Exhibition catalogue text
38 The Top of the Spl?gen Pass 1781
Watercolour with pen and ink 148 x 212 (5 7/8 x 8 1/4)
Inscribed, verso, The top of the Spl?gen Pass
Prov: Foster's sale, 27 July 1910 (151), bt P.Opp?; by descent to 1996 when acquired by Tate Gallery (T08555).
Exh: Cambridge 1920 (17); BFAC 1929(12); Agnew's 1949 (34); Sheffield 1952 (65); Royal Academy 1958 (80); Amsterdam etc 1965 (116).
Lit: Hardie 1930, p.77; Hardie 1966, I, p.122; Bury 1962, p.144.
Tate Gallery. Purchased with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund 1996
Towne's ascent of Mount Spl?gen was accompanied by a sense of apprehension, mixed with anticipation. When he reached the top, he experienced a kind of elation. He paused to contemplate the infinite succession of mountains that came into view, knowing that his route must lead him further in among them. Towne made at least nine drawings on 29 August, over and above covering the considerable distance over the pass from Italy and down to the village of Spl?gen in Switzerland. As he travelled, he was creating for himself a new visual language in response to the exceptional landscape. In this climactic sketch made on the very summit of the pass he took something from his memory of Penmaenmawr in Wales (no.8), with the large wedge of mountainside acting as a rather brutal and uncouth repoussoir; he also recalled Monte Cavo and the Alban Hills, another vista across an expanse of hilltops (T08559">no.32). By uniting visually such diverse images, representing places of such opposing character and emotional resonance, Towne seized, perhaps consciously but also instinctively, the ambivalent feelings of 'delightful Horrour [and] terrible Joy' which had characterised so many written accounts of the passage of the Alps over the previous century (the phrase was John Dennis's in 1688, quoted in Nicolson 1959, p.277).
Instead of the jagged peaks generally seen in representations of the Alps, Towne confined the mountains to a single band with an almost continuous horizon. The composition was divided into a few simple, almost regular shapes, each with only slight variation of light and shade, evoking the concepts of repose, harmony and smoothness which signified the Beautiful, rather than the Sublime. In the few minutes Towne spent making his drawing he set down much more than his own personal reaction to the experience; he encapsulated the shift of feeling brought about by the new generation of Alpine explorers who saw the mountains as an invitation to pleasurable excursions or as a laboratory for investigative study. Terror was giving way to delight.
Timothy Wilcox, Francis Towne, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, pp.95-6 no.38, reproduced p.95