Francis Towne (1739 - 1816)
  • Glacier from Montanvert
Pencil, pen and grey ink, grey and blue washes
  • image width 254mm,
  • image length 673mm
laid paper with a vertical crease down the centre
  • sheet, recto
  • thirty-three inscriptions, in grey ink except where specified, and ordered as they appear from left to right, as shown in fig.3 below: “glaciere” (1); “gravel thrown / up by the Glaciere” (2); “L’Aiguille / du Dru” (3) in brown ink, blurred; “L’Aiguille / le Moine” (4) in brown ink; “moss [mass?] brown / & rock” (5); “snow” (6); “La noise” (7); “snow” (8); “snow” (9); “dirty colour / of snow” (10); “snow” (11) in brown ink, blurred; “all snow” (12); “gravel” (13) in brown ink, blurred; “snow” (14); “gravel” (15) in grey ink over pencil; “glaciere” (16); “rock” (17); “snow” (18) in grey ink over pencil; “snow” (19) in brown ink; “snow” (20); “Glaciere running down / white” (21); “moss [mass?] brown / & rock” (22); “snow” (23) in pencil only; “snow” (24); “rock grey” (25); “snow” (26) in grey ink over pencil; “gravel” (27); “rock” (28); “Le Geant” (29) in brown ink; “snow” (30); “glaciere” (31); “rock” (32); “Le Charnois[?] / [...] ” (33) in brown ink, blurred
  • see Figure 3
  • sheet, verso
  • “No.9. Glaciere taken from / Montanvert / looking towards / Mount Blanc Septr 16th 1781 / 12 O’Clock Light from the right Hand / Francis Towne”, according to Janet Adam Smith’s transcription on a label attached to the back of the frame; Wilcox has a marginally different version: “No 9. Glaciere taken from the Montanvert / looking towards Mont Blanc Septr 16 th 1781 / 12 o’clock. Light from the right hand / Francis Towne”
Object Type
Monochrome wash

Mer de Glace, Chamonix
Catalogue Number
Description Sources
Examination (image)


Bequeathed by the artist in 1816 to James White of Exeter (1744–1825), on whose death it passed to Towne’s residuary legatee John Herman Merivale (1779–1844) and his successors. Merivale’s granddaughters Maria Sophia Merivale (1853–1928) and Judith Ann Merivale (1860–1945), both of Oxford, inherited the drawing in May 1915 (BP85). In May or June 1934 Judith Merivale sold it to the writer and mountaineer Janet Buchanan Adam Smith (1905–1999), who still owned it in 1997. The drawing was in an English private collection in 2006.

Associated People & Organisations

Private Collection
Janet Buchanan Adam Smith (1905 - 1999), 1934
Judith Ann Merivale (1860 - 1945), Oxford, May 1915, BP85
Maria Sophia Merivale (1853 - 1928), Oxford, May 1915, BP85
John Herman Merivale (1779 - 1844), 1825
James White (1744 - 1825), Exeter, 1816
Exhibition History
Royal Academy Bicentenary Exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts, 1968, no. 672
Wordsworth and the Alps, Wordsworth Trust, 1990
Francis Towne, Tate Gallery; Leeds City Art Gallery, 24 June 1997 - 4 January 1998, no. 42
Adrian Bury, Francis Towne - Lone Star of Water-Colour Painting, Charles Skilton: London, 1962, pp. 88, 101, 151
Luke Herrmann, British Landscape Painting of the 18th Century, Faber: London, 1973, p. 78
Janet Adam Smith, 'Switzerland and The Alps', The Listener: 1935, p. 177
Janet Adam Smith, Mountain Holidays, Dent: 1946, p. 47
William Coxe, Travels in Switzerland in a Series of Letters to William Melmouth Esq, T. Cadell: London, 1789, vol. 1, p. 420


Towne climbed Montanvert to draw this scene on 16 September and on the same day he probably also drew several other sketches (FT337, FT338, FT339, FT386). Towne is here some way up the Mer de Glace, looking from the side of Montanvert, the mountain that, even by this early date, was the standard position from which to view the glacier.1 The viewer is seemingly suspended over the Mer de Glace, an impression due to Towne having caught the glacier as it curves to the left and to the omission of foreground. Towne’s actual position is made more evident in the 1793 version based partially on this sketch and made for the Clifford family of Ugbrooke (FT573), in which more of the glacier as well as the side of Montanvert are depicted. It is likely that Towne made at least one other sketch of the glacier, as in 1796 John Short made a copy of what looks like a later watercolour by Towne that had been based on such a sketch (FT897).

Even allowing that Towne probably invented much of the foreground in the Ugbrooke work years after his visit to Chamonix, it is unlikely that the entire lower half came from his imagination; much of its ice sea, for instance, has the character of observed detail. It is likely, then, that originally the 1781 sketch included a bottom portion, now lost, covering the foreground and the near part of the glacier. A few curls of pencil foliage are visible at the bottom-right edge of the 1781 sheet, which are surely the very tops of trees on the near bank of rock that would have covered much of the lost sheet.

Fingerprint marks towards the bottom-left and right margins of the drawing are probably indications that he applied washes while these sheets were in the sketchbook and when he was perhaps close to the scene. The extent of the annotations to the drawing are unique in Towne’s practice and can perhaps be attributed to the unfamiliarity of this view, such that he had no mental reference points to rely on. Towne’s notes are chiefly to aid future colouring, but there are some names of peaks and, occasionally, a little explanation such as “gravel thrown / up by the Glaciere”. Presumably the grey ink of the drawing was drawn first, as it closely follows the pencil line, which has largely been erased. The grey pen inscriptions, themselves over pencil, were surely done around this time. As it makes no sense to think of Towne filling in the wash over the pencil before adding in the grey pen—it would only have obscured the pencil inscriptions and the pencil outline—surely the washes came after the pen. The brown inscriptions were presumably added after the grey inscriptions, although it is unclear whether they were added before or after the grey wash. The colour of the verso inscription is unknown but it would be no surprise if it were in the same brown ink used on the recto inscriptions. Towne favoured brown ink for verso inscriptions, and it is as if he added the brown inscriptions last, when reviewing the sketch around the time he inscribed the verso, to complete his record of the names of the major features and to add in a couple of colour notes he had omitted before.


Figure 3.
Francis Towne, Glacier with numbered key, 1781

Digital image courtesy of the author

As Coxe’s description makes clear, even in the 1770s there were basic facilities for the many English visitors to this glacier:

From the summit of the Montanvert we descended to the edge of the glacier; and made a refreshing meal upon some cold provision which we brought with us. A large block of granite, called “La pierre des Anglois”, served us for a table; and near us was a hovel, where those, who make expeditions towards Mont Blanc, frequently pass the night. The scene around us was magnificent and sublime; numberless rocks rising boldly above the clouds, some of whose tops were bare, others covered with snow. Many of these peaks gradually diminishing towards their summits, end in sharp points, and are called Needles. Between these rocks the valley of ice stretches several leagues in length, and is nearly a mile broad; extending on one side towards Mont Blanc, and, on the other, towards the plain of Chamouny. Since my first expedition [in 1776, and his second in 1785], Mr. Blair, an English gentleman, has built a more commodious wooden hut, which, from him, is called Blair’s Cabin.2

In his note Paul Oppé described the drawing thus:

Same [paper as FT374] double page. Very wild glacier between mts. Ind ink blue strong purple & blue cloud. Black indic snow, glacier etc Names of mt in brown. All these Swiss are much more naturalistic & less mannered than mine. The panoramas are definite topography. No art. Several are light & savage in effect. Few are really composed & imaginative. The feeling is . . . simple reality. Infinitely stronger than what went before. . . . & faithful. Savage.3

The owner of this drawing for much of the twentieth century was the writer and mountaineer Janet Adam Smith, who, in a review of the 1990 exhibition at Grasmere co-written with Peter Bicknell, judged the Montanvert sketch “probably the finest example of Towne’s magical conversion of his direct observation of a mountain scene into a brilliant work of art”.

by Richard Stephens


  1. 1 Another example from the same year is Figure 1 by Carl Ludwig Hackert, Mer de Glace, August 1781 (Centre d’Iconographie Genevoise).
  2. 2 Coxe 1789, vol.1, p.420.
  3. 3 Paul Oppé records: notes, ca. 1915.

Revisions & Feedback

The website will be updated from time to time and, when changes are made, a PDF of the previous version of each page will be archived here for consultation and citation.

Please help us to improve this catalogue

If you have information, a correction or any other suggestions to improve this catalogue, please contact us.