Francis Towne (1739 - 1816)
  • A View looking up the River Exe
No date
Oil on canvas
  • image width 1168mm,
  • image length 1676mm
  • canvas, recto, lower left
  • signed
  • canvas, verso
  • “A View looking up the River Exe, Devonshire. Painted by Francis Towne in the year 1811, No.31 Devonshire Street, Portland Place. No.1.”
Object Type
Oil painting

Catalogue Number
Description Sources
Bury; Paul Oppé records; Examination


Bequeathed by the artist in 1816 to James White of Exeter (1744–1825), on whose death it passed to Towne’s residuary legatee John Herman Merivale (1779–1844) and his successors. In 1915 it seems to have been inherited by Major Antony Hubert Gibbs (1874–1957), and it remains in a private collection. If Oppé’s various descriptions of one or more large Exe estuary oil paintings can be reconciled, this would also have been in the possession of Merivale’s grandson Reginald Merivale (1852–1937), at an uncertain date, but by 1919.

Associated People & Organisations

Private Collection
Major Anthony Hubert Gibbs (1874 - 1957), 1915
[?] Reginald Merivale (1852 - 1937)
John Herman Merivale (1779 - 1844), 1825
James White (1744 - 1825), Exeter, 1816
Exhibition History
Works of British artists placed in the Gallery of the British Institution, Pall-Mall for exhibition and Sale, British Institution, 1812, no. 157 as 'A view looking up the river Exe, in Devonshire, measuring 1549 x 2032mm'
Adrian Bury, Francis Towne - Lone Star of Water-Colour Painting, Charles Skilton: London, 1962, pp. 65, 104, 117, 150 (as 'A View looking up the River Exe, Devonshire measuring 1676 x 1168mm')
Paul Oppé, 'Francis Towne, Landscape Painter', The Walpole Society: London, 1920, p. 101


This is a view on the road to Topsham, at much the same location that John White Abbott used in his 1808 oil painting, The Old Lime Kilns near Topsham on the Exe (Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter). Towne’s work has a Wilsonian mood, though, at odds with Abbott’s work.

In a note of 1915 Oppé described thus the picture Bury mentioned: “Mass of black trees to R. quiet river & hill near centre. Smaller trees left. good figures. Broad large pleasant commonplace effect.” In another note Oppé described the

Gibbs picture. Large Claude, cool grey & blue colouring Big trees to R. road & a few coloured figures sweep of bay & hills. Light from L. Good Italianate, not remarkable. Lines less poetic than Institution picture [i.e. FT019]. But compn. good. well lighted[?] if artificially. Peaceful effect. Big trees quite well drawn & more or less characterised; trees to L (against sunset) rather flat. Simpler effect than the water colours, less of picture within picture, but all details careful. Some of paint quite perished or taken off by cleaner. Simple woolly sky. Signed L. hand bottom corner. Date if any illegible. It’s a blue not a yellow Claude. Exeter & distance is now rather misty, presumably from messy cleaning. A very stiff but not ineffective boat in fgrd of water has lost much blue colour wh is surrounding it.1 

The recto signature was not visible when this painting was examined in 2015, nor was the back of the picture inspected; the verso inscription is taken from Bury’s 1962 checklist.

In his 1920 article Oppé also described what is perhaps this picture, given the common subject matter, its characterisation as “large”, and the reference to poor cleaning:

 A large view looking up the Exe, now in the possession of Mr Reginald Merivale, may date from this time [the early 1770s], but unfortunately it cannot be said with certainty whether its want of all distinctive character except conventionality of composition is due to the omissions of the artist or the commission of the cleaner.

Oppé had seen Reginald Merivale’s picture in very late 1918 or early 1919 in Merivale’s London flat, after it had been restored by Worth’s, a picture dealer and art shop in Cathedral Yard, Exeter. Emily Buckingham, who described this picture as “the Estuary view” wrote to Oppé: “I am very sorry you think so badly of Worth’s ‘restoring’. He must have ruined a lot of pictures! My cousin was ill advised to send Towne’s picture there.”2

Given the coincidence of title, the date of execution, and the size of Towne's picture, there can be little doubt, too, that it was the 1812 British Institution exhibit. The discrepancy between its size and the dimensions given in the 1812 catalogue, which are in the range of 356–381 mm, does not make this improbable, for Towne’s frame is roughly 190 mm wide—or 380 mm if you take two sides of it into account. It seems, then, that the British Institution measured the picture including the frame. 

Towne’s British Institution exhibits from 1808 to 1810 seem to have been redisplays of works shown at the Royal Academy during the previous two decades (FT557, FT572, FT616, FT617, FT646). After the 1810 show, though, the Institution “resolved that no picure that has been publicly exhibited in the metropolis shall in future be admissible”.3 No doubt Towne inscribed this 1812 exhibit, “Painted by Francis Towne in the year 1811”, to make plain his compliance with this rule.

by Richard Stephens


  1. 1 Paul Oppé records.
  2. 2 Paul Oppé records, letters of 12 December 1918, 26 January 1919.
  3. 3 National Art Library, British Institution Minute Book,vol.1, fol.149.

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