Exhibition catalogue text
64 Netley Abbey 1798/1809
Watercolour with pen and ink on two sheets joined vertically 354 x 490 (14 x 19 1/4)
Signed, 1809 over 1798
Inscribed, verso, No 4 Netley Abbey drawn on the spot | Francis Towne; the backing sheet of the mount watermarked J. RUSE | 1804
Prov: Sotheby's, 8 November 1928 (105), bt P.Opp?; by descent to 1996, when acquired by Tate Gallery (T08194).
Tate Gallery. Purchased with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund 1996
The south of England was not generally noted for its picturesque scenery; Netley Abbey, just outside Southampton, was one outstanding exception. The large trees growing in among the ruins created an especially pleasing juxtaposition of natural and human activity. The scene appealed to the intellect, as well as the emotions, in appearing to confirm theories that Gothic architecture derived from clusters of slender tree trunks. Towne hints at this in the overgrown tracery beneath the rose window of the Presbytery and the notion was developed still further by Anthony Devis, in a near-contemporary drawing of the spot (fig.43). In Towne's other watercolour of Netley foliage and architecture were opposed, rather than combined, with each occupying half of the sheet. Its inscription, 'No 2 Netley Abbey Sept 8th 1798', establishes the date of Towne's tour (Milner 1987, p.8), further attested by a mounted sketchbook spread, numbered '1' and inscribed 'a South view in the New Forest...Septr 11 1798' (Sotheby's, 16 July 1981 (92)).
In the years immediately preceding Towne's visit to Netley in 1798 the abbey had established a reputation as the archetypal romantic ruin. It became the fictional setting for an 'operatic farce' performed at Covent Garden in 1794 and the next year appeared Netley Abbey, a Gothic Story (published anonymously by the Revd Richard Walker), developing the association with mystery and intrigue which had been recounted in local folklore since at least the early seventeenth century (see Conner 1984, p.129, and G. Keate, Netley Abbey, an Elegy, 2nd ed., 1769). A visit to the abbey by moonlight continued to be a popular diversion well into the nineteenth century; Constable went to Netley on his honeymoon in 1816 and much later, after his wife's death, used his sketch as the basis for a nocturnal watercolour now in the Tate Gallery (Reynolds 1996 (16.44); Reynolds 1984 (33.56) [T01147]).
It should not be entirely surprising, then, that Towne selected this subject for the Royal Academy in 1809. Following his 1805 exhibition, Towne had evidently come to terms with the idea of showing his drawings publicly; in 1809 his Royal Academy submissions also included a watercolour of Grasmere (sold Sotheby's, 16 July 1987 (89)). Apart from altering the date he does not appear to have reworked the 1798 drawing of Netley. His concern for the work to appear contemporary, when its antiquated technique must have been only too evident, may have been self-defeating, yet is a further demonstration of the tenacity and self-reliance which made his art so distinctive, but which, ultimately, failed to provide Towne the advancement and recognition he sought so earnestly.
Timothy Wilcox, Francis Towne, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, pp.135-6 no.64, reproduced p.135