Study for a portrait of Mr Francis Towne of Exeter, Landscape Painter

A Catalogue Raisonné of Francis Towne (1739-1816), by Richard Stephens, is published by the Paul Mellon Centre.

In line with the Mellon Centre's commitment to support access to art history through digital publishing, the catalogue is free to use and is presented under a CC-BY-NC licence, meaning that it can be copied, distributed and adapted for any non-commercial use.

The catalogue identifies 1080 works by Towne and his circle, doubling previously-described totals. Based on the author’s PhD thesis, it makes extensive use of the papers of Paul Oppé (1878-1957) whose pioneering researches established the artist’s reputation in the 1920s, after a century of neglect. Oppé had discovered the contents of Towne's own studio in the possession of the Merivale family of Barton Place near Exeter. Using the archives of Thomas Agnew & Sons, the Fine Art Society, Colnaghi and elsewhere, Stephens gives detailed provenances for hundreds of the Merivales' Townes that have circulated on the London art market. Towne's biography is established in greater detail than before, using much original research. Resources published alongside the catalogue include an edition of Towne's correspondence and a transcription of Oppé's Barton Place catalogue.

More than 800 works are illustrated with high-quality images, much of it specially commissioned by the Paul Mellon Centre. Towne's sketching tours in Wales, Italy, Switzerland, Savoy, the Lake District and around England are reconstructed with new clarity and detail.

Towne worked as a drawing master in Exeter; yet, eschewing the London art world, he sought recognition from the Royal Academy. Ultimately failing to win membership, Towne took matters into his own hands by organising a large retrospective exhibition of his life's work in 1805, and by bequeathing many watercolours to the British Museum (currently on display for the first time in 200 years).

The catalogue raisonné gives us a fresh opportunity to assess Towne's achievement. It allows us to consider the experience of watercolourists working in an oil-based exhibition culture; the life of provincial artists in the shadow of London's dominating art scene; and the response of Sandby's generation to a watercolour market transformed in the age of Turner. As a discovery of the 1920s, Towne's work exemplifies the early 20th century revival of interest in the 18th century. Above all, as a coach-painter turned landscape artist turned drawing master, based in London and Exeter but also travelling Britain and Europe, and who ultimately abandoned art institutions to instead determine his own legacy, Towne embodies the entrepreneurial craft of the late 18th century artist. 

Acknowledgements

After Towne's death most of his pictures and other possessions became the property of his old friends, the Merivale family of Barton Place near Exeter. There they remained - stored in Towne's own cupboard and portfolios - until the family gave up the house in 1915. Around that time, Paul Oppé encountered the Merivale collection, and his researches provide the evidential backbone of this entire catalogue raisonné. I am deeply grateful to Charlotte Oppé for the liberal access she gave me to her grandfather's notebooks, and to the former owners of Thomas Agnew & Sons, for the opportunity to study Oppé's Barton Place catalogue (a checklist of a large part of the Merivale family's collection, transcribed here. This catalogue raisonné is a testament to the enduring value of Paul Oppé's work in the field of English drawings.

Oppé's research was published in the 1919/20 volume of the Walpole Society, and established Towne's reputation. In the decades following, the Merivale family sold their hundreds of Townes through Thomas Agnew & Sons, the Fine Art Society, the Squire Gallery and elsewhere, and in the post-war era Towne's work has circulated ever more widely. The task of writing this catalogue raisonné has involved little more than to trace the contents of that cupboard in Barton Place - now scattered around the world - as they percolated through a century of auctions and private sales. The art trade repeatedly went out of its way to help me, and I would especially like to thank Simon Edsor of the Fine Art Society, Linda McLeod at Christies, Jane Hamilton and the former owners of Thomas Agnew & Sons, the late Henry Wemyss and his colleagues at Sotheby's, Lowell Libson, and the owners of P&D Colnaghi, for the trust they showed in me by allowing me to use their photographic and business records. I am also greatly in debt to Georgina Pope who, when at Christie's, supplied me with many invaluable images of Towne's work.

I am grateful for the hospitality of private owners of pictures by Francis Towne and his circle who have allowed me into their homes. I will always be impressed by the gesture of kindness of Sir Nicholas Brooksbank, in not only arranging the photography of a painting by Towne on my behalf but then also footing the bill, when it became obvious that I could not afford it. Thank you. I am also happy to record the help that the late John Brooke-Little at the College of Arms gave me early on. He identified Towne in the Painter Stainer apprenticeship records, which enabled me to discover the facts of Towne's birth, family and early career. I have benefited a lot from the expertise of curators and other specialists, too, whose help I mention in various places in the catalogue.

When I began working on my thesis as a young graduate, Timothy Wilcox's research on Towne, which culminated in his 1997 exhibition at Tate Britain, was already far advanced. I am grateful for this opportunity to thank Tim in a public way, for his great patience over the years in answering my many enquiries and in staying engaged with my work. I thank Mark Hallett at the Paul Mellon Centre very much - naturally, for his decision to publish this catalogue, but more so for his commitment to it throughout the difficult phases of its production, and for the good advice he has always given me. I thought I knew Towne's work quite well but Mark's colleagues Tom Scutt and Maisoon Rehani have brought it all to life again with exciting new clarity and detail.

I first encountered Francis Towne when I visited the British Museum as a 14 year old and saw his 1781 watercolour of Ariccia (FT297). As an undergraduate in the early 1990s, I wrote an extended essay on Towne which was an excuse to become better acquainted. Then I began this catalogue raisonné as a PhD thesis at Birkbeck College, London. It occupied me, off and on, between about 1994 and 2006. None of this would have been possible without the endless support of my mum and dad, Avril and Brian. I had persistence, but was a difficult student and I appreciate very much the guidance of Will Vaughan who continued to supervise me even after he had retired. The organisational abilities of my wife, Liz, were also essential; and, having read many drafts of the thesis, she also ensured that it made sense. When I was awarded the PhD, she imagined that would put an end to it all; I didn't have the heart to explain that Towne would be with us for life.