Light, time, legacy
Francis Towne’s watercolours of Rome

21 January – 14 August 2016

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Detail, Francis Towne (1739–1816), The Temple of Vesta. Pen and black ink and watercolour with grey wash, 1781.

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.

Francis Towne (1739-1816), St Peter's at sunset, from above the Arco Oscuro, 1781. Watercolour with pen and ink and gum arabic, 320 x 467 mm

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.

Francis Towne (1739-1816), Near the Arco Scuro, 1780, Watercolour with pen and ink and some gum arabic, 320 x 467 mm

Francis Towne (1739-1816), Inside the Colosseum, 1780. Watercolour with pen and ink, 471 x 319 mm


The exhibition highlights the enduring fascination of the ruined grandeur of ancient Rome and the beauty of the surrounding countryside. The drawings offer a unique means of exploring these sights through the poetic gaze of one of the 18th century’s greatest graphic artists – whose work has taken two centuries to be fully appreciated.

Francis Towne (1739-1816), A Sepulchre by the road between Rome and the Ponte Nomentana, 1780, Watercolour with pen and ink, 327 x 378 mm

Online catalogue raisonné

A new catalogue raisonné of Francis Towne’s work by Richard Stephens will be published in 2016 at by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.

Exhibition leaflet

A free leaflet about Towne and his work, supported by Lowell Libson Ltd, is available in the exhibition, or you can download it here.


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