Tour of Wales, 1777

Richard Stephens

During the 1760s and 1770s North Wales, long considered unpleasant, unsafe, and inaccessible, began to receive new visitors who admired the scenery and archaeological ruins. The new generation of tourists considered the region as a haven of the rough and uncultivated, and it had inherited a reputation as a place where the “roads are impractical, the inns tolerable, and the people insolent and brutish”.1 New guidebooks addressed these prejudices:

The romantic beauties of nature are so singular and extravagent in this principality . . . that they are scarcely to be conceived by those, who have confined their curiosity to the other parts of Great Britain . . . The Welsh tour has been strangely neglected . . . The author did not meet with a single party of pleasure, during his six-weeks’ journey through Wales [in 1774] . . . [The author can] assure the reader, that, in the low level countries, the turnpike roads are excellent; and that the mountainous roads are, in most parts, as good as the nature of the country will admit of; that the inns, with a few exceptions, are comfortable, and that the inhabitants are universally civil and obliging.2

Towne himself visited North Wales in the summer of 1777 in a tour lasting about six weeks. He was accompanied by James White, who later wrote to Towne in Italy: “I cannot help fancying that your Present Tour is only a Welch Expedition upon a grander Scale, and that your daily & hourly Employments are of the same kind as when we were travelling together.”3 Towne organised his drawings into a series at least fifty-four in number, which included views in Shropshire, the Wye Valley, and Somerset made on the way to and from North Wales. Travelling not as an aristocrat’s draughtsman but evidently as a free agent with a prosperous friend, Towne’s investment of six weeks in the fifty-four drawings indicates how much study and preparation went into the servicing of his middle-class customers. Although the market for substantial commissions in oil was small, this also suggests how responsive Towne expected genteel Exeter would be to drawings of sublime landscape and medieval archaeology. Several commissions resulted from the tour (one dated 1778; FT148, undated; FT396, FT397, both dated 1783; and FT548, FT549, FT550, FT551, all dated 1788), and when in 1779 Towne chose to return to the Royal Academy after a four-year absence, it was to exhibit a North Wales view (FT148). If, as seems likely, Towne made his first visit to North Wales in 1777, he certainly had some prior direct knowledge of its potential for landscape, as a landscape called Looking North from the Lower Slopes of Snowdon (FT142) is dated 1775 (Towne made a second version dated 1778: FT141). This was perhaps a composition deriving from a sketch by one of his clients or a fellow artist.

Towne’s first few drawings show him heading west from England into Wales, but perhaps he began his journey from London, rather than Exeter, as would be the case in 1786. At any rate, in a letter to Revd Isaac Smith of Sidmouth dated 19 June 1777, White’s lawyer friend Samuel Curwen made no mention of Towne, but stated that he had met White recently in Bristol and that he was “now on a tour through North Wales, &c.”4 Towne’s earliest sketch, a drawing of Bridgnorth Castle in Shropshire, is dated 20 June (FT066). From there Towne evidently travelled to Wenlock, where he was on 21 June (FT069, FT070), and thence to Shrewsbury, sketching the Wrekin en route (FT067, FT068). For the next week Towne’s movements are unclear; he may even have been in South Wales near Neath (FT073, FT074, FT075). On the other hand he may have progressed gradually from Shrewsbury to Bala, where apparently he was sketching on 27 June (FT072), probably visiting Pystyll Rhaeadr around the same time (FT071). From Bala Towne headed south-west over the Cambrian Mountains to Machynlleth on 28 June (FT076). Over the next week Towne made sketches in the area of Cadair Idris, including a view near Dolgelly on 30 June (FT077) and of Cadair Idris itself on 3 July (FT080, FT081). On 5 July Towne proceeded north to the area of Tan y Bwlch, passing on the way the four waterfalls of the Cayne, the Mawddwy, Rhaeadr Ddu, and Pont Ddu (FT598, FT079, FT082, FT083). Towne was sketching in and around Tan y Bwlch on 6 and 7 July (FT084, FT085, FT113), then on 9 July set out for Caernarvon, about twenty miles further north. On the way he sketched Aberglaslyn (FT086, FT087, FT088, FT089) and Llyn Cwellyn (FT091, FT092, FT093, FT094) as well as, presumably, the study for his oil paintings of Snowdon (FT090, FT141, FT142). On 12 July he left Caernarvon and took the coastal road to Conwy, again a distance of about twenty miles, sketching Penmaenmawr as he neared his destination (FT095, FT096, FT097, FT841). A few days later, on 16 July, Towne had moved another twenty miles, this time following the River Clwyd south-east to Denbigh (FT098), a staging point on his progress towards the River Dee around Llangollen, seventeen or so miles further south. There are eight studies of the Vale of Llangollen, where Towne sketched on 17 July (FT099, FT100, FT101, FT102, FT103, FT104, FT105, FT114). After this point Towne seems to have begun to make his way back to the West Country. He passed through Welshpool and Montgomery (FT106, FT107), reaching Ludlow by 21 July (FT108, FT109, FT115, FT116) and sketching nearby Okeley Park the following day (FT110). The last few drawings of the tour are much further south. A sketch of Tintern Abbey is dated 25 July (FT112), there is an undated view of Chepstow Castle (FT111), and two of Glastonbury Abbey were made on 30 July (FT117, FT118).

Towne’s visit in the summer of 1777 took place fairly early in the history of the Welsh tourism phenomenon. Towne would have known much of the work of artists and writers that was helping to establish Wales as a tourist destination, and no doubt these helped determine his decision to invest time there himself. Even though the pictorial tradition was very recent, there is some evidence for its impact on Towne. It made sense for Towne to account for it in his work, as his customers would judge his work through the knowledge of North Wales they had gained primarily through these prints and books. Pre-eminent among the artists depicting Wales was the Welshman Richard Wilson, several of whose paintings of North Wales from the 1760s had by the mid-1770s been engraved and were very widely known. Wilson’s images had almost single-handedly created the nationwide reputation for beauty of the Vale of Llangollen, and North Wales’s largest landowner Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn (1749–1789), who lived in the area, commissioned views of it from Wilson that were exhibited at the 1771 Royal Academy. Williams-Wynn also undertook a sketching tour with Paul Sandby around that time, from which Sandby produced Twelve Views in North Wales, published in 1775. Towne’s friend William Pars sketched in North Wales during the early 1770s (see fig.114c). Among writers, William Gilpin toured North Wales in 1773 and Henry Wyndham’s visit of 1774 was written up as A Gentleman’s Tour through Monmouthshire and Wales, published in 1775 and one of the best-known travel guides. A second edition appeared in 1781 that was based on Wyndham’s return visit between June and August 1777 in the company of Swiss artist Samuel Hieronymous Grimm (1733–1794), whose sketches were engraved for the new edition. Towne visited many of the sites covered in Wyndham’s book, often in the same order as Wyndham, whose texts are quoted in the entries of this catalogue. Six of Sandby’s twelve subjects were also drawn by Towne. In a general way, then, Towne adhered mainly to sites that had already emerged as worthy of notice, such as the banks of the Dee, Cadair Idris, Aberglaslyn, Penmaenmawr, and, further south, Chepstow. In three drawings Towne went further, adopting Sandby’s viewpoints and compositional arrangement (FT082, FT086, FT111), and in a fourth example the same strong lighting effect, too (FT103). The coincidences of Towne’s and Grimm’s Aberglaslyn views (FT086; FT088) is also striking, and doubtless the two parties of travellers were aware of one another’s presence in the region at the same time, especially as the scarcity of visitors as recently as 1774 was noted by Wyndham.

If Towne's itinerary conveys a sense that Towne was constantly on the move, there is also a strong sense of motion in the drawings themselves, indicative of the importance of movement in the eighteenth-century tourist’s experience of landscape. Towne made two kinds of picture in Wales. On the one hand there are static views, especially of ruins and waterfalls, visits to which typically involved diverting away from the road to reach a fixed destination. On the other are the drawings Towne made on the road itself, which usually features in the sketch. Movement was itself intrinsic to the tourist’s experience of Wales, both as a means of travelling from one overnight base to another and while taking in the particularly scenic spots: one view succeeded another, the impression of inconvenience and danger accumulating all the while. For example, here is Henry Wyndham’s description of Pont Aberglaslyn: 

Having crawled along a rocky track for seven miles, we at last descended by a sudden turn, round a jutting mountain, all, improviso, upon the Pont Aberglaslyn, which divides Merioneth from Caernarvonshire. Here we paused, while the grandeur of the scene before us, impressed a silent admiration on our senses. We, at length, moved slowly onwards, contemplating the wonderful chasm [see FT086].5

The description comprises a momentary calm stillness amid a much longer passage of vivid and dramatic change. Elsewhere, the narrative of the journey is no less important; in the Penmaenmawr drawing (FT096) the road is itself the subject of the entire drawing, and at the Salmon Leap (FT088) the viewer peers from the road. Towne describes the Vale of Llangollen as a sequence of views. His three drawings made along the River Dee all appear to have been drawn on a single day within close proximity of one another (FT103, FT104, FT105). The fundamentals are the same: the water, the hills, the warm setting sun casting long shadows towards the viewer, and in each case prominent on the left bank of the river is the road, winding its way into the distance and linking one drawing to the next. Towne did not seek one archetypal view of this scene; rather he presented a deliberately subjective account of his walk along the Dee, in which nature is not fixed as a timeless statement of preordained values but is immensely various and changing.6 In much the same way, Towne made a series of timed drawings of St John’s in the Vale when visiting the Lake District in 1786.

In style and technique the Welsh drawings have more in common with Towne’s Devon studies of the mid-1770s than of the period prior to his departure for Rome. For all their immediacy there is none of the progressive sharpness, detail, and precision of the Thomas Taylor and Lord Courtenay studies of the Exe and Teign estuaries (FT136, FT138, FT155). Similarly expansive valley scenes, such as at Machynlleth and Tan y Bwlch (FT076, FT113), are drawn freehand and look bare by comparison. In some drawings Towne retains a significant repoussoir element introducing the scene, such as at Tan y Bwlch, Chepstow, and judging by the later versions, at Snowdon and Llangollen (FT090, FT099, FT111, FT113).

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  1. 1 Wyndham 1781, p.144.
  2. 2 Wyndham 1781, preface.
  3. 3 Paul Oppé records: transcript, 4 May 1781.
  4. 4 Ward 1842, pp.142–3.
  5. 5 Wyndham 1781, p.125.
  6. 6 Sitter 2001, pp.121, 280.


Article title
Tour of Wales, 1777
Richard Stephens
Article DOI
Cite as
Richard Stephens, "Tour of Wales, 1777", A Catalogue Raisonné of Francis Towne (1739-1816), (London: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2016),

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