Oil Paintings, 1773–80

Richard Stephens

In his autobiographical letter of 1803 Towne recalled:

At fourteen years of age I began to paint in oil, before I was twenty I had the premium for the best drawing of landscape, at the Arts and Sciences, after that I set out in the great World, & painted several views from drawings after nature, and some of these pictures were of a large size.1

Clearly, oil painting featured prominently in Towne’s earliest work, and the assumption is that all his first London exhibits were works in that medium, although in the letter Towne neatly ignores the fact that his earliest paintings were not landscapes but flower pieces, given that he worked as a coach painter. In his biographical note Farington recorded that “in 1771 He exhibited at the room of the Incorporated Society in Spring gardens, a view near Exeter which was much admired”.2 All but one of these early paintings have been lost, and it is tempting to think that Farington dated Towne’s London success too early, for the only certain survivor is Towne’s 1773 Society of Artists picture (FT019), which is a Wilsonian treatment of the view of Exeter from Exwick that broadly follows the viewpoint of the Buck engraving made some decades earlier. Also two paintings that would surely be very early in date, were they to be Towne’s work, are described in this catalogue as doubtful (FT024FT025). Two other large oil paintings from the early to mid-1770s have recently been ascribed to Towne but were commissioned (FT060FT060a). Two smaller works (FT023FT047) may have just been exhibits but neither has been seen recently. Comparing the early oil paintings with examples from 1780, there is a clear tautening in Towne’s handling of paint, which mirrors the evolution in his work on paper over the same period. The broad strokes that describe the trees in the Pencarrow and 1773 Exeter views give way, by the middle of the decade, to smaller marks indicating each individual leaf, and boundary lines are more sharply defined.

For all the praise that Towne’s view of Exeter may have received, the key work was the large oil painting of Powderham Castle he made for Viscount Courtnay (FT065), as this must have encouraged other landowners to give their business to Towne—though it appears to have been much delayed, having been ordered in October 1774 but dated 1777. Towne’s prices prior to Italy are not known, but in January 1782 a commission for an oil painting (FT392) much the same size as two works of 1780 (FT154FT156) brought 25 guineas. In 1779 and 1780 Towne painted at least seven oils, probably all of them on commission (FT142FT148FT154FT156FT157FT159FT161). The cluster of paintings dated 1780 is probably more a result of Towne’s need to complete all of his unfinished work before departing for Italy than a temporary peak in his popularity; had Towne not travelled then, it is possible that some of these paintings might have been completed later. Even so, it marks the high point of Towne’s production of oil paintings; almost all of his commissioned work after he returned from Italy in 1781 was in watercolour.

About the author

  • Independent Art Historian


  1. 1 Letter from Francis Towne to Ozias Humphry, 23 November 1803.
  2. 2 Royal Library, Windsor Castle; Notebooks on Artists, vol.3.


Article title
Oil Paintings, 1773–80
Richard Stephens
Article DOI
Cite as
Richard Stephens, "Oil Paintings, 1773–80", A Catalogue Raisonné of Francis Towne (1739-1816), (London: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2016),

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