Light, Time, Legacy: Francis Towne’s Watercolours of Rome

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Light, Time, Legacy: Francis Towne’s Watercolours of Rome
Francis Towne (1739-1816), Inside the Colosseum, 1780 © The Trustees of the British Museum

I love this show, though maybe not for the reasons the curators expect. In 1780, Francis Towne (1739-1816) took a trip to Rome in search of pictorial scenes. He was an established painter, albeit a provincial one. Rome opened his eyes: he painted it conscientiously and – at times – spiritedly. His compositions grew bolder and more stylised. They stopped looking like the Lake District on an unusually sunny day. He considered these works the most important in his career, and bequeathed them to the British Museum. This show displays them together for the first time, 200 years after his death.

Individually, the paintings are accomplished, if rarely astonishing. Collectively, though, they are a record of an artist looking for validation by his peers and by posterity. Towne reworked some of them years later, adding contrast and drama, as fashions changed. He thought they would get him into the Royal Academy. They didn’t. He thought they would secure his reputation. They did, just. I love this show because it’s about time and repetition, about an artist conflicted about his status and his reputation, and bending his manifest talent to the demands of these ultimately fickle masters. 

By: Chris Waywell

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