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John White Abbott (1763-1851)

John White Abbott (1763-1851)

The reputation of John White Abbott now rests on his works on paper, in which he emulated the practice of his teacher, Francis Towne, by making use of clear outlines, flat washes and precise notation. Particularly appealing are his detailed studies of woodland, which meld the spirit of his native Devon to motifs and arrangements taken from the Old Masters.

John White Abbott was born in Exeter, Devon, on 13 May 1763, and spent his entire career in that city as an apothecary and surgeon. He became an important friend and patron of Francis Towne and, as a keen amateur artist, was the finest of the group who took lessons from him and worked in his manner. He established his devotion to the art of Towne in his earliest known watercolours, made in 1791 on a tour of Scotland, the Lake District, Lancashire, Derbyshire and Warwickshire.

Some of the paintings made by Abbott early in the nineteenth century suggest, by their ambitious scale, a knowledge of Thomas Girtin and J M W Turner. Yet he remained an essentially eighteenth-century figure, who developed a classically-based sensibility by studying Towne’s Italian views and prints after the Old Masters.

Between 1793 and 1812, Abbott exhibited intermittently in London, as an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Arts; but he never sold a picture, despite the fact that his oils were more highly praised than those of Towne.

In 1803, the Academician Joseph Farington reported in his diary a conversation with fellow artist, John Downman, who had said of Abbott, that he ‘only paints by snatches, though by choice he would always be so employed’. He was able to fulfil this desire from 1825, when he inherited the Devon estate of Fordland from his uncle, James White, the prominent lawyer and another pupil of Towne. He then made sketching tours of Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Monmouthshire (all in 1827), and made some studies of Richmond, Surrey (in 1842), but continued to work mainly in south Devon. He was appointed Deputy Lieutenant of Devonshire, in 1831, and died in Exeter 20 years later.

Having married in 1795, Abbott was father to three sons and two daughters.

His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the British Museum and the V&A; the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford), The Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge) and the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (Exeter); and the National Gallery of Scotland (Edinburgh).

Further reading:
Carolyn Jane Baker, Paintings and Drawings by Francis Towne and John White Abbott, Exeter: Royal Albert Memorial Museum, 1971; Susan Morris, ‘Abbott, John White (b Exeter, 13 May 1764; d Exeter, 1851)’, Jane Turner (ed), The Dictionary of Art, London: Macmillan, 1996, vol 1, page 24; Adolph Paul Oppé, ‘John White Abbott of Exeter’, Walpole Society, vol 13, 1924-25, pages 67-84; Iolo Aneurin Williams, ‘John White Abbott: A Devonshire Artist’, Apollo, vol 17, 1933, pages 84-86

Many thanks to Dr Toby Thorne for help in compiling this entry.