Rome Series, October 1780–July 1781

It is clear that Towne considered his Roman drawings the prime example of his artistic abilities and they formed an important part of his marketability during the 1780s and 1790s, when Towne made several copies on commission (FT425, FT426, FT427, FT428, FT429, FT430, FT431, FT432, FT433, FT602). Towne worked on the series throughout his later life but, for all its primacy among Towne’s work, the Roman series was incomplete at Towne’s death, as two unmounted monochrome drawings (FT206, FT220) remained with the Merivale family when the others, and a few Italian works, were given to the British Museum in 1816 by James White, in execution of Towne’s wishes (FT165, FT166, FT171, FT172, FT173, FT174, FT175, FT176, FT177, FT178, FT179, FT180, FT181, FT182, FT183, FT184, FT185, FT186, FT187, FT188, FT189, FT190, FT191, FT192, FT193, FT194, FT195, FT196, FT197, FT198, FT199, FT200, FT201, FT202, FT203, FT204, FT205, FT207, FT208, FT209, FT210, FT211, FT212, FT213, FT214, FT215, FT216, FT217, FT218, FT222, FT223, FT224, FT251, FT252, FT253, FT262, FT264, FT286). These were placed in two albums, and seventeen further works that White and John Herman Merivale sent as a supplement in 1818 made up a third album (FT219, FT221, FT231, FT234, FT238, FT244, FT256, FT261, FT263, FT267, FT269, FT282, FT291, FT294, FT297, FT300, FT353). A paragraph in Merivale’s hand, which was formerly attached to the first volume of Towne’s bequest, states that the gift was “in compliance with the desire of the Artist, that his ‘Roman Drawings’ should be deposited with those of his friend Pars in the British Museum”.

Towne probably reached Rome at the end of September or early October, but he paid no great attention to the city. During the early weeks and months he concentrated his work in the countryside outside Rome. Indeed, by the time Towne left Rome for the first time in March 1781 to visit Naples, he had made only a very selective account of the ancient ruins within the city walls and had sketched nothing of modern Rome. Some of the major monuments were only sketched in the days immediately before he returned to England, as if as an afterthought. 

Towne’s earliest two drawings (FT171, FT176) were within the city. However, for the remainder of October he was drawing views north of the city along the Via Flamina near Ponte Milvio (FT172, FT173, FT174), which he would have crossed to enter Rome. A few days later he travelled a few miles north-east of Rome along the Via Salara (FT179) and the Via Nomentana (FT175, FT177, FT178, FT180, FT225), an area he returned to later on in his stay (FT190 and perhaps FT226). These were areas rich in historic and cultural associations. Apart from one Colosseum view (FT171), all of Towne’s drawings to this point were made on Whatman paper measuring ca. 210 x 270 mm, which Towne had brought with him from England and had used on the journey down (FT165, FT166, FT167). However, in November and early December Towne produced a group of brilliant foliage studies in the Arco Scuro area north of Rome on paper far larger, measuring ca. 320 x 470 mm (FT184, FT185, FT187), and he continued to use this paper for the remainder of his Roman series, for his work in Naples and for many of the drawings in the Roman countryside. This larger paper was creased down its centre and Towne occasionally divided it to make smaller drawings (FT236, FT237). The adoption of this larger paper is the most concrete signal of Towne’s assimilation of ideas from his new working environment.

In December James Irvine mentioned “a long run of the most execrable weather I ever saw”, which had prevented him from visiting Albano,1 and this may well have disrupted Towne’s work as well. Around this time he began to work more within the ancient city of Rome, producing drawings of the Colosseum (FT186, FT191) and of the Baths of Caracalla (FT194, FT202, FT203, FT205, probably FT206). In the weeks before his departure for Naples in early March, Towne made studies of and near the Palatine Hill (FT196, FT197, FT198, FT199, FT200). Among these was his only significant figure study, drawn in the Forum (FT200). On his return from Naples, there is far greater variety in subject matter, and in May, June and July Towne sketched many of the best-known views, such as in and around the Forum (FT212, FT213, FT214, FT218, FT219, FT221), the Temple of Vesta (FT215), St Peter’s (FT211) and the so-called Temple of Minerva Medica (FT216). As if to maximise their appeal to his clients, several of these last drawings were evening views, given added interest through their strong yellow-orange skies (FT211, FT216, FT222, FT223). The final drawing of the series, and probably the final drawing made in Rome, is a view on the Tiber north of the city on the main entry and exit road (FT224). Unusually, there is a human narrative here, with two men enjoying an afternoon by the river. It is as if Towne has placed it at the very end of the series of views to indicate his departure from the city, and to convey a wistful valediction to the countryside outside Rome where he enjoyed his most rewarding periods of study.

Given the centrality of ancient Rome to English cultural life and the growing status and opportunities available to painters since George III’s accession, it is no surprise that many of Towne’s peers found a visit to Italy possible, relevant and profitable. The 1770s, in fact, saw more UK artists go to Italy than in any other decade of the century and Towne arrived in Rome towards the end of what was perhaps the period of its greatest influence on British artists. Although several UK artists made long-term careers in Rome, most went for a more or less temporary stay, often of around three or four years but not unusually for shorter or longer periods. Their principal aim was to return home with a stock of sketches and Grand Tourist contacts to exploit during their subsequent careers in England. They spent their time abroad gaining first-hand knowledge of the Italian art, history and landscape that had such great resonance in English society. Despite his relatively old age as a student, Towne’s clear purpose in visiting Italy was to gather materials for use back in England, not to establish a long-term career for himself there. Indeed, early in 1781 Towne mentioned to his friend James White that he was considering an early return to England; for the sake of his studies, however, White argued in a letter dated 12 March 1781 that Towne should remain in Italy, especially given the competitiveness of the domestic art market he would return to.2 The UK’s 1778–82 war with France and Spain had caused no major hostilities in Europe, but it disrupted both international trade and the London art market, and had a detrimental effect on tourism to Rome.3 It also somewhat depleted the community of UK painters, sculptors and architects, who numbered sixteen in 1780.4 A single UK artist had gone out to Italy in 1779 and Towne was one of only four the following year, compared to an average of eight annually between 1770 and 1778. Furthermore, a dozen UK artists had left Italy in 1779–80, compared to five in 1777–78. As well the reduction in their number, those artists still in Rome at Towne’s arrival were appreciably older and more familiar with Italy than was usual. Half the UK artists visiting Italy in the decade 1775–85 went in their early twenties, and three-quarters were under thirty; Towne, at forty-one, was one of only two men over forty. Yet, most of the artists Towne would have met in late 1780 were in their late twenties, thirties, or older, and had been living abroad for upwards of four years.

Despite the war, UK artists maintained a rich circulation of art-centred information, contacts and ideas with England, and Towne himself carried a letter from England to James Irvine in Rome. The efficiency of the artistic network, the closeness of the UK expatriate artists and their thirst for information are evident in Irvine’s response to his correspondent Cumberland about the use, in an English newspaper article, of comments about Henry Tresham and James Durno, which Irvine had made in letters to him during 1781. By December 1781 copies of the newspaper had filtered back to Rome and Irvine was forced to ask Cumberland in future to keep private any information his letters contained: “Our society is so small that it is immediately known from what quarter it comes.”1 Exhibition catalogues and criticisms from the London papers were circulating among artists in Italy, who even stood for election to the Royal Academy. William Pars (1742–1782), an associate since 1770, stood for full membership in 1777, 1778, 1779—when he almost succeeded, winning seven votes against Copley’s nine—and 1781. That after four years abroad in 1779 Pars could attract seven votes, losing narrowly to Copley’s nine, shows how responsive the London art world could be to the community in Rome. Commissions initiated in Italy could be finalised back in the UK through one of the English agents in Rome, and money could be transferred between the two countries using specialist bankers. As well as the trade in antiquities and works of art, artists’ supplies such as drawing materials, prints and plaster casts of antique sculpture were imported from Rome to England. Towne himself took back to England drawing paper that he was using in 1786.6

When Towne arrived in Rome he appears to have made a strong impression on his fellow artists. No doubt they had read the critical praise for Towne’s 1780 Royal Academy exhibits in the Morning Chronicle, and for the expatriates Towne’s arrival would have been a newsworthy event, all the more so since war had reduced the frequency of such an occasion.7 Expatriate artists would have been keen to know more from Towne of the 1780 Royal Academy exhibition, held for the first time at Somerset House and attended by a record number of more than 60,000 visitors. Early on, Towne certainly made a strong impact on at least one artist, judging by this December 1780 description of him by the young James Irvine, who was clearly having trouble knowing quite how to describe Towne:

He seems one of the strangest genius’s I have seen. With a very middling indifferent understanding he has all the gravity and formality of a profound philosopher philosopher and deep thinker, but he is I believe what we call a good sort of man & applies to his art wt. great industry.”8

Although Irvine’s characterisation of Towne as an eccentric somewhat out of step with the world fits most twentieth-century interpretations of Towne, there is every reason to think that Towne participated fully in artistic life. Quite apart from the plentiful evidence of his drawings, which show Towne to have been highly conscious of his cultural environment and the work of his peers, Irvine’s description suggests that Towne had engaged all too vigorously in debate about art with his fellow artists. This is supported by a letter from James White that Towne must have received about the same time as Irvine penned his description, in which White imagines with good-natured envy Towne’s “Conversazioni which reduce our’s to mere Insignificance”.9

With just three UK landscape artists living in Rome in 1780—Pars, John “Warwick” Smith (1749–1831) and Jacob More—Towne’s arrival made a significant addition, and Towne’s relations with expatriate artists, and with John ‘Warwick’ Smith in particular, have been at the centre of appraisals of Towne from the early nineteenth century onwards. Certainly Towne had friendships in Italy with Pars and Smith, who were part of a circle that also included Thomas Jones; perhaps the formative effect of their shared experience of Italy contributed to the longevity and significance of all these friendships, for thirty years later they retained their meaning for Towne, who made bequests remembering both Smith and Pars and who towards the end of his life was still able to recollect in detail their days in Rome.10 With his ‘great industry’ Towne had no doubt invigorated his friends in Rome, as he clearly did Jones when visiting Naples in March 1781,11 especially during this somewhat depressing time of war and economic difficulty and, for Pars, illness and bereavement. Evidence of the existence of the circle of friends is found in the memoirs of Jones, who reserved for his close artist friends what seem to have been his most important social occasions, such as St David’s Day 1780, celebrated “privately” with Smith, Pars and Henry Tresham (1751–1814). A few months before, Jones had put on a Christmas Day dinner for Pars, Smith, Alexander Day (ca. 1751–1841), James Durno (ca. 1745–1795) and Mitchel (d.1780). By spring 1781 Towne was part of the group and Ozias Humphry (who had himself visited Italy in 1773–77) was using him “to be kindly remembered to Day – Pars – Jones – & all Friends in Rome”.12 Towne must also have known Tresham well in Rome, judging by a letter from Tresham to Humphry dated 22 August 1781, now lost but that Oppé called an “important” biographical source for Towne.13

It seems likely that, in as much as influence passed from one artist to another within the circle of friends, it was probably Towne who benefited early on from both Smith’s and Pars’s knowledge of Rome and of the market for watercolour views. Early twentieth-century accounts of Towne gave him a position of influence over Smith, but this was before the emergence of a large body of watercolours by Smith that were sold from Warwick Castle in 1936 and were, in any case, the result of the need to provide Towne with an eminence during a period when Smith’s reputation was poor. Thomas Jones certainly gave Towne artistic direction on his visit to Naples in March 1781, and later in life Towne made copies of continental views by both Smith and Pars.14 Towne no doubt took advice from an artist like Smith when, just a few weeks after arriving in Rome, he visited the area north of Rome, a couple of miles out of the Porta Pia, where Smith and John Robert Cozens (1752–1797) had lodged.15 Towne’s view of Martinelli’s vineyard shows the very scene Thomas Jones described in 1778 when visiting Cozens.16 Although Towne was one of the oldest of the UK artists in Rome, Smith was himself already in his early thirties and had spent almost five years steeped in Italian art, landscape, language and life by the time Towne experienced them for the first time, as a visitor who, according to James White, found the experience at first “rather awkward & inconvenient”.2

By Towne’s arrival both Smith and Pars would have long ago produced large quantities of landscape studies for their patrons back in the UK, as well as for the visiting Grand Tourists, treating the most popular landscape subjects. The views of Rome that now form the major evidence of Smith’s activities there come from the collection of his sponsor George Greville, the Earl of Warwick. Few of Smith’s drawings are dated, but it makes no sense at all to think of Lord Warwick waiting almost until the end of Smith’s time in Italy before seeing his drawings, all the while paying Smith’s expenses. It is likely, then, that Smith’s Roman drawings—especially those works, treating the best known subjects, that have been compared to Towne’s—pre-date Towne’s arrival. Furthermore, Smith’s sketches of Naples, of an uncertain date but conceived on a visit from 1778 to 1779 (part of the Oppé Collection, now at Tate), show that he lacked then none of the sharpness or vigour nor an eye for bold, angular forms that the influence of Towne might conceivably have added. A drawing by Smith of Mendris dating from August 1781 shows how little distance stylistically Smith travelled between these views of Naples and those of his journey through Switzerland with Towne. Towne’s experiments without the pen line (in works such as FT198 and FT201) may have been the result of his exposure to Smith’s freely drawn watercolours of Rome (a large number of which were bought by the British Museum in 1936).

Given that they were friends, no doubt Towne, Smith and Pars did go sketching together in and around Rome, as Towne did with Smith in Switzerland and with Jones in Naples, but the evidence for this is less clear than it might appear at first. Many of Towne’s Italian watercolours do share with works by Smith and/or Pars the same or similar viewpoints of the same subjects treated broadly the same way,18 but this is by no means evidence that the artists sketched together simultaneously. However, there are only two documented instances where in neither case—here Towne and Pars—can the artists have sketched side by side.19 Though very similar, the viewpoints (and therefore the sketching positions of Towne and his friends) shared by several such drawings are too far apart to have allowed for meaningful interactions between their makers during the time they were sketching.20 Furthermore, the time that Towne and Pars might have spent productively together during Towne’s ten months in Italy was reduced to perhaps six by Pars’s work commitments and ill health.21

A more fruitful account of the similarities in the works of these artists can be found in their common artistic environment, rather than in an explanation that the characteristics of Towne were transmitted to Smith or others through a process of mentoring or tuition. More fundamental than issues of friendship and of joint sketching trips is the conformity forced on the group by the art market, and their shared responses to the neo-classical tradition of Claude, Dughet, Rosa and Wilson—especially as reworked in the images of the highly fashionable Jacob Phillip Hackert—and the north Italian vedute tradition represented in Piranesi’s work. After all, most of Towne’s drawings that have been the basis for his influence over Smith have equally compelling similarities with the work of other artists outside the circle.22 Towne and his friends, in other words, were simply depicting the views that the art market at that time considered the most interesting, attractive and evocative.



  1. 1 British Library, Add. Mss 36493.
  2. 2 Letter from James White to Francis Towne, 12 March 1781.
  3. 3 In late 1779 Henry Herbert called the war “the ruin of English artists in Rome” (quoted Wilcox 1997, p.54)”, and the risks of transporting large works of art were no doubt behind Elizabeth Banks’s comment a year earlier that “Gentlemen will not purchase anything larger than what they can carry on their fingers, or Snuff-boxes”. James Irvine wrote of the “little encouragement” given to the arts in December 1780 and the situation remained the same in a letter of May the following year: “There are some English here at present but they will scarce go to see an Artist for fear they should be expected to bespoke something” (British Library, Add. Mss 36493). In spring 1781 James White mused in a letter to Towne: “Possibly we may see the Olive Branch supplant the Sword and feel all the blessings of Peace ‘tis then only that the Arts will flourish and flourish with redoubled vigour” (Letter from James White to Francis Towne, 12 March 1781). But in May 1781 things were no better: commenting on James Durno’s new painting, James Irvine wrote that “there is no great likelyhood of his selling it here as matters go at present”. In 1782 Gavin Hamilton was said to have not sent over any of his large history paintings to the London exhibitions “for some years on account of the war” (Royal Academy HU2/74). Indeed, the only contributions from artists in Italy to Royal Academy exhibitions of 1778–82 was one gem engraved by Nathaniel Marchant, no doubt small and easy to transport.
  4. 4 Based on data in Ingamells 1997.
  5. 5 British Library, Add. Mss 36493.
  6. 6 Nos.FT514, FT515, FT518.
  7. 7 In September 1781, for example, James Irvine was writing to England for news of another arrival: “I hear there is one Udny expected soon from London but whether an artist or not we don’t know. It is supposed he is from a letter one of the students have had promising to send something by him” (British Library, Add. Mss 36493).
  8. 8 British Library, Add. Mss 36493. Irvine’s judgement of Towne should not necessarily be taken as representative of the UK artistic community. Irvine himself admitted that people “have conceived a very indifferent opinion of me at first . . . and my Pride . . . upon the discovery has made the indifference mutual . . . I am very sensible Nature has not given me talent to shine in Company” (British Library, Add. Mss 36493).
  9. 9 Letter James White to Francis Towne, 27 November 1780.
  10. 10 In 1813 Towne and Smith were witnesses in a case at Hereford assizes that concerned their friendship with Jones decades earlier (see FT654).
  11. 11 See ‘Tour of Wales, 1777’.
  12. 12 Letter from Ozias Humphry to Francis Towne, 17 April 1781.
  13. 13 Oppé 1920, p.96.
  14. 14 Nos.FT799, FT812.
  15. 15 Nos.FT175, FT177, FT178, FT180, FT225.
  16. 16 See Comment at FT180.
  17. 17 Letter from James White to Francis Towne, 12 March 1781.
  18. 18 Nos.FT178, FT183, FT193, FT202, FT204, FT208, FT211, FT212, FT214, FT219, FT221, FT231, FT232, FT239, FT251, FT256, FT261, FT263, FT282, FT294, FT297.
  19. 19 Nos.FT211 and FT232; when Towne drew FT211 (Rome), Pars was in Naples, and when Towne drew FT232 (Mount Vesuvius), Pars was in Rome. A third drawing, FT212 (Rome), was made by Towne in the same year as the equivalent view by Pars, and evidently at about the same time of day.
  20. 20 For instance, in the view of the Colosseum (FT181) Towne and Smith would have been dozens of yards apart and possibly on different levels; Towne made his drawing somewhat lower down the Palatine Hill (FT183) than Smith.
  21. 21 From late October to mid-November 1780 Pars was in Naples, and over winter he was in Rome, but very ill. In March Towne was in Naples, as was Pars from the end of May until early July. Pars may have been ill again at some point during the summer. Although few of them survive, Pars “made many excellent drawings” of Rome and its neighbourhood and in late 1780–early 1781 he was prospering professionally. Very soon after Towne’s arrival in Rome Pars was in Naples carrying out a commission to copy of a Titian, probably for the Bishop of Derry. In February 1781 he was back in Rome, where he is described as having “painted some very good portraits”. About the same time Pars, whose work as a drawing master in London was well known, was running an evening academy at his lodgings during a spell of bad weather. (Jones 1951; British Library, Add. Mss 36493; Edwards 1808, p.90; Ingamells 1997.)
  22. 22 These similiarities are set out in the Comments to catalogue entries.


Article title
Rome Series, October 1780–July 1781
Article DOI
Cite as
"Rome Series, October 1780–July 1781", A Catalogue Raisonné of Francis Towne (1739-1816), (London: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2016),

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