Francis Towne (1739 - 1816)
  • Torre Abbey, Devon, the Seat of George Cary, Esq.
Pencil, pen and thin grey ink, watercolour
  • image width 340mm,
  • image length 518mm
  • sheet, recto, lower left
  • “Francis Towne delt 1779”
  • in brown ink
  • sheet, verso
  • “Torre Abbey, Devon, the Seat of George Cary, Esqre, 1779”
Object Type

Torre Abbey, Torquay
Catalogue Number
Description Sources
Examination; Museum records (image); Agnew’s records


Presumably commissioned ca. 1779 by George Cary (1731–1805) of Torre Abbey, but untraced until on sale at Walker’s Galleries in 1952. Walker’s sold it on 21 July 1952 to Agnew’s (no.6959), who sold it on 6 February 1953 to Sir William Worsley, Bt (1890–1973, who on 22 April 1955 sold it back to Agnew’s (no.7968), where it was bought on 14 May 1956 by Bruce Howe for £120. In 1981 it was given anonymously to the current owner, Rhode Island School of Design (81.171.9).

Associated People & Organisations

Rhode Island Museum of Art, School of Design, Providence, 1981, 81.171.9
Dr Bruce Howe, 14 May 1956, GBP 120
Thomas Agnew & Sons, London, 22 April 1955, no.7968
Sir William Worsley (1890 - 1973), 6 February 1953
Thomas Agnew & Sons, London, 21 July 1952, no.6959
Walker's Galleries, London, 1952
[?] George Cary (1731 - 1805), Torquay, Torbay, Devon, 1779
Exhibition History
unidentified exhibition, Walker's Galleries, 1952, no. 106
80th Annual Exhibition of Water-Colour Drawings, Thomas Agnew & Sons, 1953, no. 1
Adrian Bury, Francis Towne - Lone Star of Water-Colour Painting, Charles Skilton: London, 1962, p. 69


The preparatory sketch for this work is FT146. Museum records do not record the verso inscription.

In the right distance are openings signifying the Teign estuary and, beyond it, the Exe estuary. Presumably the town in the distance is Teignmouth. Towne has here ignored the mass of coastal land immediately east of Torre Abbey, in order to give a broad sweep of coastal view northwards. 

This picture is badly faded, so that it appears more monochrome than coloured. Blue is visible in the far right shore and also in the background hills towards the left; there is perhaps some yellow in the foreground foliage also, but if so, it has almost disappeared. The edge of the water is defined simply by a line of ink that is used also to provide many details, such as a little path on the hill at the centre of the drawing, a windmill, the towers, and even the individual panes in the windows on Torre Abbey. The figures in the centre boat take the place of figures at the edge of an oil painting, with one of them gesturing towards the sea. The foreground foliage at bottom left is reminiscent of the Tan y Bwlch drawing (FT113).

Revd John Swete visited George Cary at Torre Abbey in 1793 and described the surrounding landscape:

In the most distant point, perch’d on its craggy pinnacle appears the chapel – somewhat nearer, in the more shelter’d valley, the Church both of which are happily situated objects – the rocky hill contiguous introduces itself as a characteristic feature of this romantic Country, and this is put into very picturesque contrast by the “Sylvan garniture” of Mr Cary’s pastures.

Swete described Cary’s reputation as “an hospitable and worthy Man”, who, however, had done little to improve the landscape at Torre Abbey:

I should imagine that the spot had undergone no modern alterations the fields between the House and the Sea want the smoothing touches of a Brown: and many an hedge, and ditch, and sandy land ought be annihilated: – but if these Refinements of picturesque taste are yet to come; there are others that exist which are accompanied by more substantial comforts: the Buildings and the Avenues that inclose it on every quarter but one, contribute greatly to its shelter and the Garden, contiguous on the back part of the House is one of the handsomest, and possible most productive of any in the Country.1

However, rather than depict those few parts of the estate that Cary had developed, Towne shows the house looking onto the part of its grounds that Swete considered the least attractive. The reason may be found in another of Swete’s judgements: 

I sat an hour with Mr Cary, who had returned from Bath, a few days before I quitted Torquay in one of the front rooms of this story, and I think I never saw from my appartment a more delicious prospect. How enchanting to command from one’s window (as is frequently the case) the grand fleet of Great Britain here riding at anchor, – making its entrance into the Bay in majestic state, or taking its departure from it; or if such a sight shall be wanting – still must it be always delightfull, to watch the shadows of the Clouds flitting oer the main, to mark the reflected tings of an empurpled sky at the hour of Eve – or when:

the dewy lustre of the Moon
Effusive trembles on the placid waves.2

Perhaps this was also Cary’s own favourite spot in which to sit and ponder the view. Towne’s watercolour shows the abbey in its maritime setting with large dark areas evidently representing the shadows cast by passing clouds on the surface of the sea.

by Richard Stephens


  1. 1 Swete 1997, vol.1, pp.176, 180, 182.
  2. 2 Swete 1997, vol.1, p.178.

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