The Journey to Rome, September 1780

Richard Stephens

Towne experienced his journey southwards from England to Rome not simply as an unavoidable period of travel but as an integral part of the continental tour. It was a period of lively artistic production, but of at least forty-eight drawings made, just three survive (FT165, FT166, FT167), making a detailed reconstruction of his movements, and comparisons between Towne’s mountain landscapes before and after his period of study in Italy, all but impossible. A further Savoy subject, now lost, was exhibited in 1805 (FT168), and two other sketches might have been made on the journey south or the return home a year later (FT169 and FT420 which is a later work based on the lost sketch).

Nathaniel Marchant took precisely eight weeks to reach Rome from the UK in 1770. Thomas Jones did it in just over six weeks in 1776 and James Northcote spent a little more than seven weeks travelling down a year later, including ten days in Paris. Although uncertainty about the date of Towne’s earliest drawing of Rome obscures the date of his arrival there (FT176, dated both 3 and 31 October, while the other six drawings with October dates are from the latter part of the month), it is nonetheless reasonable to think that it was at some moment in August that he set out for Italy. As Towne made deposits into a bank account in London on 27 July (of £200) and 3 August (of £50), and appointed Samuel Edwards, a wine merchant of Beaufort Buildings in the Strand, as his financial representative with power of attorney, no doubt his departure abroad was shortly after this time. Henry Pars (1734–1806), Edwards’s brother-in-law, had intended to give Towne a package to carry to Italy, but Towne left before he could organise it.1 

Towne’s accounts of the journey south were received enthusiastically by friends back in England, including James White, William Jackson, and Ozias Humphry.2 Towne seems to have visited Paris, for a map of the city was listed among his belongings in 1816, as well as a map of the country’s entry and exit points. What Towne would have seen in Paris can only be imagined, but the Luxembourg and Orleans picture collections would have been obvious attractions. The conventional itinerary led from Paris to Lyons, and thence through the Duchy of Savoy to Italy. It is very likely that Towne followed this route, heading over Mount Cenis to Turin and into Italy, but at Lyons he added a detour to Geneva, of which two drawings are known, one of them dated 7 September 1780 (FT165, FT166), and a third dated 14 September is of Aiguebelle (FT167), forty or so miles south in the direction of Turin. Reacting to Towne’s own accounts of the journey some months later, James White imagined that passing through this area must have been one of the high points of Towne’s entire continental experience:

By the way your Journey hitherto has been much more extensive than I imagined it had been. ‘till I received your last letter, I had not the least idea of your having taken Geneva in your Way to Rome – but I am very glad you did so, as I shou’d think the Expedition from Lyons thither must have been as fine a Part of your Tour as any you have gone through.3 

Towne’s Aiguebelle landscape is just one part of what was clearly a significant group numbering forty-eight or more drawings, and the inclusion in the 1805 exhibition of two Savoy views shows the utility of taking that route.

Towne’s interest in this mountainous landscape should not be taken for granted and was at odds with at least some of the artists who had passed through Savoy not long before. Thomas Jones, travelling in 1776, called Aiguebelle itself “a small miserable Town” and felt scarcely more enthusiasm for the surrounding landscape. The road from Chambéry to Aiguebelle was merely “a mountainous picturesque Country” and two days later it was “very steep & Uneven in many places – the Rocks more perpendicular & barren – very Cold – tho’ the Sun began now to cheer this dreary region”.4 In 1777 James Northcote spent the journey “over the rude and lonely mountains of Savoy” with his cap pulled over his eyes: he “saw nothing of the mountain except that when I was on the summit of it the high wind blew my hat off”.5 Towne’s favourable impression of Savoy was far from unique, though. Miss Berry, a Grand Tourist art enthusiast staying at Aiguebelle in 1784, called “the road and whole way from Mont Melian most romantic and beautiful, along a narrow but cultivated valley, watered by the turbulent Arche, and bounded on every side by lofty Alps”.6 An echo of Towne’s enthusiasm for the Savoy landscape is evident in the travels, sketches, and account of his friend and pupil William Jackson, whose 1785 drawings of the region are unambiguously in debt to Towne’s 1781 Swiss work (FT893). It is notable, then, that in Jackson’s memoir, which is full of scenic commentary, the only artistic terms of reference introduced into landscape descriptions were around Aiguebelle, which Towne had depicted in FT167

Departed for Aiguebelle – passed through a Country in the Style of a Park for Thirty Miles – the Trees being Walnuts were untouched, & of the Form and Hue so much valued by Painters. Crossed the Isere at Montmelian – from the Bridge, perhaps owing to accidental Circumstances, was the finest Scene for a Claude-Picture I ever saw . . . Saw at a Distance the snowy Tops of Mountains, and on the right a Mountain of the very Form Gaspar Poussin was so fond of.7

James White’s letter of 4 May 1781 makes clear that Towne’s visit to Geneva represented a significant diversion from the path to Rome.8 Humphrey’s letters give the impression that Towne was finding what opportunities he could to explore and absorb the available sights on his way south.9 Like Thomas Jones and James Northcote a few years before, Towne spent just under a month travelling between Savoy and Rome. This means that, like them, he would have had sufficient time to visit the great cities of northern Italy, such as Parma, Milan, Bologna, and Florence, before reaching Rome’s Porta Flaminia.


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  1. 1 British Library, Add. Mss 36493.
  2. 2 Letter from James White to Francis Towne, 27 November 1780; Letter from Ozias Humphry to Francis Towne, 17 April 1781.
  3. 3 Letter from James White to Francis Towne, 4 May 1781.
  4. 4 Jones 1951, p.44.
  5. 5 Northcote 1898, pp.122–23.
  6. 6 Berry 1865, vol.1, p.34.
  7. 7 Jackson 1997, p.80.
  8. 8 Letter from James White to Francis Towne, 27 November 1780.
  9. 9 Letter from Ozias Humphry to Francis Towne, 17 April 1781.


Article title
The Journey to Rome, September 1780
Richard Stephens
Article DOI
Cite as
Richard Stephens, "The Journey to Rome, September 1780", A Catalogue Raisonné of Francis Towne (1739-1816), (London: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2016),

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