The landscape painter, Francis Towne, spent most of his life in Exeter, earning his living as a drawing master, and sending work to exhibitions in London, where he had only moderate success. However, he was rediscovered and reappraised in the early twentieth century, and is now considered one of the most innovative watercolourists of his age. Francis Towne was baptised at All Saints, Isleworth, Middlesex, on 19 August 1739, one of the five children of William Towne, a corn chandler, and his wife, Lydia. At the age of 13, he was apprenticed to Thomas Brookshead, a London coach painter. his progress was acknowledged seven years later, near the end of his apprenticeship, when he was awarded a first prize for ‘an original design’ by the Society of Arts. he then undertook some further study at St Martin’s Lane Academy, and with the court portraitist, John Shackleton, and began to exhibit paintings, usually in oil, at the Society of Artists (1762) and the Free Society (1763).
Around 1763, Towne was employed by the coach painter, Thomas Watson, in Long Acre.
It was in this capacity that he first visited Exeter, the city that became the centre of his activities for the next two decades. he acted as a drawing master and, though he considered that title demeaning, attracted a number of loyal pupils, including the prominent lawyer, James White, and his nephew, John White Abbott. he continued to show work in London, but in 1768 declined an invitation to exhibit at the newly founded Royal Academy; he later regretted this decision and would only ever intermittently exhibit at that institution. however, in 1770, he was elected instead as a Fellow of the Society of Artists.
In the early 1770s, Towne undertook commissions to draw the estates of Lord Clifford (1773) and viscount Courtenay (1774) and, as a result, established his reputation among Devon aristocracy and gentry. Then, in the summer of 1777, he made a pioneering tour of North Wales with James White. The tour gave rise to work which fully revealed his mature watercolour manner, a highly restrained and geometric combination of flat washes over brown pen outlines.
In August 1780, Towne left England to travel alone and independently to Rome. Arriving in the city in October, he met up with his London friend, the artist, William Pars, and became the sketching partner of John ‘Warwick’ Smith. he responded to the warmth of Italy by shifting his palette from greys to browns, and began the novel practice of noting the exact time of day on his drawings. he was led partly in his choice of subject by the example of Claude Lorrain, and drew not only such buildings as the Colosseum but also the surrounding Campagna. In January 1781, he travelled to Naples, and there drew with Thomas Jones, another London acquaintance. In May, he returned to the area of Rome, and worked at Tivoli and Lake Albano. In August, he began his return journey to England, in the company of ‘Warwick’ Smith. While travelling through Switzerland, Towne produced some of his finest works, responding to the mountain landscape in a sublime economical vein.
From 1782, Towne shared his time between London and Devon. he received far fewer commissions from Devon landowners than he had in the previous decade. however, he was employed by Sir Thomas and Lady Acland, of Killerton, to make a group of large views of Devon and North Wales (1785). he also made a tour of the Lake district with James White and John Merivale (1786).
In 1788, Towne made the first of ten unsuccessful applications to become an associate of the Royal Academy. however, the foundation of the Society of Painters in Water Colours, in 1804, encouraged him to re-evaluate his work, and finally consider his watercolours as seriously as his oils. A year later, in February 1805, he took the innovative step of mounting a large watercolour retrospective at henry Tresham’s Gallery, at 20 Lower Brook Street, though the exhibition passed almost without notice.
On 5 August 1807, Towne married the French dancing mistress, Jeannette Hilligsberg, who was 40 years his junior. They settled in London, but Jeannette died only eight months later in April 1808. In the following years, he returned regularly to Devon, and also visited Cornwall (1809), Wales (1809, 1810), Edinburgh (1811) and oxford (1813). he exhibited for the last time in 1815, at the British Institution, and died at his London home, 31 Devonshire Street, in the following year, on 7 July 1816.
Though not well known in his lifetime, Towne had an enormous influence on English watercolourists of the twentieth century, following the rediscovery of his work, in the 1930s, by the scholar and collector A P Oppé.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the British Museum, Tate and the V&A; the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford), The Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge) and the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (Exeter); and the National Galleries of Scotland (Edinburgh).
Richard Stephens’ A Catalogue Raisonné by Francis Towne (1739-1816) is available online at francistowne.ac.uk.
Further reading: Adrian Bury, Francis Towne: Lone Star of Watercolour Painting, London: C Skilton, 1962; Susan Morris, ‘Francis Towne’, Jane Turner (ed), The Dictionary of Art, London: Macmillan, 1996, vol 31, pages 233-234; Timothy Wilcox, Francis Towne, London: Tate Gallery, 1997; Timothy Wilcox, ‘Towne, Francis (bap 1739, d 1816)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 55, pages 109-110