Pupils and Copyists

Richard Stephens

This section of the catalogue describes assorted works that are not by Towne but are associated with his practice as a drawing master. The catalogue separates Towne’s work from that of other draughtsmen and women, and distinguishes Towne’s ideal composition drawings, whose didactic character indicates they were made for the purposes of copying by pupils, from others that he drew on the spot during sketching tours, which were the basis of his commissioned work. But it would be easy to overstate distinctions between Towne’s work as a drawing master and the rest of his artistic practice. Not only was Towne producing study aids at the same time as undertaking sketching tours and drawing his clients’ country estates, but also it was probably not uncommon for Towne’s pupils to be, or to become, his commissioning clients. Certainly pupils and clients were drawn from the same families and Exeter social circles, and many of Towne’s on-the-spot sketches were no doubt made in the company of his pupils, at his pupils’ suggestion, or on their property. The copies that Towne’s pupils drew were not limited to those designed to teach compositional basics, but also included examples of his on-the-spot sketches.

The quality and price of drawing tuition in Exeter varied even among establishments aimed at genteel young ladies, but essentially there were two kinds of education on offer. On the one hand, drawing was taught as a technical skill in preparation for work in maritime and building trades; on the other, ladies and gentlemen learned to draw as a social and intellectual accomplishment. The earliest-known drawing school in Exeter was opened by map makers Matthew Blackamore and his brother James in Fore Street in 17631 and was still active in 1789. This was a technical school but, reflecting the growth in art and drawing as a leisure interest among Exeter’s genteel families, it diversified over the coming decade. The Blackamores added a writing school in 1768 and by 1770 were also teaching mixing and preparation of watercolours. In 1775 their premises was being used for portrait painting, and although industrial drawing was still their prime business, one advert was addressed exclusively to “the Ladies and Gentlemen of the City of Exeter”. The growing opportunities to teach genteel drawing were exploited by others, too, including itinerant artists, and judging by newspaper adverts, private schools grew in number during the 1770s and beyond. In 1770 a school “behind Mrs Tozeer’s, Haberdasher, in the Fish Market” run by “Stephen Dind and proper ASSISTANTS” catered to “Twenty Young Gentlemen . . . Boarded in the genteelest Manner, and educated in the French Language . . . Also . . . Drawing”. In 1774 Mr Young of Plymouth “proposes Teaching Ladies and Gentlemen Drawing in LANDSCAPE and PORTRAIT, during his Stay in Exeter”. In 1777 “Ladies [were] taught Drawing at their Houses, Fourteen Lessons for Two Guineas, and Half-a Guinea Entrance” by “Guest, of the Royal Academy, London”.2 Towne himself did not advertise and his London profile and continental travels probably gave his services a value that distinguished him from itinerant drawing masters. 

Beyond the surviving work of Towne and his pupils, little evidence remains to indicate how Towne conducted his business, but the practice of another leading provincial drawing master of the 1790s, John Glover of Lichfield, may be broadly comparable.3 Glover left detailed notes, which show that he followed a regular itinerary around the countryside, teaching both at schools and in private homes. On each occasion he might have as many as a dozen pupils, often members of the same family. Pupils usually paid an entrance fee of half a guinea, and the same for each lesson thereafter. However, fees varied: at one school, for example, the entrance was a full guinea but individual lessons were 5 shillings. A Dr French paid 1 guinea per lesson, while Misses Fowler and Gressley paid only 2s. 6d., perhaps reflecting the difference between a one-to-one session with a serious and mature amateur and the amusement of young girls within a class of older children. During the year 1793–94 Glover taught over a hundred pupils, two thirds of them female and all but four, children. His method of tuition was to make his pupils copy his work, for the loan of which he also charged as much as 5 shillings. Glover also sold artists’ materials, including paper, brushes, ink, frames, colours, folios, and prints by Joseph Farington and John “Warwick” Smith.

Like Glover, Towne procured prints and artists’ materials.4 He also worked as a restorer, as shown in an anecdote of 1796 related by Miss M. A. Burges to Towne’s pupil Elisabeth Simcoe: 

Do you remember the man who was to frame a drawing of yours & sent it you home covered with ink, & dirtied? Captn.Hatton had given this drawing to that very man, & when he sent to enquire if it was framed, was answered very coolly that it was spoiled & he could not have it. However he was very angry, & insisted upon having it at any rate; when it was produced, all over dirt, & torn in several pieces. He has since given it to Mr.Town to repair; & it is so well mended & cleaned, that it looks nearly as well as ever it could have done.5

Using his assistant Job Coombe, Towne’s services extended to the provision of items of joinery such as drawing boards and, doubtless, frames. As with Glover, the skill and commitment of Towne’s pupils varied. On the one hand, beginners like Frances Merivale (FT884, FT885) and Arabella Yeoman (FT861) drew for their own entertainment and received far less tuition than John White Abbott (FT814 to FT836), whose instruction was clearly an important long-term project for Towne with implications for the primacy of his own tuition practice in the Exeter area. Indeed, given Towne’s long-standing presence there, many of Towne’s pupils would have been, or become, long-term acquaintances, and their business relationships with him would have varied over time. The success of Towne’s business would have depended in part on his ability to derive new income from genteel figures once they had finished their formal education with him. Towne’s rates are also unknown although, given his income and the relative size of the market (Exeter was far larger than Lichfield), they probably exceeded Glover’s. As an indication of Exeter’s prices, an itinerant drawing master, Mr Benazech6 visited in October 1797 and advertised his availability for two twice-weekly hour-long classes of six pupils, at one and a quarter guineas per pupil per week, plus one guinea’s entrance fee.7 Working for 6 months of the year on such terms, a master would derive about £200.

Two pupils are known from documentary evidence only, as none of their drawings survive. Nancy Merivale (1782–1815) was the second child of John Merivale. Like her elder brother John Herman (FT881 to FT891) and younger sister Frances (FT884, FT885), she was taught drawing by Towne although no drawings by her are known. According to her great-niece, Towne “taught at the school in Exeter they [Nancy Merivale, her sister Frances and their sister-in-law Louisa] went to”,8 which was perhaps the Magdalen Street academy of the Misses Louis with which Towne was associated.9 Nancy Merivale’s familiarity with Towne is clear from surviving letters. For example, on 5 February 1805 she wrote to another pupil, Louisa Heath Drury (FT881, FT881a, FT881b, FT881c), of a visit from Towne’s assistant Job Coombe,

who came one day to measure the size of my drawing board to make one like it for Miss Gibbs & very nearly proved the destruction of your Spire & your School House & all Harrow Hill & a great part of the adjoining Country, by a great dirty Stick which had just come over Cowley Bridge & which he placed with deliberate Cruelty on my just finished drawing saying with all the cool Solemnity of his great Patron Mr Towne that “one could not be too nice about these little matters”. The drawing however is of that nature which is not to be easily hurt.10

In another letter, again to her sister-in-law, she revealed her acquaintance with the theory of art that Towne taught: “Fanny’s Head is, I know, about the Size of yours, but I beg you to recollect mine approaches far nearer Mr Towne’s Idea of Beauty, being a good Deal smaller.”11

Another genteel Exeter woman linked to Towne by documentary evidence alone is Harriett Gibbs, second of the five children of Antony and Dorothea Gibbs. Antony Gibbs (1756–1815) was a successful Exeter wool merchant in the 1780s, but a business failure in 1789 forced him to find work in Spain and Portugal while his family remained in the UK, living at addresses north and west of Exeter. They rented Lower Cleave house from Thomas Northmore in 1796, and Cowley Cottage from William Jackson in 1803 for £30 per annum, as well as a farm and land from John Merivale for £20. The cottage was opposite the lodge of Jackson’s house Cowley Place and very near Barton Place, belonging to the Merivales, and for some years Harriett Gibbs was part of the social life of that area, forming lifelong friendships with Nancy and Frances Merivale and enjoying many musical evenings at Barton Place with them, Hubert Cornish, and Edmund Granger.12 Mr and Mrs Gibbs were keenly sensitive of the vulnerability of their social position to their financial problems, and it seems that pride caused them to hire Towne as Harriett’s drawing master in preference to suffering the charity of their landlord’s wife, who had offered to act as teacher. At the end of October 1804, Mrs Gibbs wrote to her husband: “Mrs Jackson has never been here but once and only sent once tho I have seen her go out very often and I know she has been told by many people how ill I have been.”13 However, by December Mrs Gibbs reported: “Mr & Mrs Jackson drank tea with us last Saturday, we played at Chess they stayd till after supper – she has called very often since – she is going to teach Harriett to draw. I am very glad . . . anything that will amuse her.” Her husband replied immediately: “I am much pleased to see the attention paid to them [his children] by what few Friends we have, ‘tho Mrs Jackson is not one of them.”14 Perhaps as a result of this hint, Towne’s assistant, Job Coombe, visited Barton Place a few weeks later “to measure the size of my [Nancy Merivale’s] drawing board to make one like it for Miss Gibbs”15 in preparation for her lessons. After they left Devon, the Gibbs family moved to Dulwich, where Harriett’s maternal grandparents lived. In 1812 and 1813 Harriett received lessons from David Cox at Dulwich, in whose lodgings Dorothea Gibbs stayed in June 1813 during an illness.16 Towne’s drawings of Dulwich dated 13 August 1812 (FT733, FT734) may well have been made on a visit to members of the Gibbs family.

The drawing FT881a is one of several by Towne’s pupils that Towne inscribed (FT858, FT861, both dated 1801, and probably also FT860, dated 1793). The paper used to mount the drawing appears to be the same kind that Towne used quite widely to mount his Italian and other drawings (FT210, FT211, FT221, FT253, FT264, FT282, FT313, FT361, FT629), at least two of which (FT282, FT629) were, like the drawing catalogued here, mounted in the early nineteenth century. Although the ink used to inscribe “No11” is darker than the rest of the mount inscription, it does appear to be in Towne’s hand. See also FT860.

About the author

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  1. 1 Ravenhill & Rowe 2002, pp.36–37.
  2. 2 Exeter Flying Post, 24 May 1765, 25 March 1768, 2 March 1770, 5 August 1774, 8 September 1775, 8 December 1775, 10 January 1777, 2 July 1789.
  3. 3 Glover’s business records covering the period 1793–94 are set out in Hansen 2004, pp.6–8.
  4. 4 Letter from John Graves Simcoe to Francis Towne, 1780s; Letter from Arthur Champernowne to Francis Towne, 20 March 1786.
  5. 5 Devon Record Office, 1038M/F1/7A.
  6. 6 Probably Peter Benazech, who was living at King’s Mead Street, Bath, in 1791.
  7. 7 Exeter Flying Post, 12 October 1797
  8. 8 Although quite possibly she was simply repeating Anna Merivale’s assertion that Towne had taught the Merivale family. Paul Oppé records: letter from Emily Buckingham to Paul Oppé, 26 January 1919.
  9. 9 As he made bequests to all the Misses Louis. Wilcox suggested that Towne worked at the Louis school (Wilcox 1997, p.130).
  10. 10 Paul Oppé records: transcript of 5 February 1805.
  11. 11 Merivale Letters, August 1808, Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere.
  12. 12 Gibbs & Co. papers, Guildhall Library.
  13. 13 Letter dated 31 October 1804, Gibbs & Co. papers, Guildhall Library.
  14. 14 Letter dated 15 December 1804, Gibbs & Co. papers, Guildhall Library.
  15. 15 Letter dated 5 February 1805, transcript in Paul Oppé records.
  16. 16 Gibbs 1922.


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

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