Exhibition catalogue text
26 Tivoli: Neptune's Grotto 1781
Monochrome wash 397 x 512 (15 5/8 x 20 1/8)
Inscribed on the verso of the artist's mount, Tivoli | Neptune's Grotto | Francis Towne | 1781 | No 39
Prov: Merivale (BP39); Agnew; bt P.Opp? 1946; by descent to 1996 when acquired by Tate Gallery (T08188)
Exh: BFAC 1929 (23); Agnew's 1949 (14); New Haven 1950 (7); Sheffield 1952 (63); Royal Academy 1958 (103); Rome 1959 (603); Manchester 1988 (61). Lit: Opp? 1920, p.113; Bury 1962, p.147.
Tate Gallery. Purchased with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund 1996
The Grotto of Neptune at Tivoli, hidden away at the foot of the Grand Cascade almost immediately beneath the Temple of the Sibyl, was an unmissable sight for any tourist in Italy. Here was the model for innumerable garden grottoes, hollowed out by the natural power of the thundering waterfall; though no statue adorned it, the presence of the vengeful seagod was continually felt in the slippery rocks, air heavy with spray and the Stygian gloom of the cave itself. At the close of the eighteenth century it was not its classical associations so much as its appeal to a proto-romantic enjoyment of vulnerability, even terror (depending on the commentator), which guaranteed the grotto's abiding attraction.
For the many painters who frequented Tivoli Neptune's Grotto provided as important a study in enclosed darkness as the waterfalls did in dazzling, unrestrained dynamic force. Jonathan Skelton found his way to its 'murk Caves' in 1758, and Thomas Jones sketched there in November 1777 (works by neither artist survive; Ford 1960, p.42, and Jones 1951, p.66; Opp? owned a loose pencil and wash sketch of the cave by Carlo Labruzzi, now T10995). Its popularity is further attested by the number of finished drawings by Hackert. Various compositions dated 1771, 1780 and 1781 provide evidence of the painter's repeated visits (fig.26; Nordhoff and Reimer 1994, nos.645, 767-7).
To work on the spot in such a location obviously presented a particular challenge. That Towne chose this as the subject of the most experimental of all his Italian watercolours underlines the adventurous spirit which in Rome seized a man of his fixed opinions. Working entirely with the brush, and without underdrawing, Towne created a vortex in which the brushstrokes evoke both the rock itself, in varying degrees of obscurity, and the beams of light penetrating from the mouth of the cave. Stylistically, the sheet is unique in Towne's oeuvre; if there were ever other drawings like it, comparable with the rough studies 'Warwick' Smith executed of the ruins in Rome (see no.78), he chose not to retain them. His motive could not help but be personal as well as artistic in this instance though, for it was here, the following year, that William Pars, out of a similar insistence on working direct from nature, contracted the dropsy from which he died.
Timothy Wilcox, Francis Towne, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, pp.74-6 no.26, reproduced p.75