Lake District, 1786

Richard Stephens

In 1786 Towne visited the Lake District with James White and John Merivale. By this date the region was fairly well established as a centre of tourism. Like North Wales, the Lakes became famous for their sublime landscape, and in the travel literature their merits were represented by reference to foreign painting and scenery. William Gilpin’s Observations Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty had been recently published and Thomas West’s Guide to the Lakes was in its third edition: Towne owned copies of both. Thomas Gainsborough had visited the Lakes in 1783, and between 1784 and 1787 Philip James de Loutherbourg showed twenty-one Lake District or Derbyshire exhibits at the Royal Academy. Joseph Farington’s 1789 book of engraved views of the Lakes,1 some of which were published before Towne’s visit, became the benchmark representations of the region for the national audience, and the coincidence of several of their views show how well trodden the Lake District circuit was.

Dates on the drawings suggest a stay in the Lake District between 7 and 25 August (FT454, FT480). A letter from White to Towne, who was in London, dated 8 July 1786 set out the proposed plan: 

Yesterday Mr Merivale & I fixed the plan of our Northern Expedition in which we Both most heartily wish to have you for a Companion, the Sketch of which follows –

We intend to set out from hence either the first or second week in August most likely the first – to go in the Common Carriages from hence through Bristol Birmingham & c to Manchester, and to stay there a couple of Days, where you may meet us if it shou’d be more convenient to you to go from London than to set out from hence, all together. Afterward to pursue our Adventures either in Diligences on Horseback or on Foot, just as we find agreeable – I shall take Richard2 with me, and we propose to be absent about ‘Five’ Weeks Do let me hear from you by the Return of the Post that we may be able to settle the Plan more thoroughly.3

As Wilcox noted, this letter indicates that Towne appears to have been invited to join his two friends on their tour, rather than initiating the trip himself.4 John Merivale’s granddaughter also recorded the event in her family history:

Through Mr White, Mr Merivale became acquainted with an artist of some note in the West of England at that time, Mr Francis Towne. In the Summer of 1786 the three friends visited the Lake country together. My grandfather’s letters to his wife express great delight in the scenery, which had not yet been rendered fashionable by Wordsworth’s poetry. After his return home he built a little cottage in imitation of some he had seen on his travels, on a narrow terrace above the weir at Cowley Bridge, which still retains the name he gave it of Weir-Cliff. Here he used to take his children occasionally for a few days of country air.5

Although his time there was brief, Towne was characteristically industrious and made at least one hundred drawings. Eighty-one works have been identified, plus one untraced work (FT528a), but once many more existed. For instance FT503 is numbered 30, but only five of its series are known. On a single day—17 August—Towne appears to have made seven drawings (FT486, FT487, FT488, FT489, FT490, FT491, FT492) and this was perhaps not untypical of Towne’s output during this or other tours. 

During his time in the Lake District Towne studied the best-known sites in the southern area around Ambleside, on the road north from Ambleside to Keswick, and in the northern area around Keswick. Towne began drawing in Ambleside, probably his base for the ensuing nine days or so, on Monday 7 August (FT454, FT455, FT456). The next day he began his explorations, venturing a mile or so north to Rydal Water (FT460) and, on 9 August, to Windermere to the south (FT467, FT468). On 10 August Towne was sketching in the groves at Ambleside, making perhaps the first of several drawings of Stock Ghyll Force (FT515). On 11 and 12 August he was west of Ambleside, at Skelwith Bridge, Clappersgate, and Elterwater (FT469, FT472, FT473), and also revisited Rydal Water on the evening of 11 August (FT520). On 14 August Towne was sketching again at Stock Ghyll (FT479) and the following day he was at Coniston Water (FT481). On 16 August, apparently his final day at Ambleside, Towne was back once more at Windermere (FT482, FT483, FT484, FT485) and at Rydal (FT478). Other, undated subjects in the Ambleside area include Loughrigg (FT459, FT462) and Grasmere (FT504). At this point Towne seems to have transferred to the northern area of the Lakes, as on 17 August he made probably seven (and certainly four) sketches in St John’s in the Vale (FT486, FT487, FT488, FT489, FT490, FT491, FT492).6 Towne was at Buttermere on 22 August (FT494, FT495) and the following day sketched Lodore Falls, at the southern end of Derwent Water, and in Stonethwaite (FT508, FT513a). It was probably in this final week also that he made sketches in and around Borrowdale (FT500, FT501, FT502, FT509, FT510, FT511, FT512, FT513), of Derwent Water itself (FT505, FT506, FT507), of Bassenthwaite (FT496), and of Ullswater (FT493, FT499, FT526, FT527). A drawing of Coniston Water is dated 25 August (FT480), which indicates that Towne returned south to sketch before leaving the region altogether. As in Rome half a decade before, Towne noted the time of day on many drawings. These range from 8:00 am to 7:30 pm (FT466, FT470, FT472, FT479, FT483, FT486, FT487, FT488, FT489, FT490, FT491, FT492, FT494, FT495, FT496, FT504, FT508, FT513a, FT520). This indicates once again Towne’s interest in his use of time when undertaking a sketching tour. Seven of the timed drawings were sketched on the same day, 17 August, during Towne’s journey north towards St John’s in the Vale: number 30 in the series was drawn at “½ past 10 o’clock” (FT486), number 31 at “12 o Clock” (FT487), number 32 “at 1 o’Clock” (FT488), number 33 “at 2 O’Clock” (FT489), number 34 at “3 o Clock” (FT490), number 35 at “4 o clock” (FT491) and number 36 at “5 O Clock in the afternoon” (FT492).

Thomas West’s Guide to the Lakes recommended that visitors approach the Lakes from the south, as Towne did:

By this course, the lakes lie in an order more agreeable to the eye, and grateful to the imagination. The change of scenes is from what is pleasing, to what is surprising; from the delicate touches of Claude, verified on Coniston lake, to the noble scenes of Poussin exhibited on Windermere-water, and from these to the stupendous romantic ideas of Salvator Rosa, realised on the lake of Derwent.7 

Consistent with West, several of Towne’s views of Ambleside bring out its Italianate character. In his first numbered view Towne shows the breadth of the scenery at Ambleside (FT454), and in two others the trees are thin and tall as in Italy (FT464, FT466). In one of these, which appears to be the first drawing Towne mounted after his tour ended, Towne has introduced a warm evening glow and has done his best to generalise the mountainous horizon (FT464). Windermere was also drawn in the evening and always appears serene and expansive (FT468, FT483, FT484, FT485), in contrast with the brooding northern lake of Derwent Water, crowded by mountains (FT505, FT506, FT507). Elsewhere, however, these characterisations do not hold: for instance, Bassenthwaite in the north is far calmer than Elterwater in the south (FT473, FT496).

What distinguishes Towne’s Lake District views is the attempt to convey sublimity while keeping a distance from the mountains, in contrast to the views of the north Italian lakes of 1781. It seems that Towne drew all his Lake District views from dry land, and while the mountains often occupy much of the page, there is almost always an attempt to soften and introduce the view via a foreground. The immensity of the mountains is conveyed not so much by compositions that deliver emotional impact, as was the case in 1781, as by reference to buildings that provide a human scale (FT463, FT486, FT492, FT504). The reasons for the difference can only be guessed at: perhaps Towne saw the Lake District with nothing like the awe and excitement he had felt in the Alps; West’s guide itself acknowledged the gulf in scale and power of the two regions. Indeed, within Towne’s travelling party, it was not only Towne himself who may have felt such a difference, as between July and October 1785 James White had visited Geneva and Savoy with William Jackson (see FT893). Alternatively, perhaps the work of Farington and others exerted a stronger influence as precedents than had been available to Towne in Switzerland. Certainly, distance from the subject was in keeping with the fashionable taste, and West recommended that visitors use a Claude glass for precisely this purpose.8 But if Towne was not impressed by what West termed the region’s “permanent features”, he studied closely their “accidental beauties”, those that “depend upon a variety of circumstances; light and shade, the air, the winds, the clouds, the situation with respect to objects, and the time of day”.9 Towne’s desire to capture a fleeting effects of lighting led him on one drawing to describe the mood: “½ past 7 O clock / The sky a Clear warm light / mountains a solemn purple tint / the Lake reflecting the sky, the / Sun in the picture” (FT520). Other drawings show transient weather features including sun rays breaking through clouds (FT463) and long shadows cast over mountains (FT456).

The Lake District drawings are organised in this catalogue by paper type.

a. Whatman sketchbook

The most numerous Lake District sketches are those drawn on sheets from a Whatman sketchbook with pages measuring ca. 155 x 235 mm, whose first page Towne inscribed “Francis Towne St James’s Street / No79”.10 The drawings in this series are numbered to 40, and almost all survive.11 The sketchbook was recorded by Oppé in his notes of ca. 1915, at which time it contained thirteen sketches12 across thirty-five pages, plus “much ribbed Whatman paper”.13 The book was sold in February 1945 by Judith Merivale (1860–1945) for £25 to Bernard Milling of Squire Gallery. A few of the sketches that remained in the book do not appear to form part of the main numbered series, and are catalogued at the end (FT455, FT461, FT475, FT476, FT477).

b. Miniature series

Then come fragments from a miniature series of drawings with numbers to 30 on paper of ca. 98 x 155 mm (FT497, FT498, FT499, FT500, FT501, FT502, FT503), at least some of which seem to have left Towne’s possession during his lifetime (FT497, FT501, FT502).

c. Large sheets

There are ten sketches on paper somewhat larger than the Whatman sketchbook, measuring ca. 210 x 338 mm (FT504, FT505, FT506, FT507, FT508, FT509, FT510, FT511, FT512, FT513a), only one of which is certainly numbered (FT513a).

d. Roman paper

There are fourteen sketches on a wove paper that Towne purchased in Rome, as Towne himself declared on at least two of the sheets. These measure ca. 265 x 380 mm (FT514, FT515, FT516, FT517, FT518, FT519, FT520, FT521, FT522, FT523, FT524, FT525, FT526, FT528).

e. Unknown

A few drawings are catalogued whose size is unknown (FT513, FT529, FT530, FT531, FT532, FT533).

Several of the Lake District sketches were mounted on paper with neat thick washline borders (for example FT457, FT464, FT465, FT468, FT502, FT525), which are distinct from the sometimes scrappier thin borders typical of Towne’s late mounting practice (for example FT203, FT257) used on other works from the tour (for example FT459). Eleven Lake District works are inscribed with Towne’s Leicester Square address and with dates of 1786 (FT464), 1790 (FT463, FT468, FT473, FT525), 2 August 1790 (FT460), 1791 (FT469), and 5–7 July 1791 (FT466, FT479, FT484, FT485). Another example no longer has a date (FT474). This indicates that these drawings were placed on thick mounts fairly shortly after the tour. 

While many of the Lake District drawings passed to the Misses Merivale in Oxford, many others were inherited by their cousin Emily Buckingham (1853–1923) (FT454, FT457, FT459, FT460, FT461, FT463, FT467, FT469, FT474, FT482, FT487, FT492, FT493, FT504, FT505, FT510, FT513a, FT518, FT527, probably FT512). A few others have a Champernowne provenance (FT484, FT485, FT497, FT501, FT502).

About the author

  • Independent Art Historian


  1. 1 Views of the Lakes &c. in Cumberland and Westmorland Engraved from Drawings Made by Joseph Farington (London, 1789).
  2. 2 This is presumably White’s servant.
  3. 3 Letter from James White to Francis Towne, 8 July 1786.
  4. 4 Wilcox 1997, p.106
  5. 5 Merivale 1884, p.124. Weircliff Cottage is now the home of Ian and Elizabeth Cook.
  6. 6 Perhaps Towne made the slight sketch at Rydal Hall on 16 August (FT478) on his way north.
  7. 7 West 1778, p.10; also quoted Andrews 1989, p.159.
  8. 8 West 1778, p.12.
  9. 9 West 1778, p.11; see also Wilcox 1997, pp.110–12.
  10. 10 Paul Oppé records: notes.
  11. 11 FT454, FT456, FT457, FT458, FT459, FT462, FT463, FT464, FT465, FT466, FT467, FT468, FT469, FT470, FT471, FT472, FT473, FT474, FT478, FT479, FT480, FT481, FT482, FT483, FT484, FT485, FT486, FT487, FT488, FT489, FT490, FT491, FT492, FT493, FT494, FT495, FT496.
  12. 12 FT455, FT462, FT470, FT471, FT472, FT475, FT476, FT477, FT478, FT480, FT494, FT495, FT496
  13. 13 Wilcox 1997, p.106; Paul Oppé records.


Article title
Lake District, 1786
Richard Stephens
Article DOI
Cite as
Richard Stephens, "Lake District, 1786", A Catalogue Raisonné of Francis Towne (1739-1816), (London: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2016),

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