- Museum number
General view of the Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine from the Palatine; the ruined arena and arch seen beyond trees and bushes in the foreground, houses to left and right in the distance
Watercolour, over graphite
- Production date
Height: 433 millimetres
Width: 704 millimetres
- Curator's comments
- This work is from an album (now broken up) of forty-six watercolours by John 'Warwick' Smith purchased by the Museum from Thos. Agnew & Sons in July 1936 for £50. On 17th June that year, there had been a sale at Sotheby's of drawings from Warwick Castle and four groups of watercolours by Smith were offered in lots 146 to 150. One group (lot 147) was acquired by Thos. Agnew & Sons apparently on behalf of the Museum which purchased them from Agnews on 4th July 1936. In the Report to the Trustees for that date, Arthur Hind, Keeper of the Department, specified that "this is a remarkable series and that the drawings of Rome are much above the average quality of Warwick Smith's work."
According to Edward Croft Murray, Keeper of the Department of Prints and Drawings of the British Museum from 1954 to 1973, the watercolours came to the Museum mounted in a large folio-size album. Its leaves bear the watermark date of 1794 and inside the front cover there was an anonymous bookplate of a member of the Concannon family (Croft Murray identified it as Franks collection cat. no. 6600 and believed that the album was re-used by the Warwick family to house the Smith watercolours). When the collection of the Earl of Warwick, Smith's most important patron, was sold in 1936, our knowledge of Smith's work increased exponentially. Croft Murray's 1935 notes on the Warwick collection of drawings and watercolours are in the Department dossier, along with lists of the other drawings by Smith from this sale and some of their provenance after the sale, especially those that were sold through the Fine Art Society. He also noted three other drawings that had been removed from the album. These were included in lot 148 in the sale, purchased by the Walker Galleries (for £165) who exhibited and sold them the following year, June 28, 1937 (their 33rd annual sale, June through the autumn): 'Cascatelli at Tivoli', 'Sybil's Temple at Tivoli' (a view from the Cascatelli looking upwards, bought from Walker's by Paul Oppé for the National Gallery of Canada) and 'A cascade' which had considerable pen work on the trees and rocks.
This group from the Warwick album is interesting for its large size, for the subjects chosen and especially because it had never change hands, as the drawings had been made by Smith for his patron, George Greville, the 2nd Earl of Warwick. The forty-six drawings may be divided in two main groups: twenty-two Roman views and twenty-two views of Tenby and Caldy Island. There is a drawing of Lausanne and another which represents a coast, bigger than the examples of the English series but possibly also part of this group.
As the album belonged to the Earl of Warwick, we might assume that Smith presented finished works to his patron, but some watercolours do not appear to be finished (1936,0704.7; 1936,0704.13; 1936,0704.18; 1936,0704.19; 1936,0704.20; 1936,0704.23; 1936,0704.26).
None of the drawings in this group are dated, but usually there is signature, the title of the subject and a serial number on the back. The Roman views share enough elements in common with some works by Francis Towne to point to the two artists having often worked together. This group by Towne in the collection of the British Museum is dated 1780-81, thus it is most likely that also the drawings by Smith would have been painted in the same period.
One of the most recurrent subjects is the Colosseum: in the collection of the British Museum there are fourteen views of the Colosseum by Smith and thirteen of them come from the collection of the Earl of Warwick. There is an equally large number of views of the Colosseum by Towne. "We came to the Colosseum at twilight. Once one has seen it, everything else seems small. It is so huge that the mind cannot retain its image; one remembers it as smaller than it is, so that every time one returns to it, one is astounded by its size." (Goethe, 11th November 1786).
The ruins of the Colosseum have always been one of the most popular subjects for artists in Rome. Landscapists usually chose two different viewpoints: a panoramic view of the monument, for example taking from the Palatine hill; or a detailed view of its ruins, often with a precise study of the interior of the monument. In the former, the monument is viewed in a traditional way which emphasizes the grandeur of the Colosseum (1936,0704.6; 1936,0704.7; 1947,0110.1). In the "Select Views in Italy", a panoramic view of the Colosseum (plate 26), engraved by John Emes, can be related to this watercolour or, most likely, to 1947,0110.1, although with a slightly closer viewpoint.
The choice of a detailed study of its ruins through an arch or an arcade is innovative and was shared by Towne and later by Wright of Derby: the artist can focus on different aspects, such as the picturesque qualities of the ruins (1936,0704.12), the contrast between light and shadow (1936,0704.9; 1936,0704.10; 1936,0704.18), a dramatic or suggestive view (1936,0704.16; 1936,0704.17) or the crumbling stones which evoke even the sense of melancholy (1936,0704.11; 1936,0704.13; 1936,0704.14; 1936,0704.15) related to the downfall of the Roman Empire, as conceived by Edward Gibbon ("Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" (1776-1789).
Literature: Goethe, Italian journey 1786-1788, 1788, translated by W. H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer, San Francisco, 1982, p. 125
Edward Croft Murray, "Drawings by John 'Warwick' Smith from the Warwick Collection", "British Museum Quarterly", vol. 11, October 1936, pp. 9-11
For the drawing now in Ottawa, see Douglas Schoenherr, 'British Drawings from the National Gallery of Canada', Ottawa, 2005, cat. no. 10, pp. 44-5, 173.
For Towne, see T. Wilcox, "Francis Towne", Tate Gallery, 1997
[The curatorial comments on the watercolours by John 'Warwick' Smith in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum were written by Elania Pieragostini on an Erasmus Volunteer Traineeship, summer 2015. There are further research notes in the department dossier, which can be seen by appointment.]
The following text about this watercolour by Smith is taken from Timothy Wilcox, 'Francis Towne', exh Tate, London 1997:
The view of the Colosseum from the eastern end of the Palatine Hill, with the Arch of Constantine to the left and part of the Claudian Aqueduct to the right with the remains of the Baths of Titus in the distance, was one of the grandest sights in Rome. Smith chose to depict it on a suitably large scale, which rivalled the huge sheets seen in depictions of French draughtsmen working in this area. Despite its size and high degree of finish, this is in all probability a watercolour Smith drew, and perhaps also coloured, in the open air. There are other large coloured drawings in the British Museum which were undoubtedly painted out of doors; their extremely schematic pencil underdrawing and loose, rapid handling of the paint could have no other explanation. Though hardly resolved as drawings, their importance as experiments must have secured their survival (see, for example, Smith's 'The Baths of Titus', BM 1936,0704.21, executed on the same heavy paper Towne came to prefer for outdoor working, which was mounted by the artist). This large sketch became the basis for two even larger finished watercolours. One, probably shown at the Watercolour Society exhibition in 1807, was praised by Sir George Beaumont as the best work on view (see Bayard 1981, no.5).
The paint texture of 1936,0704.6 is quite similar to Smith's 'Coast of Posilipo', but here he has worked over the colour, redrawing detail in pencil, an unaccustomed procedure for him which may derive from the penwork of Towne. In the works they made during their weeks together travelling through Switzerland, Smith's drawings came to reflect even more of Towne's manner, with the pen used in a much more conspicuous fashion to complete a drawing. Towne drew a similar view of the Colosseum to Smith, dated 30 October 1780 ('No 23', BM Nn2.28; the work is dated 1781 on the recto and the exact date deleted from the mount; Bury 1962, pl. xv), but omitted the aqueduct. He also underplayed or removed entirely the walls breaking up the foreground which appear both in Smith's view and also in Thomas Jones's watercolour of the same scene (inscribed "... from the garden of the English College" and dated 21 May 1778; Kenwood 1974, no. 10). The lower half of Towne's watercolour is consigned entirely to weeds, shrubs and small trees, leaving the Colosseum
to appear far more isolated in a landscape where nature is now the dominant force.
The following label text is by Richard Stephens from 2016, Jan-Aug, exh BM, 'Light, Time, Legacy: Francis Towne's watercolours of Rome' (no catalogue):
This view of the Colosseum from the Palatine Hill exploits the same viewpoint that Towne used in a watercolour displayed at the far end of the wall case on your left (Nn,2.28). Thomas Jones also sketched the view which, he noted, was drawn from the garden 'belonging to the English Colledge upon Mount Palatine - & which served as a kind of Play-ground to ye boys - who were there educated'.
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
1997 June-Sep London, Tate Gallery, Francis Towne
1997/8 Oct-Jan Leeds CAG, Francis Towne
2016 Jan-Aug, BM, 'Light, Time, Legacy: Francis Towne's watercolours of Rome' (no catalogue)
- Associated titles
Associated Title: Select Views in Italy (1792-99)
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- Warwick sale Sotheby's 17.vi.1936, lot 147
- Prints and Drawings
- Registration number