West Country Sketches, 1772–80

Richard Stephens

The fact that the earliest surviving drawings by Towne are dated as late as 1772 rules out a visual reconstruction of the first decade of his career, although documentary information partly fills the gap. By the early 1770s Towne was fairly well established in the Exeter area, and most of his early sketches are studies made on local landowners’ estates. By 1773 he was working for Lord Clifford (FT032, FT033, FT034, FT035, FT036, FT037, FT038, FT039) and for Lord Courtenay by 1774 (FT042, FT043, FT044, FT045), if not earlier, as two drawings of Oakhampton Castle are dated 1772 (FT029, FT030). Towne’s earliest Devon patron, in fact, may well have been Humphry Morice (1723–1785), as Towne’s 1767 exhibit at the Society of Artists was of a mill near his estate at Werrington at the western edge of Devon (FT008). The close network of landowners was such that the patronage of Courtenay, as the key figure among the elite of Exeter and east Devon, must have provided an influential model for others to emulate. In 1775 Towne was making studies for Richard Hippisley Coxe at his estate of Peamore near Exeter (FT061, FT062, FT063), and in 1776 for Sir John Fulford (1736–1780) at his estate of Great Fulford (FT064). Both Lord Courtenay and Lord Clifford continued to employ Towne at the end of the decade, as did other landowners including Sir Robert Palk at Haldon House (FT153, FT154), George Cary at Torre Abbey (FT146, FT147), and Thomas Taylor of Denbury (FT155, FT156). It is clear that Towne undertook much close study of the Devon countryside as he made a minimum of 210 sketches directly from nature from ca. 1773 to 1775. A drawing of Ugbrooke, numbered 59, is probably from 1773 (FT038, FT039), one of Powderham, almost certainly of 1774, is numbered 89 (FT043), and one of Peamore dated 1775 is numbered 62 (FT061).

It would be surprising if Towne had not felt the presence of other landscape artists who were active around Exeter. Two of the exhibits at the 1772 Royal Academy show were pictures of Chudleigh Rock painted for Lord Clifford by William Tomkins (ca. 1730–1792), who had been elected a year earlier as one of the Academy’s associate members. Richard Wilson’s Devon visit of 1771 produced two landscapes for Lord Courtenay, to which Towne would have had access. They are remarkable among Wilson’s work for their direct description of nature, lacking the Italianate elements on which he had made his reputation. In his 1772 drawing near the waterfall at Canonteign (FT031), Towne surely had in mind one of Wilson’s two paintings, of Lidford falls, as both his work and Wilson’s concentrate on foreground, have an upright shape, and direct the viewer’s gaze upwards towards a precipice. In a drawing of Oakhampton Castle from the same year (FT030), Towne gives special emphasis to the foreground in a deliberate contrast to a very similar view of the castle drawn the previous day (FT029), whose recession towards the distant town has something in common with Wilson’s classical interpretation of the same view. Thomas Gainsborough was another prominent landscape painter with links to Exeter. He was a close friend of William Jackson and used Exeter’s countryside for sketching trips, writing, for example, to Jackson in July 1779: “I hope to see you in about a fortnight, as I purpose spending a month or six weeks at Tingmouth or other places around Exeter – get your Chalks ready, for we must draw together” (see FT892, FT893).1 Towne may even have known Gainsborough himself, as he owned an early study by the artist 2 

After his return from Wales and following his completion of a large painting of Powderham Castle (FT065), Towne seems to have completed another commission for Lord Courtenay comprising a series of large watercolour views from the parkland and belvedere at Powderham (most of which are now lost). The two surviving sketches for Lord Courtenay’s watercolours (FT136, FT138) and the study for Thomas Taylor’s painting (FT155) have a degree of precision and detail not seen in any of Towne’s Welsh work of 1777 or his earlier Devon studies (compare, for example, FT041 with FT155), although possibly Towne had used a camera obscura in a 1775 view of Exeter from Peamore Park (FT062) and possibly also at Ugbrooke Park in 1775 (FT055). Even so, the Ugbrooke drawing and preparatory drawings for oil paintings in the first half of the decade, such as FT021 and FT022, look very bare of information in comparison to the later studies. This was a decade of change in Towne’s drawing style. The earliest surviving sketches of 1772 as yet exhibit little of the elegant curly line that was to become one of the defining characteristics of his drawing style by the end of the decade; and his use of colour was limited until the Welsh tour. Quite possibly the increased flatness and regularity of Towne’s pen foliage towards the end of the decade were stimulated by the success of the 1777 publication of Richard Earlom’s aquatints of Claude Lorrain’s Liber Veritas

A letter from William Pars suggests that Towne was struggling for money at some point between 1769 and 17743, when he was lodging in the poor area of Stepcote Hill, Exeter, with a Mrs Langworthy; yet by the end of the decade he was well established in his career and a substantial figure in Exeter society. Symbolic of Towne’s progress prior to the departure for Italy was his move to a new address on the main thoroughfare of Fore Street, where he was living by 1779 when Ozias Humphry wrote to him.4 In a further indication of success Towne also banked his first savings in 1780: £350 deposited in the Bank of England’s 4 percent fund. Perhaps reflecting his success in and around Exeter, Towne had his portrait taken by John Downman (1750–1824), with whom he later lodged (see ‘England, 1781–ca. 1805’). The drawing (fig.00) is undated, but is consistent stylistically with studies dated in the late 1770s.5 As Downman was working in Exeter as a portraitist during these years, and sketched James White (see FT746) and Dr Hugh Downman among many others, the assumption is that the portrait of Towne was drawn in Exeter in the late 1770s. It was owned by Leila Merivale (ca. 1879–1967) in 1962 but has since been lost. It is unknown whether this portrait was a sketch bought by Towne himself and bequeathed to the Merivales or whether it was a copy made for the Merivales and based on a preparatory sketch, now also lost.

About the author

  • Independent Art Historian


  1. 1 Gainsborough 2001, p.140.
  2. 2 Hayes 1982, no.10.
  3. 3 Letter from William Pars to Francis Towne, undated [ca. 1769-1775].
  4. 4 Paul Oppé records: transcript, 10 February 1779.
  5. 5 Especially the 1777 sketch of Verney Lovett of Cambridge, reproduced Munro 1996, p.34.


Article title
West Country Sketches, 1772–80
Richard Stephens
Article DOI
Cite as
Richard Stephens, "West Country Sketches, 1772–80", A Catalogue Raisonné of Francis Towne (1739-1816), (London: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2016),

Revisions & Feedback

The website will be updated from time to time and, when changes are made, a PDF of the previous version of each page will be archived here for consultation and citation.

Please help us to improve this catalogue

If you have information, a correction or any other suggestions to improve this catalogue, please contact us.