handprint : francis towne
 
Francis Towne (c.1740-1816) was a reclusive man for most of his life, indifferent to the artistic rivalries and fads of his time, quietly perfecting his superbly drawn compositions in the most traditional of watercolor styles: the tinted drawing. He was probably born in Exeter, and studied art at Shipley's School in London from 1755 to 1762. By 1770 he was back in Exeter, where he had a very successful career as a drawing master, while failing in several attempts to enter the Royal Academy as an oil landscape painter. He realized his mature watercolor style during a sketching tour of Wales in 1777, and toured Europe in 1780-81, partly in the company of artists Thomas Jones and John 'Warwick' Smith. On this trip he made some of his finest watercolors. He resumed teaching in Exeter and made several more summer sketching trips through England and Wales, before settling permanently in London in 1800. There he culminated his career, at age 65, with a one man exhibition of 190 watercolor drawings of Devonshire, Wales, the Lake District, Switzerland and Italy.
 
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Many art historians choose Towne's European works as the poetic high point of 18th century tinted drawings. They also exemplify the topographical drawing methods widely used by other artists, which will be useful to describe here. (For a more detailed description, see the second chapter of John Ruskin's The Elements of Drawing.) Towne's Naples: A Group of Buildings Seen from an Adjacent Hillside (1781, 33x47cm) is the simplest kind of pen and ink wash drawing. Working in the field, the artist made a pencil drawing in a bound sketchbook, often using two facing pages for a panoramic view (some artists used half sheets carried in a folding portfolio). He outlined all the forms, captured essential details and textures, and added color notes to aid memory later in the studio. (Towne often carefully noted the light, too: on the back of this drawing he wrote "from 10 to 12 o'clock, sun from the left in the morning out of the picture and the right in the afternoon.") This drawing was important to get right, and a few artists of the 18th century used portable optical aids, such as a folding camera obscura or camera lucida, that allowed them to trace a projected image of the scene directly onto the paper, improving speed and architectural accuracy. All this was about two hours of work in the field. Back home in the studio, the artist painstakingly drew over the pencil sketch with a reed pen and india or bistre ink, clarifying the shape and distribution forms and editing detail to create a better design. He typically used thinner lines or diluted ink to draw more distant forms. (Most artists also inserted "staffage" or decorative human figures such as shepherds, sketchers or hikers.) Finally, the whole drawing would be brushed with diluted washes of ink, to indicate chiaroscuro and pull the large forms together into an effective value structure. In the drawing above, Towne adopts a conventional scheme: he renders the foreground in the darkest values of deep shadow (embraced by a curving tree on one side), then alternates planes of light and dark values as the forms recede toward the sky. He refines this simple plan by softening the value contrast as the eye reaches the sunlit buildings in the distance, unifying the design with aerial perspective. The finished effect is classically elegant, with a tasteful stylization of the natural forms, carefully described shadows, and Towne's uniquely expansive feeling for space.
 
These pencil or pen and wash drawings were valuable artistic blueprints for 18th and early 19th century artists. Publishers paid to copy them as engravings for books on antiquities or illustrations in art periodicals. They were used many times over to make finished paintings for different clients (Towne's notes on the direction of light would permit him to imagine the same scene at different times of day). And they often served as "pattern drawings" that the artist's students copied to learn how to draw or paint. In many cases, artists took the additional step of tinting or "staining" this drawing with transparent watercolors, the common procedure to turn an ink wash drawing into a "finished" work for an engraver, collector or gallery exhibition. This detail of Towne's panoramic Lake Albano with Castel Gandolfo (July 1781, "morning light from the left hand"; 32x70cm), a beautiful and popular location about 12 miles south of Rome, shows the result. Towne has brushed tints of color over the warm darks of the ink wash, then finished with additional touches of pen and ink on the drawing, and ink wash in the shadows, to sharpen the pen lines and adjust the dark values precisely. Prussian blue or indigo, light red and yellow ochre make the warm and cool gray tints of the sky; the distant mountains are brought out in blue touched with carmine lake, and the broad sunlit fields in the palest tints of ochre. (See the page on the classical palette for more about these colors.) Against this luminous backdrop, Towne rendered the nearby castle and lake in darker greens and earth hues, the whole darkened by soft morning shadows cast by the hills unseen behind the artist. This inspired choice of prospect and lighting means all the visible shadows (those in the foreground and on the lake) are actually cast by light from the sky; the direct light on the foreground bushes is filtered through the surrounding trees. This softens the entire image and brings foreground and far horizon within the same gentle span of light.
 
It's remarkable to compare Towne's serene vision of the Castle Gandolfo with the same scene, painted a few years later from almost exactly the same spot, by John Robert Cozens. Where Towne is classical and restrained, Cozens is romantic and impassioned. Another comparison can be made to Towne's alpine paintings, such as The Source of the Arveiron: Mont Blanc in the Background (September 1781, 42x31cm). This radiant painting, pieced together from four small sketchbook pages joined at the edges, shows Towne's rejection of the somber and dark image of the sublime, as described by Edmund Burke and exemplified in J.M.W. Turner's painting of the same location. Towne invokes the brilliance and energy of mountain sunlight by minimizing ink washes in favor of jewellike layers of pure color; and this was a new departure from the traditional wash methods of the topographical tradition. As with all Towne's work, the image is intentionally flattened to reduce the effects of perspective to accent the two dimensional pattern of shapes and colors. The forms are radically simplified and stylized, then arranged to suggest the physical and spiritual resemblances between the turbulent Arveiron stream (pouring from the ice cave at lower left) and the tumbling boulders of ice, the enormous mass of the glacier and the distant Mont Blanc, the soaring height of the mountain and the sailing summer clouds. Lighting, line, shape and color all support these visual connections. The size of the painting (large for the time) and the suppression of irrelevant details and color variation all lend the painting a stark majesty. The classical drawing has been transformed into a new romantic landscape, where the sublime does not invoke terror and awe, as Burke claimed, but exhilaration and wonder.

Unlike Cozens, who had a major impact on Turner and Thomas Girtin, it's generally believed that Towne's antiquated style had little influence on the romantic generation of artists, apart from a few imitators among his drawing students in rural Devonshire. But Towne's solo London exhibition in 1805 was immediately followed (at the same gallery) by the first exhibition of the new Society for Painters in Water-Colour. London artists such as John Varley and John Sell Cotman may have learned from Towne's elegant drawing, abstract wash designs and serene portrayal of space, which also merit study by artists today.

Most books only reprint Towne's monochrome ink drawings, or his two Chamonix watercolors, omitting his colored Italian and English paintings. A wide ranging but uneven and often speculative overview of Towne's life and works is the Tate Gallery's recent exhibition catalog Francis Towne by Timothy Wilcox (Tate Gallery Press, 1997). Adrian Bury's Francis Towne: Lone Star of Water-Colour Painting (Charles Skilton, 1962) is an older but still reliable study, now out of print; it includes the most generous selection from the Italian and English drawings (most reproduced in black and white, but many in color). A small but effective sampling of Towne's drawings, reprinted in color with an alert commentary, is included in The Great Age of British Watercolours by Andrew Wilton and Anne Lyles (Prestel, 1993).

 

Last revised 11.12.2007 • © 2007 Bruce MacEvoy