Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection


37 In the Campagna, Rome, looking towards the Sabine Mountains c.1786

Watercolour over faint traces of pencil on laid paper 23.2 x 47.5 (9 1/8 x 18 3/4)


On his return from the Continent Towne found only a few patrons willing to commission replicas of the many sketches he had made. He might occasionally receive a commission for an oil, for which he charged 25 guineas, but more often it was for a watercolour, for which he asked between eight and ten. There can be little doubt that this subject was a commissioned one, being based directly on the original coloured sketch of the same view in the British Museum. Furthermore, lacking the pen and ink outlines that are the hallmark of Towne's sketching style (no.34), this watercolour has a softer, looser handling which is characteristic of his commissioned work in general - and a reflection of his understanding that 'finished' watercolours were required to manifest the qualities of paintings rather than drawings (Wilcox 1997, p.12). Another of Towne's commissioned watercolours, The Bay of Naples with Capri in the Distance, dated 1786, is also in the Opp? collection (T08195).

The original sketch by Towne for this work is inscribed 'No.5 2 Miles from Rome going out at the Porta Pia from 10 o Clock till 1 o clock' and dated 26 October, 1780. It was, then, only the fifth sketch which Towne had made after his arrival in Rome that year, and perhaps partly for this reason lacks the vigour of many of the later Roman watercolours. The countryside along the old Via Nomentana to the north-east of the city was visited by a number of artists in this period keen to escape the bustle of city life, although the Roman Campagna was also remembered as a favourite sketching ground of the seventeenth-century landscape painter Claude Lorrain. As well as another sketch made in the vicinity by Towne from 'Martinelli's vineyard', there are others by Thomas Jones and John 'Warwick' Smith, the latter having lodgings here for a time, as, indeed, did John Robert Cozens (see no.51). Thanks to Towne's annotating his original watercolour sketch with the hours of the day when it was executed, it is possible from the reading of the shadows to establish that his viewpoint faces eastwards.

In 1803 Towne boasted that he had 'never in [his] life exhibited a drawing' (meaning a 'tinted drawing' or watercolour). However, only two years later he put on display over 190 of his original 'on the spot' sketches in a gallery in London's Lower Brook Street he hired from the artist Henry Tresham, whom he may have known in Italy (no.57). The exhibition was almost certainly prompted by his hearing of the formation of the Society of Painters in Watercolour in late 1804, and their plans for an exhibition the following year. It was, however, a critical and financial failure. Today it is still sometimes possible to establish which of his works were exhibited there; many of them, including the original sketch on which this watercolour was based, still carry the tell-tale pin-holes on their mounts where they were tacked to the gallery walls (see Wilcox 1997, p.130).

Anne Lyles

Published in:
Anne Lyles and Robin Hamlyn, and others, British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection with a Selection of Drawings and Oil Sketches, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, p.110 no.37, reproduced in colour p.111