Retirement, 1806-16

Richard Stephens

Although by the end of the 1800s Towne was no longer a working artist, in the final decade of his life he sought new ways to secure his reputation and a wider acknowledgement for his achievements. Towne’s final rejection by the Royal Academy in November 1803 appears to have forced on him a difficult period of readjustment. He ceased showing new work at the Academy, ending an exhibiting career stretching back to the very first London exhibitions of the early 1760s, and his production of art may even have stopped, as no original work is known with dates between 1804 (FT629) and 1809 (FT657). Instead, Towne became more concerned with existing work: in February 1805 he presented a statement of his life’s artistic achievement when he organised a large retrospective show of drawings at Henry Tresham’s gallery in Lower Brook Street, London; and even once he had started exhibiting again in 1808, he showed old works, first displayed long before. Towne’s personal life changed, too. In August 1807 he married a woman less than half his age, the Exeter dancing teacher Jeanette Hilligsberg, who died just a few months later. Towne’s brother William had died in 1804, his sister Ann also died during this decade, and his thoughts now turned to his own mortality. He bought a pension in 1809, wrote his will the following year, and during this period continued to organise his body of drawings in order to secure his artistic legacy. Towne moved out of his matrimonial house in Marylebone and rediscovered sketching for his own pleasure; and with savings of about £14,000 thanks to his life-long frugality, he could retire. He persevered as an exhibitor in London and produced well over a hundred small holiday drawings between 1809 and his death, as well as creating new oil pictures. At the very end he could write of “living as I do in the greatest City in the World, [where] I have an opportunity which I am gratified in seeing some of the finest productions of arts which leaves me nothing more to wish for in a professional light in regard to my situation”.1

The bulk of Towne’s surviving work from these years comes from six sketchbooks (FT657 to FT786) that record his travels around the UK during the late summer months. On these excursions Towne made drawings only when he felt like it, not to stockpile marketable pieces of scenery. The artist who had made at least a hundred drawings during three weeks in the Lake District, and whose sketches at Lake Como in 1781 had averaged eight per day, now passed weeks without picking up his pencil. In 1809, for instance, Towne must have passed through the vale of Llangollen and near the lakes of Llyn Celyn and Bala, among many other well-known picturesque sites, yet drew none of them. In 1811 he bypassed every site between London and Edinburgh except Durham. These were not sketching tours at all, simply opportunities to enjoy cherished landscapes and visit friends. Quite often Towne recorded the mundane—his progress along a road or a view from the window of his Inn (for example FT664, FT696, FT703, FT738, FT766)—as if sketching mainly through force of habit, and always for his own private pleasure. An unencumbered Towne was equally interested in both urban and rural landscapes, with views of Oxford, Windsor, Plymouth, Durham, and Edinburgh, as well as of Snowdon, Radnorshire, and Dartmoor. Towne’s pictorial sense did not desert him, especially on hills and mountains (FT665, FT666, FT667, FT693, FT698, FT773, FT777). Technically the sketchbooks use Towne’s familiar watercolour-and-pen outline format, albeit in a hand occasionally unsteadied by age. Some of Towne’s leisure activities can be traced through the drawings. James White was his travelling companion in 1809 and probably also in 1813 and 1815 when Towne sketched land owned by White (FT746, FT747, FT764). Towne’s 1812 visit to Dulwich was surely to meet the Gibbs family of Exeter, who were living there temporarily (FT733, FT734). No doubt when Towne stayed in Windsor in September 1811 he visited his childhood friend Josiah Sarney, to whom the previous year he had bequeathed “fifty pounds stock and a drawing” (see also FT649).2 Towne’s own inscriptions refer to Plymouth gentry, Mrs Culme (FT774) and Mrs Bastard (FT685, FT687), whose houses Towne appears to have visited. Other drawings record some of Towne’s non-leisure activities. A March 1813 sketch of Hereford (FT654) was made during a court case, where Towne and his old friend John “Warwick” Smith were called as witnesses to recall their Italian friendship with Thomas Jones decades before. A few months later Towne visited the West India Docks (FT735, FT736) presumably to check on or oversee the import of some goods.

In his final years Towne made efforts to present his life’s work anew when he re-emerged in the London art world after his retirement in ca. 1803/5. Following the major retrospective display of drawings in 1805 at Lower Brook Street, Towne adopted the British Institution to redisplay key oil paintings from across his earlier exhibiting career: in 1808 he appears to have selected the painting that he had exhibited twenty years earlier at the 1788 Royal Academy, right at the start of his long campaign to win election as an associate member; and in 1809 he chose his version in oil of one of William Pars’s Savoy drawings of the early 1770s, which he had also displayed initially twenty years before.3 At the British Institution exhibition of 1810 he showed his 1792 Royal Academy work, with what may well have been his large view of Exeter from the 1773 Society of Artists exhibition. These retrospective offerings ceased only after the 1810 show, when the Institution “resolved that no picture that has been publicly exhibited in the metropolis shall in future be admissible”.4 No doubt Towne inscribed his 1812 Institution exhibit (FT651) “Painted by Francis Towne in the year 1811” to make plain his compliance with the new rule. At the Royal Academy Towne was no longer seeking election and was therefore free to display watercolours as well as some oil paintings;5 however, his first instinct, after so many years of rejection, seems to have been to show not at the Academy but at the new Society of Painters in Water Colour, whom he approached in late 1807 to request permission to exhibit. Having been refused, Towne contributed to the 1808 Academy, and again the works he selected may well have been of some age, including examples already shown at Lower Brook Street. One exhibit of 1809 was certainly begun in 1798 (FT601).

Mortality and retrospection were preoccupations throughout Towne’s final years, but the sketchbook that Towne began with White in August 1809 is a sign, following several uncreative years with the end of his active career and the death of his wife, of recovery and of his emergence into a new phase of life. Other evidence adds to the impression that during 1809–10 Towne was resolving his personal circumstances and moving on. In retirement Towne sorted through and added finishing touches to many of his drawings and planned for their survival after his death. By 1810 Towne had probably determined their fate, as on 22 May he completed his will, bequeathing his entire estate, including all his artworks, to his executor James White, on whose death it would pass to John Herman Merivale and his successors. The British Museum was central to Towne’s plans, for White made two large donations of Towne’s drawings to the British Museum in 1816 and 1818 “in compliance with the desire of the Artist that his ‘Roman Drawings’ should be deposited with those of his friend Pars” (for the details, see 2: On the Continent, 1780-1) Perhaps Towne developed the idea following his visit to the museum in June 1809 to make “copies of three views of Athens in the collection of drawings by Pars” at the British Museum “on the request of Mr Champernowne”.6 Perhaps Towne had also been galvanised to write his will by the death of his close friend Ozias Humphry in March 1810.7 At any rate, similarly indicative that this was a period for clearing out and settling his affairs, a month after completing his will Towne signed a lease on 31 Devonshire Street, leaving behind the home he had chosen to share with his late wife.8 Towne lived at Devonshire Street for the remainder of his life.

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  1. 1 Letter Francis Towne to James White, March 1815.
  2. 2 Quite possibly coincidentally, John Merivale also visited Windsor in 1811. Wordsworth Trust, transcript, 5 March 1811.
  3. 3 Nos.FT019, FT572, FT557, FT646. Nos. FT616 and FT617 were also redisplays.
  4. 4 National Art Library, British Institution Minute Book ,vol.1, f.149.
  5. 5 Although Wilcox stated that the 1808 Royal Academy exhibits were all oil paintings.
  6. 6 British Museum, Central Archive, Minutes of Standing Committee, 10 June 1809.
  7. 7 Humphry’s son wrote to White on 9 March 1810: “If I should die, as I shall, for it is all over, - I wish you to inform my old friend Mr White of Exeter of it. – Mr Towne – and Mr West” (London, Royal Academy Library, HU7/84).
  8. 8 The lease was for twenty-one years, with breaks at seven and fourteen years. It was signed by Elizabeth Corney, William Hayward, William Strudwick, and Francis Towne. On 29 September 1810 Towne sub-let his coach house and stables, at 13 Beaumont Mews, for £25 for one year to Mrs Carmac of Wimpole Street. Samuel Stephens acted for Towne. On 28 April 1812 Towne let 13 Beaumont Mews to Stephen Liddard, presumably for six months, as on 20 October 1812 Towne let the property for £20 for one year, once again to Liddard. By the mid-nineteenth century this mews house incorporated an artist’s studio, but this was not built during Towne’s lifetime. The lease describes “Francis Towne of Wimpole Street in the parish of St Marylebone” but it is clear from British Institution catalogues that, until spring 1810 at any rate, Towne’s address was still 39 Queen Ann Street West, on the corner of Wimpole Street: Devon Record Office, Exeter, 3459M/F51.


Article title
Retirement, 1806-16
Richard Stephens
Article DOI
Cite as
Richard Stephens, "Retirement, 1806-16", A Catalogue Raisonné of Francis Towne (1739-1816), (London: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2016),

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