Exhibition catalogue text
37 Near Mount Spl?gen 1781
Grey wash over pen and ink 213 x 155 (8 1/4 x 6 1/8)
Inscribed, verso, Light from the left hand | Near Mount Spl?gen | August 29th 1781 | No 37 | Francis Towne
Prov: Merivale (BP 63); bt P.Opp? 1935; by descent to 1996 when acquired by the Tate Gallery (T08571).
Exh: Agnew's 1949 (8).
Tate Gallery. Purchased with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund 1996
The two coloured views aside, Towne's sketches from his boat trip around Lake Como relied solely on pen and wash and showed his draughtsmanship at its most crisp and concise (most of the drawings, formerly in the Opp? Collection, are now in the Tate Gallery [T08566, T08569 and T09244]). Two days later, journeying up into the Alps, the same sketchbook became the repository of a very different type of work. In Near Mount Spl?gen Towne succeeded in capturing an enormous sense of excitement, filling the entire sheet with incident and overlaying his rapid pen drawing with abrupt contrasts of light and dark. The central pillar of rock, already fragile and vulnerable, is made to look even more precarious by the force of the water thundering through the chasm in the foreground. The landscape itself is being shaped by powerful forces, visible and invisible; what is more, the frenetic sketch seems to imply, they could all too easily be transmitted to the journeying artist himself.
Towne made a second drawing of the same spot, slightly larger, extending onto the adjoining left-hand page of the sketchbook and with enough differences to make it a separate composition, not a revision of the previous one (T08570, formerly Opp? Collection). This drawing was finished with watercolour, and mounted and inscribed by the artist. It says much of Towne's belief in the value of his work 'on the spot' that, in spite of his evident haste, he would redraw an entire composition rather than think of correcting an existing sketch later. He seemed to understand that the emotional integrity of the sketches was worth far more than their untidy appearance.
Any hint of emotion is precisely what is lacking in the large finished watercolour made later by 'Warwick' Smith from his sketch of the same spot (fig.32). Smith's neatly balanced composition, distinct planes and carefully distributed highlights emasculate the experience, smothering it in convention. Towne would no longer permit himself the luxury of this process of reworking, but responded to the landscape with drawings that caught all the sense of risk of the journey itself.
Timothy Wilcox, Francis Towne, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, pp.93-5 no.37, reproduced p.94