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Francis Towne

Lake Albano

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Pen and grey ink and brown wash, watermark 'J WHATMAN'
12 ½ × 18 inches · 318 × 457 mm
Signed, inscribed, dated and numbered: ‘No 2 Lake of Albano/Evening Sun behind the trees on the left/hand/july the 10th 1781/Francis Towne’ and further inscribed: ‘A copy of this painted on canvas [sic] the same size for James Curtis Esq. 1784’ (on the verso)
  • Francis Towne;
  • James White (1744-1825), Exeter, by bequest from the above in 1816;
  • John Herman Merivale (1779-1844), Barton Place, Exeter, by reversion as residuary legatee on White’s death in 1825;
  • Maria Sophia Merivale (1853-1928) and Judith Ann Merivale (1860-1945), grand-daughters of the above, Oxford, by descent May 1915, (Barton Place inventory no. 23);
  • Squire Gallery, acquired from Judith Ann Merivale, 1933 for £6 10s; 
  • Leonard G Duke, acquired from the above, February 1934, for 16 ½ gns (D105);
  • Nigel Warren QC (1912-67), acquired from the above, November 1955, £200;
  • And by descent to 2002;
  • Private collection, USA, 2014. 
  • Exeter, Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Three Exeter Artists of the Eighteenth Century, Festival of Britain, 1951, no. 188.
  • Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Three Exeter Artists of the Eighteenth Century, exh. cat., Exeter, Festival of Britain, 1951, no. 188.

When Francis Towne travelled to Rome in 1780 at the age of forty, he joined a colony of British painters who were exploring the Italian countryside and forging new modes of landscape painting. Towne in turn, during his brief year-long tour, developed a singular approach in his watercolours; he produced highly linear, on-the-spot drawings, which he later strengthened with ink and wash, preferring monochrome washes to bright colours. His views, whilst topographical, focus on the generalised masses of buildings and vegetation, rather than the minutiae of detail. Towne responded to the shifting Italian light producing a clarity of vision very unlike the diffuse, Romantic works of his contemporaries, John Robert Cozens or Thomas Jones. In the summer of 1781 Towne travelled into the countryside around Rome and produced a number of striking images of the classic Grand Tour sites – including views of Tivoli, Frascati and the lakes of Albano and Nemi – he also produced a number of remarkably concentrated studies of vegetation. The present view of Lake Albano, whilst depicting the famous lake in the Castelli Romani, focusses principally on the evening light falling through trees and demonstrates Towne’s remarkable technical virtuosity in handling wash.

Thomas Jones writing in 1776 of his first visit to Lake Albano noted: 'This walk considered with respect to its classic locality, the Awful marks of the modern Specimens of Art, and the various extensive & delightful prospects it commands is, to the Scholar, naturalist, Antiquarian and Artist, without doubt, The most pleasing and interesting in the Whole World – And here I can not help observing with what new and uncommon Sensations I was filled on my first traversing this beautiful and picturesque Country – Every scene seemed anticipated in some dream – It appeared Magick Land.'[1]

The idea of the landscape of the Roman Campagna being a place of new and exciting views and simultaneously familiar is something consistently commented upon by travellers in the eighteenth century. For Jones, and Towne, Lake Albano, fringed by the towns of Castel Gandolfo and Albano would have been ‘anticipated’ in the works of the seventeenth-century painters, Claude and Gaspard Dughet, as well as the pictures of Richard Wilson and their own contemporaries, such as William Pars, John Downman and John ‘Warwick’ Smith.[2]  Towne would therefore have approached this new landscape with a number of compositional preconceptions. Towne chose a conventional position for the present view. Seated on the Galleria di Sopra, the road that runs around Lake Albano, looking west across the lake towards the town of Castel Gandolfo and Rome beyond. This was a celebrated view made by numerous visiting British artists, including Jones but most spectacularly and numerously by John Robert Cozens. But rather than showing the distinctive dome of Bernini’s San Tommaso in Castel Gandolfo and the sweeping line of the lake, Towne has focused on the evening light falling through the trees.

The woods which fringed the lakes of Albano and Nemi evidently appealed to Towne as he executed a number of exceptionally compelling studies of trees in the area. A grey and black wash drawing inscribed ‘Taken in a wood near Albano’ is in the Oppé collection in the Tate and other drawings show chestnut trees in the woods around Rocca di Papa, a village on the hills above Lake Albano.[3]  In both the Rocca di Papa views and the Albano view Towne switched from using the brown washes he had been employing in Rome, back to the cooler grey tones he had used before his departure for the Continent. One explanation for Towne’s interest in the woods of the Castelli Romani and the number of studies he made on his tour of the lakes in July 1781 might have been the scarcity of trees in Rome itself. Contemporaries frequently commented on the barren landscape and the poor quality of the agricultural land close to the city.[4]  It may also be that Towne felt less pressure to draw, what Jones called, ‘the Awful marks of the modern Specimens of Art’ – Bernini’s churches at Castel Gandolfo and Ariccia – than the antiquities of classical Rome and therefore concentrate on studies of trees and the bright Italian summer light rather than the specific landmarks of his views.

Towne did make other views of Albano which are closer in spirit and topographical specificity to the more traditional views of Castel Gandolfo. A large, coloured panorama of Lake Albano is preserved in the Towne albums in the British Museum. But in the present drawing Towne is principally interested in the quality of the evening light falling through the trees. Towne has used only minimal drawn lights to create the setting, profiling the outlines of the trees and suggesting the receding hills in the background; the rest of the sheet is created using carefully controlled washes. The alternating shadows and shafts of light are evoked solely with different strengths of grey wash giving a strong sense of design to Towne’s composition.

Towne noted on the reverse of the drawing that he painted an oil version of the subject for James Curtis who also ordered a view of L'Arriccia. According to Richard Stephens, Curtis was a brewer and merchant of Old South Sea House, Broad Street, London, who was an executor and leading beneficiary of the will of Towne's longstanding acquaintance Samuel Edwards. It is interesting that he should have commissioned a pair of views of the two adjacent towns, Ariccia and Albano, suggesting that despite the limited topographical appeal of the present view, it was still an effective evocation of the ‘Magick land’ of Grand Tour Italy. The present drawing passed along with many of his other works in 1816 to his friend James White of Exeter, on whose death it passed to Towne's residuary legatee John Herman Merivale. Sold by Merivale’s descendants it belonged to the distinguished collector Lenoard Duke in the beginning of the twentieth century. The present drawing demonstrates the artistic innovation of Towne’s continental work, with its subtle use of light, monochrome palette and sense of design it is a powerful example of his response to the Italian landscape.

We are very grateful to Richard Stephens for his help with the provenance of the present drawing and for sharing his research on James Curtis. 


  1. Ed. P. Oppé, ‘Memoirs of Thomas Jones, Penkerrig, Radnorshire, 1803’, The Walpole Society, vol.32, 1946-8, p.55.
  2. See Francis Hawcroft, Travels in Italy 1776-1783, exh. cat. Manchester (Whitworth Art Gallery), 1988. 
  3. Timothy Wilcox, Francis Towne, exh. cat. London (Tate), 1997, pp.73-74. 
  4. For an account of the agriculture of Lazio in the eighteenth century see Hans Gross, Rome in the Age of Enlightenment: The Post Tridentine System the Ancien Regime, Cambridge, 1990, pp.175-195.