorded in the catalogue entries.
  36. 36 Nos.FT202, FT203, FT228, FT257 (mounted in 1811), FT325 (mounted in or after 1804).
  37. 37 Examples of late watercolours are FT562 of 1790, FT586 of 1796, FT603 of 1799, FT618 of 1800, and FT644 of ca. 1805.
  38. 38 For example FT211 (mount dated 1794), FT234, FT238, FT282 (mount dated 1794 and tinted in the 1800s).
  39. 39 For example FT241, FT244, FT269 (mount dated 1794).
  40. 40 Wilcox 1997, p.25. Four (FT298, FT312, FT313, FT321) were probably once owned by Arthur Champernowne (1768–1819; see the Comment at FT602). One was given by James White to the British Museum in 1818 (FT353).
  41. 41 Wilcox 1997, p.25.
  42. 42 These are both stored in the Royal folder containing Towne's sketches, in the Department of Prints and Drawings, British Museum.
  43. 43 Minutes of Standing Committee, British Museum Central Archive
  44. 44 Geneva: FT165, FT166; Rome: FT171, FT172, FT173, FT174, FT175, FT176, FT177, FT178, FT179, FT180, FT181, FT182, FT183, FT184, FT185, FT186, FT187, FT188, FT189, FT190, FT191, FT192, FT193, FT194, FT195, FT196, FT197, FT198, FT199, FT200, FT201, FT202, FT203, FT204, FT205, FT207, FT208, FT209, FT210, FT211, FT212, FT213, FT214, FT215, FT216, FT217, FT218, FT222, FT223, FT224; Italy: FT251, FT252, FT253FT264, FT286; and the fragment: FT262
  45. 45 Rome: FT219, FT221; Naples: FT231, FT234, FT238, FT244; Italy: FT256, FT261, FT263, FT267, FT269, FT282, FT291; Albano: FT294, FT297, though the latter of these is not numbered; Other Italian sites: FT300, FT353.
  46. 46 The letter, now in the Central Archives of the British Museum, is dated "Nov:6 1816" but this is assumed to be a mistake for 1818.


Article title
On the Continent, 1780-1
Richard Stephens
Article DOI
Cite as
Richard Stephens, "On the Continent, 1780-1", A Catalogue Raisonné of Francis Towne (1739-1816), (London: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2016),

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