Early Work, 1772-80

Richard Stephens

1.1: West Country Sketches, 1772–80
1.2: Tour of Wales, 1777
1.3: Studio Watercolours, 1770s
1.4: Oil Paintings, 1773–80
1.5: Compositions and Copies

Although no works survive that can be dated with confidence before the 1770s—by which point Towne was already in his thirties—documentary evidence exists to describe Towne’s early life, his artistic training and the outset of his career until the point at which his surviving works testify to his activities.

Early Life, 1739-mid 1760s

The Town or Towne family was well established in Isleworth in Middlesex, eight miles west of London in the neighbourhood of Richmond, at least two generations before the baptism there on 19 August 1739 of Francis Towne, the son of William Towne and Lydia Haines.1 William, a grain merchant, was described as being from Isleworth in a document of 1752 but from St James’s Westminster at his marriage in 1720.2 Francis was one of at least five children and maintained a relationship with his family throughout life, remembering his nephews and nieces in his will. His brother Americk was born in 1722, and sisters Ann and Jane followed in 1729 and 1731 respectively. The birth date of another brother, William, who was a servant at Kensington Palace between 1771 and his death in 1803, is unknown.3

A biographical note by Joseph Farington, based on many years’ acquaintance with Towne himself and conversations with Towne’s friends, provides information about Towne’s training and early career:

[Towne] was born about the year 1738 or 9. He was intended to have been a Herald Painter, & the early part of his youth was passed in preparing for that employ; but His view was at that time farther extended, and He studied sometime at the Academy in St. Martin’s lane. Not many years passed before He appeared as a Landscape Painter, but he had previously engaged to paint for a Coachmaker in Exeter, and in that City He remained during many years. Finding it more profitable than other practise, He devoted most of his time to give instructions as a Drawing Master, and in the intervals of His time applied to oil painting. In 1771 He exhibited at the room of the Incorporated Society in Spring gardens, a view near Exeter which was much admired, & more was expected from Him from that specimen of His ability than He afterwards fulfilled. He had before exhibited with the same Society in the years [blank space] His conduct was regular & His manners formal. He was a strict Oeconomist which enabled Him to make up a decent competency sufficient to allow him to live at his leisure during the latter part of his life.4

Elsewhere, Farington noted: “Abbot told Downman that Towne . . . was a pupil to Shackelton, and joined with Cosway in taking a House in Somerset St., Portman Square, when they embarked in the world as Artists.”5 Further details are contained in a letter written by Towne in 1803:

At fourteen years of age I began to paint in oil, before I was twenty I had the premium for the best drawing of landscape, at the Arts and Sciences 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 size, I was an Exhibitor at an early period, 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 them After this Sir Wm Chambers who 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 mine, after this time I went to Italy.6

On 5 August 1752 Towne was apprenticed for seven years to a successful coach painter and member of the Painter Stainers Company, Thomas Brookshead (1712/13–1774), for a fee of £42.7 Brookshead was based in the parish of St Giles’s, the artists’ quarter of mid-century London; in 1739 he was at Plumtre Street, and in 1768 at Charles Street, Covent Garden.8 Brookshead’s reputation must have been high, for in 1769 he commanded a fee of £80 for an apprentice—a sum second only to those charged a year earlier by the new coach painter Royal Academicians Charles Catton and John Baker, the latter himself a former apprentice of Brookshead. Around the time that he completed his apprenticeship, in 1759 Towne won one of the Society of Arts prizes for drawing “an original design for Cabinet makers, Coachmakers, manufacturers in Metals, China and Earthenware” (FT001).9 Presumably Towne’s drawing was of a landscape as he described it in 1803 as “the best drawing of landscape, at the Arts and Sciences” and Farington may well have had this prize in mind when he wrote that Towne’s “view was at that time farther extended”. Certainly at this point Towne would have come to the attention of many of the most eminent painters of the time, who sat on the judging panel, including Joshua Reynolds, Richard Wilson, and the King’s Principal Painter in Ordinary John Shackleton, under whom Towne was later to study. It would not be surprising if Towne had some grounding in portrait painting, which was a young artist’s most reliable way of making a living—although, as one of Shackleton’s prized possessions was a landscape painting by Gaspar Dughet, clearly his interests were not confined narrowly to the genre by which he had made his reputation.10 Towne also studied at the St Martin’s Lane Academy, the typical finishing stage of a “liberal” artist’s education in the pre-Royal Academy era. 

By the early 1760s Towne was in business in London as a “Landscape and Flower Painter. At Mr.Watson’s, Coach-painter, Long-acre”.11 Very probably Watson employed him to paint floral coach panels while Towne attempted to gain work in the less reliable area of landscape painting. Towne promoted himself with three contributions to the Society of Artists’s exhibition in 1762, A Landskip, Its Companion, and A piece of flowers (FT002, FT003, FT004), and one at the Free Society the following year, A large landscape, with a scene in Shakespear’s Cymbeline (FT005), which he sent from Long Acre. According to Farington’s account, Towne lived with Richard Cosway “in Somerset St., Portman Square, when they embarked in the world as Artists”—likely to have been 1766/67.12 Cosway was no doubt referring to these early days when he wrote to Towne in 1779: “Pray give me a line of information when you intend visiting London – which will give me pleasure – I long to have some of our old Laughs over again.”13

At some point in the 1760s it seems that Towne moved from London to Exeter, but the precise date is unknown. It makes sense to place it between Towne’s exhibit of Cymbeline in 1763 and his next London showing, of A Waterfall and A landscape at the Free Society, in 1766 (FT006, FT007). The decision not to exhibit at all in 1764 and 1765 otherwise seems puzzling, at a time when opportunities for public exposure were slim. Secondly, the inclusion of a waterfall subject in 1766 indicates that by then he had travelled some way from London, perhaps to Devon, the location of England’s highest waterfall, at Canon Teign (see FT031). At any rate Towne had certainly spent time in Devon before the spring of 1767, when he exhibited View of a mill at Werrington, Devonshire at the Society of Artists (FT008). According to Farington, Towne had ‘engaged to paint for a Coachmaker’ there before his appearance in London ‘as a Landscape Painter’. How long Towne continued to earn a living there as a coach painter is uncertain. At the risk of over-interpreting Farington’s brief biographical note, Towne’s earliest exhibits of 1762 can be associated with his Long Acre job with Thomas Watson, with whom he was working in 1763, the year of his Cymbeline exhibit—to Farington’s mind, this was the period ‘before He appeared as a Landscape Painter’. But the paintings of 1766 begin a run of pure landscape exhibits that lasted until 1773—a series Farington surely had in mind as comprising Towne’s appearance ‘as a Landscape Painter’, especially as he goes on to describe one of the paintings from this period and, in his diaries, notes that Towne lived with Cosway when they launched themselves as artists in ca. 1766–67, just when these landscape exhibits began.

Exeter, 1772–80

Exeter grew as a centre of culture and society in the later eighteenth century and was a microcosm of the broad economic and cultural improvements in the situation of the middle ranks of English society. Towne exploited the emerging opportunities these changes offered, and it seems that long before he left Exeter for a sketching tour of North Wales in the summer of 1777 (‘Tour of Wales, 1777’), he had given up coach painting and was well established in the pattern of work that sustained him until he retired in the early 1800s: teaching drawing to Exeter’s cultured residents, sketching in the countryside as much as he could, and winning occasional commissions to paint local landmarks. A market for genteel drawing tuition may even have been established in the late 1760s, as Farington implies that around that time Towne turned from coach painting or ‘other practise’, due to the profit to be made as a drawing master, ‘and in the intervals of His time applied to oil painting’.14 Certainly by the early 1770s Towne was gaining employment besides coach painting as a landscape draughtsman for Lord Clifford (for example FT032FT034FT037) and Lord Courtenay (FT043). The earliest dated evidence of his work as a drawing master comes in a few landscape compositions dated 1777 (‘Compositions and Copies’) and a pupil’s copy of 1778 (FT859).

Annual London exhibitions made it possible for provincial artists to maintain a profile in the capital, and in 1770 Towne’s professional progress was acknowledged when he was elected a Fellow of the Society of Artists.15 Towne’s 1773 painting of Exeter (FT019) is the only exhibit now surviving from this period, and his reworking of the sketch for it fourteen years later (FT021) shows its enduring significance to him. Some of these exhibits gained critical attention and it is reasonable to think of Towne in the early 1770s as one of the promising new generation of landscape artists. Critical attention probably helped him attract patronage in Devon, and surviving oil paintings from the pre-Italian phase of Towne’s career indicate his adeptness at nurturing a modest market of this kind (‘Oil Paintings, 1773–80’). Just as Towne’s pursuit of landscape art emerged gradually from his training as a coach and flower painter, so his mastery of the watercolour medium developed from his practice as an oil painter. 

Yet, financial rewards in Exeter appear not to have been instantaneous. In an undated letter written by William Pars between 1769 and 1774, Towne is counselled

not to be cast down & despond because a little cloud may seem to obscure you and I think as you do every man would aim to get money, were it only to avoid the humbleness of poverty. Its a doubly wretched state, as it not only debars us every enjoyment & comfort in life, but what is still more miserable gets us shunn’d & even despised by the greater part of our Acquaintance.16

As Pars also refers to Towne having stayed with him in London, his advice may instead relate to disappointments in London, which may have confirmed Towne in his preference for the security of a frugal life in provincial Exeter. It is only in 1780 that Towne deposited his first savings of £350 at the Bank of England, which, since he lacked a benefactor, probably enabled him to visit Italy (‘On the Continent, 1780–81’).

London Exhibits, 1762-80

Although by the mid 1760s he was living far from London, Towne could still participate in the capital's exhibitions. Information about Towne's exhibits appears below, taken from exhibition catalogues and contemporary reviews. It shows that Towne adhered to the Society of Artists of Great Britain, even after the controversial establishment of the Royal Academy. Towne's uneasy relationship with the RA had its origins in this early period, as his autobiographical letter of 1803 made clear. Even as early as 1779 Towne's friend, RA member Richard Cosway was gently chiding Towne for not having cultivated better relations with the Academy, writing of Towne's decision to take up exhibiting again after a lapse of four years that he "cannot help thinking you have been somewhat indiscreet in omitting it so long as you have done. The more excellent a man's work are the more they ought to be seen - if he wishes to obtain Honour or Emolument & tey generally accompany each other - pray remember this & be no longer like the Rose in the Wilderness - that blooms to fade unseen & wastes its sweetness in the Desart Air."17



Society of Artists of Great Britain

119 "A landskip" (FT002, now lost)
120 "Its Companion" (FT003, now lost)
121 "A piece of flowers" (FT004, now lost)

The catalogue does not give Towne's address, calling him simply "Mr TOWN".



Free Society of Artists

227 "A large landscape, with a scene in Shakespear's Cymbeline" (FT005, now lost)

Towne's address is given as "TOWN, Mr.FRANCIS" at "Long-Acre", presumably the premises of Thomas Watson, coach painter which Towne gave as his address in Mortimer's 1763 directory.



Free Society of Artists

172 "A Water fall." (FT006, now lost)
173 "A landscape." (FT007, now lost)

"Mr. Town" was identified in the catalogue as based "Opposite Beaufort Buildings, Strand." Given Towne's frequent use of William Pars's address for his London exhibits, this probably refers to Henry Pars's drawing school, where William Pars also taught.



Society of Artists of Great Britain

166 "View of a mill at Werrington, Devonshire." (FT008, now lost)
167 "A landscape." (FT009, now lost)

Towne's address this year was given as "Mr. TOWN, At Mr. Koon's, James-street, near Brook-street, Grosvenor-square." The Werrington picture appeared in the catalogue as exhibit 165 but this was clearly a printing error for 166.



Society of Artists of Great Britain

185 "A Landscape after nature" (FT010, now lost)

Towne was identified as "Mr. TOWN, at Mr. Pars's, Percy-street, Soho."



Society of Artists of Great Britain

138 "A large landschape." (FT011, now lost)
139 "A small ditto." (FT012, now lost)
140 "A ditto, ditto." (FT013, now lost)

Towne was again identified as "Mr. TOWN, at Mr. Par's, Piercy-Street."



Society of Artists of Great Britain

166 "A View near Exeter." (FT014, now lost)
167 "Ditto." (FT015, now lost)
168 "Ditto." (FT016, now lost)

Towne was again identified as "Mr. TOWN, at Mr. Pars's, Percy-street, Soho." Many years later, Joseph Farington wrote of Towne that "In 1771 He exhibited at the room of the Incorporated Society in Spring gardens, a view near Exeter which was much admired".18



Society of Artists of Great Britain

313 "A large landscape" (FT017, now lost)
314 "A small ditto" (FT018, now lost)

Towne was again identified as "Mr. TOWN, At Mr. Par's, Piercy-street, Rathbone-place." Towne's exhibits were marked with an asterisk, to indicate that they were for sale. His work was noticed in one review, written anonymously but since identified as the work of fellow painters Thomas Jones and John Hamilton Mortimer, who wrote that "The scenes are rural and pleasing; the Pencil rather too free; too much of Manner; and the Brown predominates. This Artist has heretofore exhibited chaster Imitations of Nature."19



Society of Artists of Great Britain

328 "A large landscape" (FT019, now in the collection of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter)
329 "A small ditto." (FT020, now lost)

Towne's address was now "Mr. TOWN, F.S.A. Exeter".



Royal Academy

313 "A small landscape after nature" (perhaps FT047 or FT048, the former untraced, the latter lost)
314 "A small landscape, its companion" (perhaps FT047 or FT048, the former untraced, the latter lost)

Towne was once more "At Mr Pars's, Percy-Street". Towne's exhibits were not marked for sale. Towne's debut at the Academy met with the approval of a newspaper review, which judged "Abstracted from a pou[sic], we think that Mr Town has countryfied these views with some judgement and taste."20 Walpole noted in his catalogue that exhibit 313 was "good" and 314 was "very natural, free and well coloured."21



Royal Academy

330 "A view on the river Ex, taken near the seat of Sir Francis Drake, Devonshire" (FT145, now lost)
331 "A view in North Wales, near Llangollen, in Denbighshire" (probably FT148, now lost)

Towne's exhibits are not marked for sale and his address was simply "Exeter".



Royal Academy

21 "View in Devonshire" (perhaps FT154 or FT156)
24 "View in Devonshire" (perhaps FT154 or FT156)

Towne's exhibits are not marked for sale, and his address was given simply as "Exeter". Three reviewers commented on Towne's exhibits this year. The first, a letter from 'Candid' published in the Morning Chronicle, wrote that "No.21, by Mr.F.Towne, is a view in Devonshire, which, in point of sweetness, and breadth of pencil, as well as effect of nature, has much merit; its companion, No.24, is warm, and well coloured."22 Secondly, an artist reviewer wrote:"21, 24 Two Views in Devonshire, F.Towne[.] This author is very much improved since his first exhibits, and his pictures have now a stile and a value."23 The third review, by 'a Diletanti', preferred exhibit 24 to 21: "21: We must look beyond town for the merits of this view, provided we have no other view in view. 24: Better than the last view: so we will stay in town at least during the exhibition."24

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  1. 1 Wilcox suggested the actual date of birth was 5 August, the date of Towne’s apprenticeship in 1752 and wedding in 1807.
  2. 2 Francis Towne’s apprenticeship indenture of 1752, as summarised in the records of the Painter Stainers Company, and William Towne’s marriage register of 1720.
  3. 3 Farington 1978, pp.1259, 1275.
  4. 4 Notebooks on Artists, vol.3, Royal Library, Windsor Castle.
  5. 5 Farington 1978, p.694.
  6. 6 Letter from Francis Towne to Ozias Humphry, 23 November 1803.
  7. 7 Guildhall Library MS5667/2. Brookshead himself had studied under William Atkinson, whose pupils included John Thornhill and Edward Crace.
  8. 8 Guildhall Library, MS5669, which gives “Newtoner Street”. According to documents relating to another coach painter, Robert Maberly, Charles Street was also known as “Lewtners Lane” and “Newteners Lane” (London Metropolitan Archives, BRA715/188).
  9. 9 Royal Society of Arts, Minute Book, f.144, 14 February 1759; Dossie 1768, vol.3, pp.391–443. See the Comment at FT1 for the value of the prize.
  10. 10 Bequeathed by Shackleton to John Bristow (Herring 2004).
  11. 11 Mortimer 1763, p.23.
  12. 12 In 1767 Cosway sent exhibits to the Society of Artists from Orchard Street, Portman Square, onto which Somserset Street ran, but until 1766 had been lodging near Beaufort Buildings in the Strand. Shortly after the 1767 exhibition he moved to the house in Berkeley Street made vacant by the death of Towne’s former master, John Shackleton. Similarly, in 1766 Towne had sent an exhibit to the Free Society from opposite Beaufort Buildings, possibly William Pars’s address at the Twisted Pillars (although Pars himself was abroad at the time), but by the 1767 Society of Artists exhibition Towne gave his address not as Orchard Street but “At Mr.Koon’s, James Street, near Brook Street, Grosvenor Square”.
  13. 13 Letter from Richard Cosway to Francis Towne, 15 March 1779.
  14. 14 As the paintings Farington had in mind were exhibits of the late 1760s and early 1770s, Towne was presumably no longer a coach painter by then but had begun to teach drawing.
  15. 15 Royal Academy Library, SA/4, f.4, 11; not 1773 as stated in Bury 1962 and Graves 1907.
  16. 16 Letter from William Pars to Francis Towne, undated [c.1769-1775].
  17. 17 Letter from Richard Cosway, 15 May 1779.
  18. 18 Joseph Farington, Notebooks on Artists, Royal Library, Windsor Castle.
  19. 19 Anonymous[Thomas Jones and John Hamilton Mortimer], 'Candid Observations, on the Principal Performances Now Exhibiting at the New Room of the Society of Artists, Near Exeter-Change. Indended as a Vade Mecum to that Exhibition', London, 1772
  20. 20 London Evening Post, 6 May 1775
  21. 21 Horiatio Walpole, transcripts of his notes on London exhibitions, Witt Library, London.
  22. 22 Letter from 'Candid' published in 'Morning Chronicle', [date unknown] May 1780, in Royal Academy Critiques & Co 1769-1793, vol 1, p.59, Royal Academy Library. This is a scrapbook of press notices in the RA library.
  23. 23 Anonymous, A Candid Review of the Exhibition (being the Twelfth) of the Royal Academy MDCCLXXX. By An Artist., London 1780, p.16.
  24. 24 Anonymous, Strictures, Ideas and Conjectures, on the Present Exhibition of Pictures at the Royal Academy, 1780 - by a Diletanti London, London 1780.


Article title
Early Work, 1772-80
Richard Stephens
Article DOI
Cite as
Richard Stephens, "Early Work, 1772-80", A Catalogue Raisonné of Francis Towne (1739-1816), (London: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2016),

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