Studio Watercolours, 1783–1800

Richard Stephens

In this section:

West Country FT412, FT449a, FT552, FT554, FT555, FT556, FT580

Wales FT070a, FT396, FT397, FT398, FT548, FT549, FT550, FT551, FT583

Lake District FT534

Rome and the Campagna FT419, FT425, FT426, FT427a, FT427b, FT427c, FT427d, FT427e, FT428, FT430, FT431, FT562, FT602

Naples FT395, FT414, FT416, FT418, FT422, FT432, FT451, FT558, FT586

Northern Italy FT413, FT420, FT424, FT535, FT536, FT618

Switzerland and Savoy FT450, FT417, FT423, FT547, FT559, FT573



Following his success among the Devon elite in the late 1770s and in 1780, and on his return from Italy, Towne continued to gain commissions from them. The few works that survive reinforce the impression of a busy and prosperous artist servicing Exeter’s business and social elite. Although after Italy he appears not to have won further work from Viscount Courtenay (who died in 1788), the work hanging at Powderham must have continued to help Towne’s reputation in the region; the Clifford family did provide some further work. However, from the late 1780s this business appears to have waned and commissions agreed during the 1780s outnumber later works by six to one. To set out the detail, from 1790 onwards only nine commissions can be identified (with varying degrees of certainty: FT562, FT573, FT580, FT583, FT584, FT586, FT602, FT619, FT627), and between 1781 and 1789 at least fifty-five were agreed, most of them during the middle years of the decade. Of the latter 1780s commissions, eleven came from the wealthy Devon landowner Sir Thomas Dyke Acland (1752–1794) and his wife Henrietta Hoare, who bought four North Wales and seven Devon views (FT449, FT449a, FT548, FT549, FT550, FT551, FT552, FT553, FT554, FT555, FT556). Towne was sketching on Acland land in October 1785 (FT436, FT437, FT438, FT439, FT440) and two of the ten commissions, and probably more, were placed in December 1785 (FT549, FT550); the ensuing watercolours are dated 1788 and 1790. For Thomas Snow (1748–1832), an Exeter merchant and neighbour of John Merivale, Towne made eleven watercolour views of Rome, dated 1785 and 1786, and one oil picture. Also in 1785 and 1786 Towne made at least four watercolours of Rome for his pupil Ann Fortescue (1755–1815) of Buckland House, Devon, the daughter of an Exeter merchant. Other clients included Towne’s London room-mate John Downman, whose view of Baia near Naples was delivered on 22 June 1783 (FT394); John Short of Bickham (d.1801), who commissioned Naples and Swiss views in February 1788 (FT558, FT559), both of which are dated 1789; 5th or 6th Lord Clifford of Chudleigh (FT573); Arthur Champernowne (FT602) in 1799; and (probably) one of the Mitford brothers, whose view near Chiavenna is dated 1784 (FT417). There are many more commissions from unidentified customers: views in and around Naples dated 1783 (FT395), 1784 (FT414, FT416), 1785 (FT422), 1786 (FT451), and without date (FT415, FT418); views of the North Italian lakes and elsewhere in Italy dated 1784 (FT413), 1785 (FT424), 1787 (FT535, FT536), and undated (FT419, FT420); views of Switzerland dated 1784 and 1785 (FT423); and views of the United Kingdom dated 1783 (FT396, FT397), 1784 (FT412), and 1787 (FT534). Other works that may or may not have been commissioned from Towne during the 1780s are FT547, FT409, and FT450. This long list of studio watercolours stands in contrast to the few oil paintings that Towne was commissioned to paint in the same period (see ‘Oil Paintings, 1784–1801’).

Of the Rome views that Towne made in 1785–6 for Mrs Fortescue and Thomas Snow, it is uncertain which of the half dozen surviving watercolours originally belonged to whom. Towne recorded on the backs of his Roman sketches the details of four copies purchased by Mrs Fortescue (FT185, FT194, FT197, FT199), and although he made no such record of Snow’s copies, a late nineteenth-century note mentions the existence of eleven watercolours and one oil painting of Rome, which were then still at Cleve. Four of the six mid-1780s watercolours that are likely to have belonged to Fortescue or Snow have provenances that show they are, in fact, from Snow’s group (FT426, FT428, FT431, FT432). These four are numbered 3, 4, 7, and 9, indicating that they were once part of a numbered series, and one that was more extensive than Mrs Fortescue’s four documented purchases. Leaving these four aside, neither of the two remaining watercolours (FT425, FT430), which were both sold by a Mrs Leahy in 1972, can be traced to the Fortescue family (FT425, FT430), and as they are numbered 2 and 6, it easy to think of them as belonging in the Snow group, especially as Mrs Fortescue is not known to have commissioned as many as six copies. Furthermore, Buckland House was badly damaged by fire in 1798 and it may be that all of Towne’s watercolours were destroyed then. Yet in the case of the watercolour numbered 2 (FT425), it is hard to set aside entirely the evidence of Towne’s own inscription—that he made a copy for Mrs Fortescue (FT185)—and determine that this is not Mrs Fortescue’s picture. However, the matter is further muddied by the fact that in two of the four examples where Towne recorded Mrs Fortescue’s order (FT197, FT199), the surviving mid-1780s copy is definitely not Mrs Fortescue’s, but instead belongs to the Snow series. So on a balance of probabilities, it seems likely that all six surviving watercolours are the remains of Thomas Snow’s series of eleven (with others, numbered 1, 5, 8, 10, and 11, now untraced, FT427a, FT427b, FT427c, FT427d, FT427e). However, it is possible that the copy numbered 2 belongs to the Fortescue group (FT425), and if so, the other whose provenance it shares (numbered 6) must also be a Fortescue copy (FT430), even though Towne did not record the commission in an inscription; that would also imply that a further watercolour numbered 5 once existed.

The studio watercolours from the latter part of Towne’s career highlight the contrast between the two approaches to making watercolours that dominated debate about the medium at the end of the eighteenth century. For Oppé the decline in Towne’s watercolour business was chiefly a consequence of the rise in the market for prints, which satisfied the demands of Towne’s public for landscape images. However, it is also possible that his strong adherence to a pen-based mode of drawing left him ill prepared for the movement for pure watercolour that overtook the market in the 1790s and beyond. Even so, Towne’s efforts to adapt to the emergence of ‘paintings in watercolour’—large works with no outline and highly worked-up colour washes somewhat in emulation of oil paint effects—can be seen fairly clearly in two versions of a Lake Como view, dated 1787 (FT535) and 1800 (FT618). An earlier studio version, however, dated 1785 (FT424), is drawn more in the style of a tinted drawing, with crisp outlines and a more binary approach to light and shade. When sketching on the spot, Towne created clear boundary lines and strong washes, and often his studio work merely reproduces the same effect only with a greater sense of neatness and reserve, such as in the 1785 Lake Como view, a 1799 view of the Colosseum (FT602), and the mid-1780s’ copies of the Roman watercolours (for instance FT427, FT428). Yet at the same time, Towne could produce more gently toned pure watercolours, such as two Naples views dated 1786 (FT432, FT451) and his work for the Aclands (such as FT551). In some of Towne’s pure watercolours, it seems as if he has simply omitted the stage of adding a pen outline (for example FT423), but gradually he evolved a distinctive expressive language in pure watercolour (for instance FT553, FT562, FT573). To Towne’s early twentieth-century admirers, the conventionality of such work may have compromised his claims for their attention, but it shows the realities of Towne’s life as a jobbing artist, catering to a rapidly changing market of culturally aware Exeter families. 

About the author

  • Independent Art Historian


Article title
Studio Watercolours, 1783–1800
Richard Stephens
Article DOI
Cite as
Richard Stephens, "Studio Watercolours, 1783–1800", A Catalogue Raisonné of Francis Towne (1739-1816), (London: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2016),

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