Francis Towne at the British Museum
January 21 2016
Picture: British Museum
A new exhibition opens today at the British Museum on the work of watercolourist Francis Towne. Says the BM website:
Come and experience 18th-century Rome through an astonishing series of watercolours not displayed together since 1805.
British artist Francis Towne (1739–1816) made a remarkable group of watercolours during a visit to Rome in 1780–1781. They include famous monuments such as the Colosseum, the Palatine Hill, ancient baths and temples, and the Forum. These watercolours were Towne’s way of delivering a moral warning to 18th-century Britain not to make the same mistakes – and suffer the same fate – as ancient Rome. 2016 marks the 200th anniversary of their bequest to the British Museum.
Towne’s 52 views of Rome are among the great creative landmarks in the use of watercolour within British art. They played a central role both in Towne’s career, and in the revival of his reputation in the 20th century. They were his main claim for recognition in the London art world and he continued to revise and work on them throughout his life. The views of Rome were the centrepiece of Towne’s one-man retrospective exhibition in London in 1805, and have not been displayed together since. When Towne bequeathed them to the Museum in 1816, they became his permanent public legacy. In addition to the views of Rome, the exhibition will feature further views of Italy by Towne and other works on paper by his contemporaries in Rome, including the important recent acquisition A Panoramic view of Rome by Giovanni Battista Lusieri (1755–1821).
As a landscape painter based in Exeter, Towne’s work was not well known in London during his lifetime, and he failed to be elected to the Royal Academy on several occasions. The Victorians had written off 18th-century watercolours as unambitious and limited, but in the early 20th century, the flat planes and spare, angular designs of Towne’s long-ignored drawings seemed unexpectedly fresh and elegant to modern eyes.
The exhibition has been organised by Richard Stephens, who is writing a catalogue raisonné of Towne's work, to be published online by the Paul Mellon Centre in London. Richard will also be giving a talk on Towne at the BM on Tuesday 26th January at 1.15pm.
Regular readers will know Richard for his invaluable online resource, The Art World in Britain 1660-1735. I think it's high time AHN designated him a Hero of Art History.
Update - the show gets five stars from today's Guardian.