Francis Towne (1739-1816) was a reclusive man for most of his life, beyond 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 baptised at Isleworth (Middlesex) and by the mid 1760's was living in Exeter. He studied art at Shipley's School in London from 1755 to 1762 but by 1770 was back in Exeter, where he had a very successful career as a drawing master. He realized his mature watercolor style during a sketching tour of Wales in 1777, and in 1780-81 he made the "grand tour" of Europe (Italy and the Alps), enjoying the painting company of landscape artists John 'Warwick' Smith and William Pars in Rome and Thomas Jones in Naples. On this trip he made some of his finest surviving watercolors. He resumed teaching in Exeter and made several more summer sketching trips through England, Wales and the Lake District (in 1786), 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 in 1805, and bequeathed his Roman watercolors to the British Museum on his death.

Many art historians point to Towne's European works as a poetic high point of the 18th century tinted drawing. 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 perhaps 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 shapes and distribution of forms to create a better design. Typically thinner lines or diluted ink were used to outline more distant forms; most artists inserted decorative foliage or trees in the foreground borders and "staffage" or human figures such as peasants or travelers to anchor the architectural or landscape scale. 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 subtly 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.

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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. (In 1780-81 Towne made over 50 surviving tinted drawings of Roman ruins 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.

A third major theme in Towne's works, besides antiquities and serenely lit landscapes, was foliage. In many of his works the trees and bushes grow exuberantly and dance for the Sun with the lithe limbs and slender trunks of young maidens. In the Albano painting (above) the foliage greens are carefully judged to stylize the leaf masses into volumes with modeled sides; they often form the darkest shades of the painting. Towne outlines the foliage masses with a looping, crenelated yet flowing line that contrasts amazingly well with the serene lines of the landscape profiled in Tiepolo tints of turquoise and rose sky.

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 and emphasize 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 era) 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 severe style had little influence on the romantic generation of artists, apart from a few imitators among his drawing students in rural Devonshire. Some of this was the status prejudice inflicted on this rural "drawing master" by the circle of London elite painters in the Royal Academy — Towne tried for 15 years to be elected a fellow of the Academy as a landscape painter, but after all that was rejected in 1803. But Towne ended his life living comfortably on independent means and had perhaps more insight than grudge in his evaluation of London as a "vile capital ... Profit its only aim, or short-lived fame."

However 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. The definitive presentation is the British Museum's "Francis Towne" (2016), accompanied by a splendid online catalog raisonnée. An earlier, 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 still a 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).