Francis Towne

A Catalogue Raisonné of Francis Towne (1739-1816), by Richard Stephens, is published by the Paul Mellon Centre at .

In line with the Mellon Centre's commitment to support access to art history through digital publishing, the catalogue is free to use and is presented under a CC-BY-NC licence, meaning that it can be copied, distributed and adapted for any non-commercial use.

The catalogue identifies 1080 works by Towne and his circle, doubling previously-described totals. Based on the author’s PhD thesis, it makes extensive use of the papers of Paul Oppé (1878-1957) whose pioneering researches established the artist’s reputation in the 1920s, after a century of neglect. Oppé had discovered the contents of Towne's own studio in the possession of the Merivale family of Barton Place near Exeter. Using the archives of Thomas Agnew & Sons, the Fine Art Society, Colnaghi and elsewhere, Stephens gives detailed provenances for hundreds of the Merivales' Townes that have circulated on the London art market. Towne's biography is established in greater detail than before, using much original research. Resources published alongside the catalogue include an edition of Towne's correspondence and a transcription of Oppé's Barton Place catalogue.

More than 800 works are illustrated with high-quality images, much of it specially commissioned by the Paul Mellon Centre. Towne's sketching tours in Wales, Italy, Switzerland, Savoy, the Lake District and around England are reconstructed with new clarity and detail.

Old Walton Bridge, 1785

Old Walton Bridge, 1785. Francis Towne, Oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection B1976.7.155

Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Towne worked as a drawing master in Exeter; yet, eschewing the London art world, he sought recognition from the Royal Academy. Ultimately failing to win membership, Towne took matters into his own hands by organising a large retrospective exhibition of his life's work in 1805, and by bequeathing many watercolours to the British Museum (currently on display for the first time in 200 years).

The catalogue raisonné gives us a fresh opportunity to assess Towne's achievement. It allows us to consider the experience of watercolourists working in an oil-based exhibition culture; the life of provincial artists in the shadow of London's dominating art scene; and the response of Sandby's generation to a watercolour market transformed in the age of Turner. As a discovery of the 1920s, Towne's work exemplifies the early 20th century revival of interest in the 18th century. Above all, as a coach-painter turned landscape artist turned drawing master, based in London and Exeter but also travelling Britain and Europe, and who ultimately abandoned art institutions to instead determine his own legacy, Towne embodies the entrepreneurial craft of the late 18th century artist.