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Francis Towne at the BM, part I

24 March 2016

Francis Towne
1739–1816
A ruin on the road going to Ponte Nomentana in the neighbourhood of Rome
Watercolour
12 ⅝ x 18 ½ inches; 320 x 470 mm
 

We are just back from TEFAF and catching up with things in London. Whilst we were in New York in January a very remarkable exhibition opened at the British Museum: ‘Light, time, legacy: Francis Towne’s watercolours of Rome’ which we have supported. The show, expertly curated by Richard Stephens, is the first opportunity to see, in their entirety, the group of eighty watercolours of Rome and its environs given to the BM by Towne in 1816. The watercolours are some of the most beguiling and beautiful works produced by an eighteenth-century British painter.

One of the views Towne included in his 1816 bequest to the BM was a depiction of a crumbling monument dated 12 December 1780. The view shows the so-called Sedia del Diavolo or tomba di Elio Callistio, a surviving fragment of a Roman tomb situated on the Via Nomenta one of the consular roads leading north east out of the city. We own a remarkably sophisticated and highly finished version of this view, made by Towne after his return from Rome. As Richard Stephens has observed: ‘views of ancient Roman ruins such as A Ruin on the road to the Ponte Nomentana 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 gives way to greed and faction. In A Ruin on the road to the Ponte Nomentana 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 exhibition is accompanied by a fascinating pamphlet written by Richard Stephens, giving a sense of the wider context for Towne’s work and a taster for Richard’s forthcoming, online catalogue raisonné.

Jonny has been working on British painters in Italy and their response to the topography of Rome and its environs for almost a decade; over the next few months he will be sharing a few observations on Towne’s watercolours and what they reveal about the Grand Tour and its impact on British painting. So watch this space…

Here is a modern photo of the Sedia del Diavolo taken by Jonny in Rome a few years ago. 

Light, time, legacy: Francis Towne’s watercolours of Rome
The British Museum
21 January–14 August 2016