Painting the Alps: Transforming perceptions of Francis Towne and his contemporaries
The English watercolour painter Francis Towne was a discovery of the early twentieth century. For a century after his death in 1816 he was almost completely forgotten; having made very little impact on the art world of his day, he slumped into the obscurity from which many never re-emerge. Towne, from the few contemporary accounts of him that exist, was a thoughtful and prudent man, and he also possessed the self-belief to imagine, and then to protect his posthumous reputation. He bequeathed nearly 80 dazzling watercolours of Rome to the British Museum, and the rest of his artistic estate to the family of his erstwhile pupils, a clan of clerics and lawyers who he felt sure would respect his personal vision and ensure its survival.
The source of the Arveyron
Francis Towne travelled through the Alps in September 1781, on his return journey to England from Italy
Usage terms Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)
Held by© Tate
Laurence Binyon, appointed curator of the British Museum’s English drawings in 1895, had a head start in reawakening interest in Towne’s work. English water-colours, written after his retirement, distills several decades of scholarship into a compact study that remained the standard text on the subject from its publication in 1933 until at least the 1960s. ‘Form and colour appeal to him for their own sake, almost as they might to an artist of our own day’, Binyon wrote of the Roman watercolours, but it was not these, but one of Towne’s Alpine scenes that Binyon chose as his frontispiece, the sole colour illustration in the book. Here, ‘Towne was drawn with fascinated vision to confront these stupendous shapes’, providing the most compelling evidence of his appeal to a modern sensibility; through him, Binyon implies, begins the journey of exploration into an entire field of study too easily taken for granted as the quintessence of English art, but which could not, and should not, be divorced from the concerns of the present day. The Source of the Arveyron may belong to the eighteenth century by virtue of its descriptive function, and its status as a single fragment, drawn on the joined pages of a sketchbook, from a voyage of discovery echoing so many others to all corners of the globe, but in its radical simplification, its jamming together of great wedges of blue, brown and white, all bursting beyond the confines of the sheet, it has both the formal properties and the dangerously uncontrolled energy of early abstraction. So, although Towne himself is not represented in the British Library by any original work, his presence in Switzerland, the landscapes that impressed him, and the stimulus he received from contemporary artists and writers is vividly evoked by a host of material from the King’s Topographical Collection and beyond.
Born near London in 1739, Towne completed his artistic training at the newly founded Society of Arts. He moved to Exeter in the mid-1760s to work as a coach painter, but found more lucrative employment drawing and painting views of Devon houses, at a moment when new picturesque theories, realised in three dimensions through the innovations of ‘Capability’ Brown, were triggering a widespread reassessment of the shape and purpose of the landed estate. Towne made a tour of North Wales in 1777, then in late summer of 1780 set out for Rome. He had no particular patron to support him, but the city remained a magnet for any educated professional, as much for its classical remains as for the fame of its surrounding countryside, not to mention its more recent baroque villas and gardens. On his return home, Towne was able to supplement his local work with commissions for copies of his Italian sketches, alongside a thriving teaching practice, which ultimately provided him a comfortable retirement.
Towne travelled through the Alps in September 1781, on his return journey to England from Italy. During the ten months he spent in Rome, he had renewed his friendship with the artist William Pars who had made a lengthy tour of Switzerland in the summer of 1770, in the retinue of Henry Temple, 2nd Viscount Palmerston. In Geneva, they secured the services of Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, the most knowledgeable of mountain guides, and proceeded immediately to Chamonix, where, on 23 June they spent a full day. They were taken first to survey the valley from a vantage point which may have been the same as that chosen by Jean-Antoine Linck in a print of about 1800.
Vue de la vallée de Chamounix
The Mer de Glace, a glacier situated on the northern slopes of Mont Blanc itself, is shown in this frosty view by Jean-Antoine LinckView images from this item (1)
Vue de la source de l'Arveron
The sublime Graian Alps and River Arveyron are depicted in this etching by Carl Ludwig HackertView images from this item (1)
By the time he wrote his account, Saussure had more than 25 years’ experience of visiting the region, beginning in 1760 when he was just 20. He observed a substantial retreat in the base of the glacier during that time, leaving deposits of sand and the huge boulders observable in Hackert’s depiction. Saussure’s library contained a manuscript copy of the first written description to concentrate solely on the glaciers, by William Windham. His expedition in 1741 was intended as little more than an interlude during his studies in Geneva, when his circle of young English aristocrats entertained themselves with country walks, drinking tea, and games of cricket. Richard Pococke, travelling back to England from four years in Egypt, Turkey and the Holy Land, proved the catalyst for their excursion to Chamonix and noted in his dairy on 21st June 1741: ‘after climbing above 4 hours, we came to a deep chasm which is a bed of ice, that may be 40 feet deep, looking like a congealed river & a most extraordinary and wonderful thing it is’. Windham’s manuscript was published in the Mercure Suisse in 1743, then in English in 1744, along with a second account by the Geneva engineer Pierre Martel. Their local guides told them that no previous visitors had ventured beyond the valley for a better view of the glaciers; the only reason for undertaking such a risk was to hunt chamois.
Le Cours de l'Arve, contenant le plan des glacieres de Chamouny
Though it contains some inaccuracies, this was the first map of France's Chamonix valley to be publishedView images from this item (1)
This perhaps explains the somewhat bizarre juxtaposition of the plate issued with the pamphlet, adding images of the local fauna to the first detailed map of the valley. The central panoramic view translates this raw data into something more comprehensible, a necessary duplication when the whole landscape was almost beyond imagination. The depiction of the Mer de Glace published with it, epoch-making as it then seemed, was later condemned as wholly inaccurate, a consequence of the ever-increasing stream of English visitors it had in great part inspired. The translators of Marc-Théodore Bourrit’s A relation of a journey to the glaciers in the Duchy of Savoy went so far as to assert that ‘there is hardly so much as one stroke taken from nature’.
Martel’s map is also historic in being one of the first to print the name of Mont Blanc. The mountain, which lay beyond the confines of Switzerland, in the Duchy of Savoy, was not then known to be the highest in the Alps, and indeed in Europe; this discovery lay some years in the future. A heroic attempt to address this uncertainty by calculating the heights of the mountains in the central range of the Bernese Oberland was made by the soldier and statesman Jacques Barthélémy Micheli du Crest. Elected to the City Council of Geneva in 1721, he became an outspoken critic of the regime, and was accused of stirring popular revolt. He was condemned to death, but fled to Paris and was executed symbolically in his absence. His later attempts to re-establish himself in Switzerland led to expulsion from Zurich, then from Basel, and finally in 1747 the authorities in Bern imprisoned him in the castle of Aarburg.
Prospect geometrique des montagnes neigées dites Gletscher
This prospect of mountains in the Canton on Argau was taken by Micheli du Crest during his imprisonment in Aarburg CastleView images from this item (1)
Scheuchzer’s map (Nova Helvetiae Tabula Geographica) is surrounded by a series of vignettes, a compendium of all that was remarkable in Swiss landscape, engineering and husbandry. Immediately below the title cartouche is a bird’s eye view of the mediaeval Devil’s Bridge, built to facilitate a central route to Italy over the St Gotthard Pass. Towne chose a lower path, over Mount Splügen, connected to the so-called Via Mala, and entered Switzerland around 29 or 30 August 1781. One of his watercolours of the source of the Arveyron is dated 17 September, so he crossed the entire country in a little over two weeks. His route across the centre between Glarus in the East and Lausanne in the West is not known, but it would have been most convenient to pass through Bern, the centre of production for the coloured landscape prints drawn and etched by Johann Ludwig Aberli. Aberli’s pupil, Caspar Wolf, commissioned by the publisher Abraham Wagner, had recently published the most accurate depictions of the glaciers yet attempted, under the appropriately grandiose title of Die Merkwürdige Prospekte aus der Schweizer-Gebürgen. George III possessed a spectacular presentation copy of the edition published in Paris, with additional plates, and accompanied by a translation of the original descriptions into French.
Headpiece to Le Grand Théâtre des Alpes et Glaciers
Caspar Wolf, after whom the plates to Le Grand Théâtre des Alpes et Glaciers were engraved, is shown here in the Swiss Alps, painting at his easelView images from this item (1)
Le Grand Theatre des Alpes et Glaciers
This print, produced after a painting by Caspar Wolf, depicts tourists, walkers and amateur painters in the Swiss Alps and was published in Le Grand Théâtre des Alpes et GlaciersView images from this item (1)
Paradoxically, given the lengths Wolf and Wagner went to guarantee the veracity of their images, the headpiece is not a real landscape at all, but depicts Wolf painting on the spot surrounded by a compilation of some of Switzerland’s greatest attractions: the Devil’s Bridge to the left, the Breithorn glacier in the centre, and on the right, the celebrated Staubbach Falls in the Lauterbrunnen Valley. These motifs are again combined in the first plate, with its dedication to the ‘Amateurs des merveilles de la nature’. Far from sifting fact from fiction, this image goes to impressive lengths to blur their boundaries. The same cannot be said of the remaining plates, which establish a new standard in the representation of sights previously known as much by repute as from eye-witness accounts but which were now widely available to view. Wolf’s coloured etching of the Staubbach Falls alone is remarkably similar to the watercolour by William Pars also in the King’s Topographical Collection. Anyone comparing the two might conclude that the sensation created by the exhibition of Pars’ watercolours at the Royal Academy in 1771 was entirely justified.
Chûte du Staubbach dans la Vallée du Lauterbrunnen
This plate of the Staubbach Falls after Caspar Wolf was published in Le Grand Théâtre des Alpes et GlaciersView images from this item (1)
The Cascade of Luterbrun
This view was produced by William Pars on a journey to the Alps undertaken by himself and the 2nd Viscount Palmerston in 1770View images from this item (1)
That group included A view of the mountains near Chamouny in Savoy, with the source of the river Arbeiron [sic], a work which can no longer be identified. This title shows that Towne visited the spot a decade later knowing he was following in his friend’s footsteps. Whether because of this, or in spite of it, Towne adopted a completely different approach. At the very moment when interest in the Alps had never been greater, from artists, scientists, and writers, Towne conveys above all an atmosphere of unknowable mystery. It would be hard to accept that he did this simply out of ignorance, or from a purely aesthetic concern with the fashionable sublime. His emphasis on a human, personal reaction, on the individual dwarfed by the vastness of his natural surroundings (though any figure is notably absent from Towne’s landscape) conveys an emotion far more typical of the next generation of Romantic poets and artists. While the King’s Topographical Collection was becoming perhaps the richest repository in Britain of visual evidence to this spirit of adventure and discovery, Towne responded with awe and amazement.
 British Library, London, Add MS 22998, f.242.
 Marc Théodore Bourrit, A Relation of a Journey to the Glaciers, in the Dutchy of Savoy: translated from the French ... by C. and F. Davy (Norwich: Richard Beatniffe, 1775), preface.
 Johann Jakob Scheuchzer, Nova Helvetiae Tabula Geographica, published [?Zurich], 1712, Maps * 24405.(12.).