Letter to Ozias Humphry


Francis Towne, Letter to Ozias Humphry : Exeter, 23 November 1803

Novr. 23. 1803

My dear Friend

I had your letter this morning just as I was painting sitting down to paint on a picture, I shall bring to London with me when I come, which may be about Christmas or a little later after, I could not sleep till I had done myself the pleasure of writing you an answer. Give me leave to return you my thanks for your vote at the election of associates1 and for your friendship which you have shown me, but you call me a provincial drawing master!!2 you will permit me in answer to this to give some account of myself, at fourteen years of age I began to paint in oil3, before I was twenty I had the premium for the best drawing of landscape, at the Arts and Sciences4 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 size5, I was an Exhibitor at an early period6, and if I had gone over to those of my friends who had joined the party which afterwards formed the Royal Academy I might at that time been one of them7 after this Sir Wm Chambers who had said some handsome things of my pictures said I should have his vote to become a member of that body, this he told a particular friend of mine8, after this time I went to Italy, its now twenty two ['two' inserted from above] years since my return to England9

I had yearly Lodgings in London, Piccadilly and in St James' Street for six or seven years10 & London was then my home, After that I rented by the year, apartments in Leicester Square for near seven years11, at both of these I lived from the month of February, to August, and sometimes to the end of October before I went out of Town (I hope you will allow a Landscape painter to see nature sometime in the year) London is now my only home, I have only a Lodging by the Week in Exeter, as long as I stay.

Therefore if any person but yourself were to direct or call me a Drawing Master I should tell them that my profession is that of a landscape painter, I beg leave to make another Observation that is I never in my life Exhibited a Drawing12
I called on twenty nine of the Academicians13 and the answer I had at the houses of those whom I did not see, was that they were gone into the country, for three & two of them for six months, so I find they do business in the country as well as London.

I never asked a Favour of any man in my life and after what I have troubled you with in the short account of myself, you must give up calling me a provincial Drawing Master.

I never meant not intended to go through life but professing myself a Landscape Painter.

I know very well what is going forward with Artists in London,14 I have the satisfaction know that I have as many material.... My profession as any artist, my past.... And present Industry, is one of the great.... I have to say of myself, as a professional Man. I should not have troubled you with talking of myself, but that I confide in your wishes for my welfare, and success, having come to the end of my paper I will now conclude by wishing you health and happiness remaining

Yr most truly

Francis Towne

P.S. I will thank you the first time you see....


  1. 1 In 1803 Towne undertook his 11th and final attempt to gain election as an associate member of the Royal Academy. The election took place on 7 November, and Towne gained only one vote, here identified as Humphry's. It seems that Humphry had undertaken to lobby for Towne in 1803 as he visited Joseph Farington on 29 October to discuss the election. Farington 1978, p.2413.
  2. 2 Issues of status, with their consequences for income and material prosperity, were of prime importance to artists in the late 18th century, and in the 1790s a major rivalry grew between practitioners in oil (based at the Academy) and those using watercolour. Here Towne unloads his anger onto Humphry at having been belittled with a label, no doubt uttered as a deliberate insult during the Royal Academy's recent meeting to elect associates, that associated him with practices antithetical to the Academy's (and Towne's own) ideals of the long empirical and intellectual studies required of the professional artist. In reply to this slur, Towne spends the rest of the letter establishing his serious artistic credentials through a summary of his long career, stressing his activities and eminence long before the foundation of the Royal Academy, his study in Italy and his longstanding presence in London. Both Towne's fury, and the insult itself, indicate with what bitterness the rivalry was conducted.
  3. 3 In August 1752, when he was 12 or 13, Towne was apprenticed to London coachpainter Thomas Brookshead (born c.1713 and active until 1776). London, Guildhall Library MS5667/2.
  4. 4 In 1759 Towne won the first prize for "an original design for Cabinet makers, Coachmakers, manufacturers in Metals, China and Earthenware" in a competition organised by the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. Dossie 1768, vol 3, pp.391-443
  5. 5 Towne indicated the size of several of his Society of Artists exhibits. In 1770 exhibit no.138 was A large landschape (FT011), in 1772 no.313 was A large landscape (FT017) and the following year exhibit 328, A large landscape (FT019), was a view of Exeter from Exwick.
  6. 6 Towne's first exhibit was at the Society of Artists in 1762, only the third annual London artists' exhibition and some years before the Royal Academy was founded in late 1768. Wilcox's transcription reads: "I was an exhibitor at an early age".
  7. 7 Oppé noted "sic" above this phrase to indicate the omission of "have" was Towne's. The text here might be paraphrased thus: because Towne had not joined the faction lobbying for the establishment of a Royal Academy, something his friends had urged him to do as they had done, he was ineligible for membership just at the time when his friends were being lined up for membership. Towne's letter shows that, considering himself to have been a promising young artist of the 1760s, he would have fancied his chances of election had circumstances been otherwise. The meaning of this passage is open to interpretation, though, and Wilcox goes further, stating that "Towne appeared to claim he had been invited to become one of the founder members of the Royal Academy in 1767, but had declined." (Wilcox 2004). The 'friends' are presumably William Pars and Richard Cosway, both of whom enrolled in the Royal Academy schools at their foundation in 1769 and were elected associate members at the first opportunity, in 1770.
  8. 8 Sir William Chambers (1722-1796), architect. Chambers championed the project to establish a Royal academy and was appointed by the King as its inaugural Treasurer. Towne's first Royal Academy exhibit was shown in 1775, when he was also a candidate for election as an associate member. The election was deferred to 1776, when Towne won no votes; perhaps it was Chambers's failure to vote for him, and an enduring sense of regret at his early election failure in the context of his subsequent experience, that caused Towne to emphasise that Chambers had 'told a particular friend of mine' that he would support him.
  9. 9 Towne travelled to Italy about August 1780 and returned in September 1781.
  10. 10 Towne's Piccadilly address is unknown; he also lived at 79 St James's Street until c.1786-1789, initially with John Downman.
  11. 11 Towne moved to 5 Savile House, Leicester Square, c.1786-1789, where he once again shared accommodation with John Downman. Wilcox's transcription omits the phrase "by the year".
  12. 12 Towne was keen to stress this, in view of the media-based rivalries, but its exact context is unclear.
  13. 13 Only Towne's visits to Joseph Farington, on 15 June and 3 November 1803, are documented. Farington 1978, pp.2056, 2154.
  14. 14 At the time of Towne's letter, a major and destabilising power struggle was taking place between the general assembly and the Council of the Royal Academy. Humphry backed the assembly, which wished to maintain the institution's competence to manage itself free from the King's involvement, against the Council, who wished to use the King's authority to enforce their will on particular issues. On 3 November 1803 when Towne visited Farington, who led the assembly faction, he mentioned "that some time ago Sir W Beechey [who was prominent in the Council camp] had given him a full account of the disputes in the Academy." Farington 1978, p.2154.