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    Francis Towne - A ruin on the road going to Ponte Lamentana in the neighbourhood of Rome


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    Francis Towne - A ruin on the road going to Ponte Lamentana in the neighbourhood of Rome
    Francis Towne

    A ruin on the road going to Ponte Lamentana in the neighbourhood of Rome
    12 ⅝ x 18 ½ inches; 320 x 470 mm
    Signed, inscribed and dated verso on the original mount: No 6/ Rome/ A view of a Sepulchre/on the left hand side of the road/ going out at the port of Pia to/ Ponte Lamentani/ drawn on the spot/ by/ Francis Towne/ 1786
    Private collection, UK, to circa 1970;
    Dr J. G. Goldyne, 1996;
    Private collection
    Adrian Bury, Francis Towne: Lone Star of Watercolour
    painting, 1962, p. 121;
    To be included in Richard Stephens’s catalogue raisonné of
    Francis Towne’s works
    London, 20 Lower Brook Street, A series of the most picturesque scenes in the neighbourhood of Rome, Naples and other parts of Italy, Switzerland, etc., together with a select number of views of the Lakes in Cumberland, West Moreland and North Wales. The whole drawn on the spot by Francis Towne, Landscape painter, 1805, no. 139

    Francis Towne spent most of his life in his native Exeter making occasional sketching trips to Wales and the Lake District for example. He was something of a paradox in the tradition of eighteen century English watercolours, he spent most of his life working in a provincial town and established a reputation as a drawing master and artist of note locally, yet he desperately wished to be nationally recognise and to be part of the artistic establishment of the day and applied no less than ten times to be accepted as associate of the Royal Academy.

    In 1780 Francis Towne travelled to Italy and Switzerland, spending the majority of his time in Rome. This tour was of seminal importance on the rest of his career, stretching his imagination, clarifying his vision and sophisticating his technique. His great series of views of Rome formed the backbone of his huge retrospective exhibition at 20 Lower Brook Street, London, in 1805, with which he brought to a close his life as a professional artist; following Towne's wishes, James White later donated the series to the British Museum after the artist's death.

    Rome was a popular venue with British artists at the time, keen to study the countryside that had inspired Claude. Many of Towne’s friends had spent time in Italy including John Downman and Ozias Humphrey, and both John ‘Warwick’ Smith and his old friend William Pars were in Italy at the same time.

    This work, from 1786, is derived from an earlier drawing of 1780, bequeathed to the British Museum by the artist, which was made during Towne’s trip to Italy and Switzerland. It shows a similar response to light and colour as well as demonstrating the artist’s particular interest with the ancient architectural forms he saw at this time. There are extensive notes on the reverse of the British Museum drawing, detailing the exact location of the ruin, its relation in the series of drawings and the length of time Towne spent there. When he made the later drawing, he transferred that information to the new work, merely altering the number of the series to correspond with the new series.

    The present watercolour highlights Towne’s keen sense of design and exemplary draughtsmanship. The elegance of the composition and the refined colours render this drawing amongst Towne’s best work and demonstrates the artist’s sensitive response to the Italian landscape.

    Towne appears to have two separate styles when working in watercolour. A heavy outline is characteristic of all but his commissioned works, which suggests that he believed that his ‘public’ watercolours should emulate paintings in oil as closely as possible, whereas his ‘private’ watercolours were deeply personal statements and as such enabled him to foster a unique style of watercolour painting, almost completely independent of contemporary developments. Despite being friends with a number of the leading artists, he seems to have remained largely uninfluenced by contemporary developments in watercolour drawing.

    A Ruin on the Road going to the Ponte Lamentana, is a 1786 version, commissioned by an Exeter client, of a drawing Towne made on 12 December 1780, not long after arriving in Rome. Towne’s inscription from the original study of December 1780, reads 'Sepulchre by the Road side going from / Rome to Ponta Lamentana'. The ruin stands in open countryside two miles north of Rome near the Ponte Nomentana (otherwise known as Ponte Lamentana, or Pons Lamentanus). The ruin, known since medieval times as the Sedia del Diavolo, (chair of the devil) features in several paintings by Richard Wilson, including Strada Nomentana, painted circa 1765-70 (Tate Gallery). John Robert Cozens, who lodged in the area in the late 1770s, also drew the Sedia del Diavolo, in watercolour that is very similar to Towne’s.

    Views of ancient Roman ruins such as A Ruin on the Road were understood by their 18th century audiences as providing a moral commentary on the inevitable decline of the contemporary British Empire if - like its ancient predecessor - liberty and civic virtue within the ruling class gave way to greed and faction. In A Ruin on the Road Towne underlines the contrast between the former splendour of the ancient structure and its present decayed state by introducing a humble shepherd and his flock, who graze around the ruin. The ruin's moral warning about the transience of man's achievements was never more compelling than during the crises of the 1770s and 1780s. Towne's Exeter circle of politically reformist friends and clientele were receptive to this message, and none more so than the city's prosperous non-conformists, whose strict religious observance and exclusion from public office inclined them to an oppositional moralising outlook towards elite metropolitan society. Towne exploited his time in Italy to make a good income from commissions in the 1780s; based on the fragmentary evidence that survives, between 1782 and 1786 Towne earned at least 90 guineas a year from commissions. Among his larger commissions were two sets of copies of Roman views, ordered by members of two of Exeter's non-conformist merchant families.

    Although there is some uncertainty, A Ruin on the Road was probably one of at least six Roman views ordered by Ann Fortescue (1755-1815), the daughter of the Quaker Thomas Sanders (d.1763) who married John Inglett Fortescue (1758-1840) of Buckland Filleigh in 1784/5. As Ann Sanders, she had studied drawing under Towne and produced a View of Pynes after Towne, dated 1778, which is in the Oppé collection at the Tate. Her brother, Michael Dicker Sanders, commissioned a view of Walton Bridge from Towne in 1782, and probably also the later oil painting now at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven. Towne produced another group of Roman views around the same time for Thomas Snow (1748-1832) of Cleve, near Exeter, who was the friend and neighbour of John Merivale (1752-1821) of Barton Place, both prominent non-conformists.