Francis Towne (1739 - 1816)
  • The Source of the Arveyron
ca. 1781/09/17
Pencil, pen and brown and blue inks, watercolour, scratching out
  • image width 425mm,
  • image length 310mm
four sheets
mounted by the artist on Whatman paper
  • sheet, recto
  • lower right: “F.Towne. delt / 1781 / No53”; centre: “glassiere” and “rock”
  • artist's mount, verso
  • “Light from the right hand / No.53 / The Source of the Arviron with part of Mount Blanc / drawn by Francis Towne Septr. 17th. 1781”
Object Type

Catalogue Number
Description Sources
Examination; Museum records (image)


Untraced until sold anonymously at Foster’s on 27 July 1910, lot 151 (a group with FT228, FT257, FT283, FT284, FT296, FT310, FT318, FT319, FT325, FT326, FT327, FT329, FT330, FT339, FT340, FT361, FT793, FT862) for 25s. to Paul Oppé (1878–1957), who sold it on 12 May 1921 to Agnew’s (no.9945) from whom it was bought on 13 (Agnew’s records) or 17 (museum’s records) May 1921 for £60 by the present owner, the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (P.20.1921).

Associated People & Organisations

Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1921, GBP 60, P.20.1921
Thomas Agnew & Sons, London, 21 May 1921, no.9945
Adolph Paul Oppé (1878 - 1957), 27 July 1910, GBP 25s
Foster's auctioneers (1883 - 1940), 27 July 1910, lot 151
Sold as a group with FT228, FT257, FT283, FT284, FT296, FT310, FT318, FT319, FT325, FT326, FT327, FT329, FT330, FT339, FT340, FT361, FT793 and a drawing by an unidentified pupil
Exhibition History
Exhibition of Original Drawings at the Gallery, No.20 Lower Brook Street, Grosvenor Square, 20 Lower Brook Street, 1805, no. 107 as 'The source of the Arveron'
Exhibition of Old Masters in Aid of the National Art-Collections Fund, Grafton Galleries, 1911
Exhibition of Selected Watercolour Drawings by Artists of the Early English School, Thomas Agnew & Sons, 1921, no. 40
English Landscape Painting of the 18th and 19th Centuries, Tokyo and Kyoto, 1970
Forty Two British Watercolours from the Victoria and Albert Museum, Phoenix Art Museum, 1977, no. 17
The Great Age of British Watercolours 1750-1880, Royal Academy of Arts, 1993, no. 272
Francis Towne, Tate Gallery; Leeds City Art Gallery, 24 June 1997 - 4 January 1998, no. 44
Adrian Bury, Francis Towne - Lone Star of Water-Colour Painting, Charles Skilton: London, 1962, pp. 43, 96-99, 108, 128
Martin Hardie, Water-Colour Painting in Britain, ed. Dudley Snelgrove, London: B. T. Batsford, 1966, p. 122
Luke Herrmann, British Landscape Painting of the 18th Century, Faber: London, 1973, p. 78
Henri Lemaitre, Le Paysage Anglais a l'Aquarelle 1760-1951, Bordas: Paris, 1955, pp. 164-165
Paul Oppé, 'Francis Towne, Landscape Painter', The Walpole Society: London, 1920, pp. 116, 118-119
Iolo Aneurin Williams, Early English Watercolours, and some cognate drawings by artists not later than 1785, Connoisseur: London, 1952, p. 89
Timothy Wilcox, Francis Towne, Tate Publishing: London, 1997, p. 103


This view of the source of the River Arveyron in the Chamonix valley, in present-day France, is one of two known (the other being FT339). The summit here is not Mont Blanc itself, which is some five miles south of this scene, but the Aiguille du Bochard, a relatively minor peak in the Mont Blanc range, situated on the north border of the Mer de Glace glacier. The glacier’s southern end, depicted here descending steeply from the right onto the floor of the valley, was known as the Glacier du Bois until it disappeared altogether around the turn of the twentieth century. The phenomenon of the source of the Arveyron, in which each summer the river appeared from under the open mouth of the glacial ice on the valley floor, lasted until the 1870s.

Towne’s viewpoint cannot be determined exactly, as the scene has changed so much: not only has the ice disappeared but the valley is now densely wooded. Nonetheless, it is likely that Towne drew from the valley floor, a fairly common viewpoint for visiting sketchers—see, for example, the versions by J. M. W. Turner in 1802 (Tate), John “Warwick” Smith in 1781,1 and William Thornton in 1783 or 1784 (Library of Congress). Towne included two pointed features in the far right of his view, which are surely representations of the Aiguilles du Dru (see also FT337, FT834). If so, however, Towne has placed them forward of the Aiguille du Bochard, thus rendering them much smaller than their actual size—in fact they dominate Bochard—and given them the appearance of ice. The other principal divergences from the viewed scene are Bochard itself, made more grand and isolated and all but hiding the summit to its left; the strip of wooded land, which in Towne’s work runs upwards between Bochard and the glacier but which in fact formed the near side of the glacier; and the river, which Towne depicts on his left but which was almost certainly to his right. Although the sun does rise behind the Aiguilles du Dru, they are so high that sunrays do not cast shadows onto the Bochard or, indeed, onto the angled area of rock that Towne shows on the lower right sheet of paper. However, throwing sunlight onto the rock helps to elucidate its shape for the viewer.

Towne travelled through Switzerland with John “Warwick” Smith, whose version of the scene is known in a copy dated 1798 by his pupil Harriet Green.2 It is unclear whether Green was working from Smith’s on-the-spot sketch or a later work. There are, of course, very great differences between this work and Towne’s. The artist’s efforts to prettify the scene, especially through the more fully developed foreground, and the focus of interest in the river source itself, convey a topographical purpose and curiosity at odds with Towne’s view, where the Arveyron’s source is but a minor product of the vast forces of nature. Nevertheless, Smith’s work is notable for its affinity with Towne’s method of building the picture through a series of angular planes, reaching finally to the aiguille. 

Like Tate’s version of the source (FT339), Towne’s drawing shows evidence of having been worked on much later than 1781. Red ink, which once outlined large areas of the ice, has been unpicked; and the blue sky and shadows in the lower right part of the work have been reinforced with several layers of wash. The tiny brush hatchings on the glacier, and the high degree of detail in building up the foreground more generally, are also untypical of work coloured during the 1780s but are seen in much later work such as a view of the Exe dated 1799 (FT603). 

The V&A’s files state that this drawing was restored in June 1938.

by Richard Stephens


  1. 1 Bonham’s Knightsbridge, 7 November 2001, lot 30.
  2. 2 A drawing by Smith showing the glacial mouth of the Arveyron is at Manchester City Art Galleries and is reproduced in Wilcox 1997, p.103.

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