Exhibition catalogue text
Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection
35 The Source of the Arveyron 1781
Watercolour with pen and brown ink and scratching out
on laid paper 31 x 21.2 (12 1/4 x 8 3/8); artist's washline
border 37.1 5 27.3 (14 5/8 x 10 3/4)
Inscribed in ink lower right 'F.Towne delt | No. 52 1781', and on verso in ink 'No. 52 | A View of the Source of the Arviron | drawn by Francis Towne.' and, partially deleted, 'Sept ... 1781'
When Towne arrived in Italy in the autumn of 1780, a number of his artist friends were already resident there: William Pars, for example, was in Rome, funded by the Society of Dilettanti and enjoying 'a very liberal commission' to paint some views for his old patron Lord Palmerston (see nos.46-8); whilst Thomas Jones was in Naples, and the following March welcomed Towne there on a short visit when they suffered a narrow escape from the local, knife-brandishing banditti. In Rome Towne also made the acquaintance of the watercolourist John 'Warwick' Smith (nos.51-2) who became a regular sketching companion, and who accompanied him on his return journey to England across the Alps in 1781. It was on this trip that Towne produced some of the acknowledged masterpieces of his entire career. Indeed, this watercolour and its pair in the Victoria and Albert Museum (fig.8), are among the most celebrated British watercolours ever painted.
The river Arveyron is a short tributary of the river Arve and rises from the base of the Glacier des Bois in Chamonix. Thanks to the cave of ice which flowed out of it, it was one of the most famous sights in the Alps at this date (Wilcox 1997, p.101). William Pars, for example, had visited the site with Lord Palmerston on their tour of Switzerland a decade or so earlier. Towne was using a small sketchbook on this journey measuring about eight inches by six; and he drew this subject across a double spread of the book turned on its side (hence the crease across the centre), whilst the other version, numbered 53 and exactly twice as large, he tackled on two separate openings of the same book. Intent on capturing the sheer massiveness of the mountains, Towne ignores all traditional notions of perspective and recession in these drawings and essentially overlooks any foreground detail (the human figure, for example, is conspicuous by its absence). His colour, as Martin Hardie writes, has an 'enamelled clarity', and is 'imposed on nature as an arbitrary, functional part of the design' (1966, vol.1, p.122). In this, the smaller version, where two vast, almost perpendicular mountains rise from a distant valley, Towne uses simplification of form at its boldest, producing one of the most abstract of all his compositions.
Swiss subjects had already been treated by a few English artists before Towne's own visit to the Alps in 1781: William Pars had painted an important sequence of Alpine watercolours on his return from a trip to Switzerland with Lord Palmerston in 1770 (see no.47); and J.R. Cozens produced a range of atmospheric Alpine views following two Continental journeys in 1776 and 1782-3, which were to be especially influential on the young Girtin and Turner (see under no.61). However, Towne was the first to evoke the Alpine landscape's forbidding presence and to capture, in Opp?'s words, 'the crushing grandeur of the mountains'.
Anne Lyles and Robin Hamlyn, and others, British Watercolours from the Opp_ Collection with a Selection of Drawings and Oil Sketches, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, p.106 no.35, reproduced in colour p.107
Catalogue entry from Francis Towne
43 A View of the Source of the Arviron 1781
Watercolour with pen and ink 311 x 213 (12 1/4 x 8 3/8)
Signed, lower right F.Towne No 52 1781
Inscribed on the verso of the artist's mount, No 52 A View of the Source of the Arviron drawn by Francis Towne. Sept [deleted?] 1781.
Prov: As no.38 (T08147).
Exh: Lower Brook Street 1805 (104 or 107); Grafton Galleries 1911 (162); British Empire Exhibition 1924; Brussels 1929 (177); BFAC 1929 (17); Royal Academy 1934 (716); Amsterdam 1935 (232); Paris 1938 (233); Agnew's 1949 (23); Sheffield 1952 (69); Geneva 1955-6 (112); Royal Academy 1958 (89); Royal Academy 1968 (664); Royal Academy 1993 (271).
Lit: Connoisseur, vol.32, 1912, repr. p.13; Opp? 1920, p.118, pl.LXIII; Binyon 1946, frontis.; Bury 1962, pl.XL.
Tate Gallery. Purchased with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund 1996
[44 The Source of the Arviron with Part of Mont Blanc 1781 (The Board of Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum) is also discussed in this entry]
The little river Arveyron rises from the base of the Glacier des Bois in the Vale of Chamonix. It quickly joins the river Arve which flows northwards through Sallanches and Bonneville to Lake Geneva. The source of this small stream was even so one of the most famous sights in the Alps, surpassing in interest, and in its power to inspire the most poetic description, the origins of either of the mighty rivers Rhine and Rhone.
Its attraction was due partly to accessibility, but above all to the cave of ice it flowed out of, which opened up only in August and September. Its size varied from year to year: some accounts mention a dome 24.4m (80ft) high; others that the intrepid could ride into it on horseback. 'Warwick' Smith made a watercolour of the ice cave, with figures to give some sense of its scale, something Towne, significantly, dispensed with (fig.34). It would appear that the aperture in 1781 was quite low, compared with the great arched cavern depicted in the unique etching by Marc-Th?odore Bourrit (fig.35). Bourrit's A Relation of a Journey to the Glaciers in the Dutchy of Savoy was published in Norwich in 1775 in an English translation by Charles and Frederick Davy, the former a friend of Alexander Cozens and tutor of Sir George Beaumont. It was immediately reprinted and played an important role in introducing the layman to the extraordinary landscape of the Vale of Chamonix. Bourrit's promised illustrations, advertised in the second edition of 1776, were to have included three of the source of the Arveyron, for which fig.35 may have been a trial proof. The drawings themselves were said to be in the possession of a 'Gentleman in England', but neither they nor any sign of their influence in artistic circles can now be traced. Bourrit insisted that only repeated visits to the location of his views would enable them to be rendered truthfully; this was underlined by the presence of the artist included in his image. In his text, however, the tone was extravagantly laced with superlatives.
Judge of our astonishment, when we saw before us an enormous mass of ice, twenty times as large as the front of our cathedral of St Peter's and so constructed, that we had only to change our situation, to make it resemble whatever we pleased. It is a magnificent palace, cased with the purest crystal; a majestic temple, ornamented with a portico and columns of several shapes and colours; it has the appearance of a fortress, flanked with towers and bastions to the right and left; and at bottom is a grotto, terminating in a dome of bold construction. This fairy dwelling, this enchanted residence, or cave of Fancy is the source of the Arveron, and of the gold which is found in the Arve; And if we add to all this rich variety, the ringing tinkling sound of water dropping from its sides, with the glittering refraction of the solar rays, whilst tints of the most lively green, or blue, or yellow or violet have the effect of different compartments, in the several divisions of the grotto, the whole is so artistically splendid, so completely picturesque, so beyond imagination great and beautiful, that I can easily believe the art of man has never yet produced, nor ever will produce, a building so grand in its construction, or so varied in its ornaments. (Bourrit, 2nd ed. 1776, pp.129-31).This hyperbole is not untypical of other contemporary accounts, even if Bourrit's insistence on evoking comparison with man-made constructions is so inappropriate, yet such a leitmotif of the passage, it becomes almost comical. The disparity between his intention, to praise the wondrous phenomenon, and the language available to him only highlights the pitfalls attending any attempt to convey both the facts and the emotions of such unique occurrences to anyone unfamiliar with them.
'Warwick' Smith's image of the place is prosaic beside Bourrit's, yet both appear purely anecdotal when compared with Towne. He treated the subject twice, as he had become accustomed to do from the early Oakhampton (no.1) to Penmaenmawr (no.8), Monte Cavo (no.32) or any location that really interested him. The first, no.43, numbered '52', was drawn across a double spread of the small sketchbook, turned to form a vertical image, the first time he had used the book in this way. His second view, numbered '53', was exactly twice as large. Towne must have drawn it on separate openings of the same small sketchbook, lower half and upper half, with the intention of assembling it later. Although he mentioned the source of the Arveyron in both inscriptions, in deference to its status as an object of wonder and amazement, it certainly does not enjoy this prominence in the images themselves; in the smaller one particularly the source is insignificant beside the huge mountains surrounding it. The whole structure of the image, with the regular bands of the lower half giving way to the virtually unmodulated shapes above and beyond, when read together with the inscription, works to jolt the viewer out of any concern with the particular, the identifiable. Immensity is the only theme. This type of sensibility is far more typical of the English romantic poets writing after 1800: Towne's mood is exactly that of Shelley's Mont Blanc, Lines written in the Vale of Chamouni, dated precisely in the published edition, 23 July 1816:
The secret strength of things ... inhabits thee!!The larger view, The Source of the Arviron with Part of Mont Blanc, allows for greater complexity in its title, and this is apparent too in the herringbone cross-rhythms of water, ice, rock, glacier, snow and pasture, all leading up towards the final mass of Mont Blanc. Towne again works against every expectation: the mountain which from its very name should be covered in snow, its summit lost in impenetrable cloud and mist, appears hardly more than a grassy hillock. In this topsy-turvy world the ice is at the bottom, the earth at the top. Towne appears concerned to disarm prejudices against Europe's tallest mountain by rendering it with such extreme clarity, but he emphasised its height in other ways. Not only did the cloud patterns take up its shape and extend its profile into the sky itself; in return the surface of the mountain is coloured and shaded according to their exact disposition, sky and mountain bound together by an intimate association of light and shadow. In the smaller view Towne made it clear that the uppermost peaks were tinted blue by the reflection of sky on snow; in the larger view as well the colouring portrays Mont Blanc as more air than earth.
And what were then, and earth, and stars and sea,
If to the human mind's imaginings
Silence and solitude were vacancy?
Timothy Wilcox, Francis Towne, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, pp.100-5 no.43, reproduced in colour p.102