The greats outdoors: the pioneering Lakeland landscapes of Francis Towne

For Francis Towne, seeing the landscape with a clear eye was more important than being stirred by it.

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Between 1724 and 1727, Daniel Defoe published the three volumes of his Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain. Parts of his travels had taken him into thoroughly hostile country: on entering Cumbria, for example, the terrain that confronted him was “terrible” and “eminent only for being the wildest, most barren and frightful of any that I have passed over”.

Some 30 years later and things had begun to change. In 1757 Edmund Burke, the Irish writer and future MP, redefined wild mountainous regions as “sublime” – a condition that stimulated the imagination – while smooth rolling landscapes were “beautiful” and consoling to the spirit. It was a native of the Lake District, the Reverend William Gilpin, who added a third classification, the “picturesque” – “that kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture” – to the canon of Georgian aesthetics. Defoe’s frisson of woe was now felt as a frisson of what Burke termed “delightful horror”.

Visiting the country’s wild places, and the Lake District in particular, quickly became not so much a fad as a mania. In 1800 one tourist, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was so enraptured by the view from his room in Keswick that he cut himself shaving and made a sanguine libation: “I offer up blood and soap daily,” he wrote, “as an eye-servant of the Goddess Nature.” This sort of swooning ecstasy was lampooned by James Plumptre in a comic opera called The Lakers (1798) where the heroine, Miss Beccabunga Veronica, thrills to “the delightful differences of the heterogeneous masses” of the mountains and the foliage “margining their ruggedness, and feathering the fells”.

Most visitors, however, did not see their boat trips, sketching expeditions and peak spotting as infra dig but as pleasurable pursuits to be taken seriously. So professional artists set out to satisfy their demand for souvenirs: among them was Francis Towne, one of the originators of the British landscape watercolour tradition.

Towne (1739-1816) was born on the fringes of London and apprenticed to a coach painter, a skill that demanded the type of precise brushwork that was to become evident in all his later work. He went on to study at William Hogarth’s St Martin’s Lane Academy, Britain’s foremost school of art prior to the establishment of the Royal Academy in 1768. By a quirk of geography, the greatest British landscapist and fellow chronicler of the Lake District, JMW Turner, would be born just 100 yards away in 1775.

In the late 1760s Towne moved to Exeter, something of an artistic backwater, where, according to one of his friends, he found himself a “Rose in the Wilderness”. Commissions proved less than reliable and it was as a drawing master that Towne made a decent living, helped by a degree of parsimony: “His economy was extreme,” wrote an acquaintance. “He lived for a shilling a day.”

In 1780 he made a lengthy drawing trip to the Continent but it wasn’t until 1786 that he visited the Lake District. He proved indefatigable, making 100 drawings and watercolours over the course of two weeks: he often put brief details on the back of his work (“½ past 7 O clock/The sky a Clear warm light/mountains a solemn purple tint/the Lake reflecting the sky, the/Sun in the picture”) and so we know that on 17 August alone, for example, he made seven drawings.

This pellucid view of Ambleside, Towne’s base during the tour, was made on 7 August 1786, with “Morng light from the right hand”. The view looks north and, Towne noted on the reverse, was drawn on the spot. He later worked up the scene, going over his pencil lines in ink and then adding watercolour. It is a method that helps explain his usual and somewhat stylised and decorative technique: he applied the paint in clear patches, filling in the inked sections, and rarely built up layers of washes to give expansive atmospheric effects. Although there is a shadow line halfway up the crag side, his intention was to give a clear visual impression rather than conjure up a mood.

Like most of his Lake District views, it shows the mountains from below, from a distance and with human figures to give a sense of scale. He had experienced the Alps and perhaps thought their grandeur rendered the English mountains paltry in comparison, so he kept his viewer at a remove, even including some Italianate pines to make the scene more picturesque.

It wasn’t until 1805 that Towne showed his Lakeland views, by which time he was a disillusioned man. Although he regularly exhibited landscape oils at the Royal Academy, he had tried 11 times to be elected an academician and failed. In 1775, when he first sought election, he received no votes at all. Further disappointment was to follow when, in 1808, only eight months after he married Jeanette Hilligsberg, an Exeter dancing teacher 40 years his junior, she died.

Towne and his art were not without their admirers: a young artist called James Irvine recalled him as “one of the strangest geniuses I have seen. With a very indifferent understanding he has all the gravity and formality of a profound philosopher and deep thinker.” Towne stood outside the mainstream of British landscape painting with his unmisty and un-Romantic works – although he never allowed his prospects to be obscured in his pictures, his pictures ultimately obscured his prospects. His true worth – as pioneer and as artist – was not recognised for a century after his death.

Michael Prodger is associate editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article appears in the 28 August 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Covid

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