Exhibition catalogue text
Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection
36 Waterfall near Ambleside 1786
Watercolour with pen and brown ink on laid paper,
37.7 x 26.5 (14 3/4 x 10 3/8)
Inscribed verso in pencil 'Fall Rydall' and in ink 'Rose Merivale' and, in Opp?'s hand, 'one of three variants | given to me by Miss Merivale | 13th December 1915.'
In 1786 Towne joined two Exeter friends, James White and John Merivale, on a tour of the Lake District. The area had already attracted various artists by this date, thanks in part to the publication of guidebooks by Thomas West and William Hutchinson. However, it was the appearance in 1786 of William Gilpin's influential account of his own picturesque tour of the region four years before which turned a trickle into a flood, popularising the Lake District for the amateur artist and recreational traveller in search of the 'Picturesque'. Indeed, it may well have been the publication of Gilpin's Observations, relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty, made in the year 1772, on several parts of England; particularly the Mountains, and Lakes of Cumberland, and Westmoreland which provided the immediate impetus for Towne's own friends to embark on their tour that year (Wilcox 1997, p.106).
Ambleside served as a base for the party during most of their tour, and this gave Towne the opportunity of exploring the area in some depth. Panoramic views by him of Ambleside are fairly numerous (see, for example, Tate Gallery T01019). However, Towne was particularly attracted to the secluded waterfalls of Stock Gill that ran down the hillside into the town, and the three versions he made of these falls are amongst the most impressive drawings he made on the whole tour (see Wilcox 1997 nos.57-9; the two other versions are in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and in a private collection). The combination of rocks and trees in a secluded corner of nature was just the sort of subject which had attracted Towne when sketching near Tivoli outside Rome, though in the Lakes he had the additional element of the waterfall to contend with. Waterfalls were stock-in-trade subject-matter for the 'Picturesque' traveller, but as Opp? points out, Towne makes almost no attempt to produce any illusion of falling water or rising spray (1920, p.121). Rather, water (corresponding to areas left blank on the paper) functions chiefly for him as a method of bringing light, variety and contrast into the pattern made by a combination of rock, foliage and tree stems. Towne's elevated and close viewpoint makes the subject both more intense and more dramatic, and the two barely discernible figures on the far left-hand rock provide a sense of scale.
White was a lawyer and uncle of Towne's most famous pupil John White Abbott (1763-1851), whilst Merivale was the father of another of Towne's students, John Herman Merivale (1779-1844). It was J.H. Merivale who, on the death of White in 1825, received Towne's entire artistic estate. Two of his granddaughters still owned the work in the early twentieth century when Paul Opp? began to take an interest in Towne, at that time an obscure and forgotten Devon artist (Wilcox 1997, p.161). Opp? has noted on the back of this drawing that it was presented to him by 'Miss [presumably Rose] Merivale'.
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.108 no.36, reproduced in colour p.109
Catalogue entry from Francis Towne
58 Waterfall near Ambleside 1786
Watercolour with pen and ink 380 x 267 (15 x 10 1/2)
Prov: Merivale; given to P.Opp? in 1919; by descent to 1996, when acquired by Tate Gallery (T08262).
Exh: Tokyo 1929 (14); Agnew's 1949 (18); Sheffield 1952 (72); Royal Academy 1958 (86).
Tate Gallery. Purchased with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund 1996
[57 A View from the Cascade in the Groves at Ambleside 1786 (Visitors of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) and 59 The Cascade in the Groves at Ambleside 1786 (Private Collection) are also discussed in this entry]
Concealed among thick woodland on the hillside above Ambleside, this subject meant most to Towne during his entire time in the Lake District. He was able to resume the concentrated study of trees and rocks in a secluded corner of nature which had been a favoured subject towards the end of his stay in Rome, with the vital addition at Ambleside of the waterfalls, thin streaks of brilliant light plunging almost, but not quite, vertically through the composition. It is possible that Towne had heard of the sketching expeditions of Joseph Farington with Thomas Hearne and George Beaumont in 1777, when they set up their easels to paint in oils in close proximity to another Lakeland waterfall, the much more famous falls of Lodore, beside Derwent Water (fig.39; see no.60). For his drawings Towne needed only to find a dry, mossy knoll to perch on with his portfolio on his knee, yet in all three of his views the empty foreground slopes away dangerously, inviting access, but only to an intrepid minority.
It may well have been the sense of immersion in the experience of nature which drew Towne repeatedly to this spot, in preference to the more celebrated falls at Rydal Hall, equally accessible from his base in Ambleside. These he depicted on leaves of the larger sketchbook, numbered '20' and '21' (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; and with Leger Galleries 1995). According to Towne's inscription, the first of these represents the view from the summer-house erected, literally, to frame the view for tourists, made familiar through descriptions and also in prints and paintings by George Barrett and Joseph Farington.
Not that Ambleside was entirely overlooked; Towne was not the first to be thrilled by this 'most amazing cascade'. In one of the earliest published accounts, An Excursion to the Lakes of Westmoreland and Cumberland in August 1773, William Hutchinson, an attorney from Barnard Castle, devoted several pages to it. The description provides many points of comparison with Towne, not least in the intensity and immediacy of the account.
The rushing of the waters ... seemed at once as if it was bursting over our heads and tumbling beneath out feet ... We could look upwards from the place where we stood for about one hundred perpendicular yards, where we saw the river in two streams pouring through the trees; - about mid-way it united, and was again broken by a craggy rock grown with fern and brushwood, which threw it into two branches, foaming and making a horrid noise, but it soon united again, and from thence precipitated into a deep and dreamy gulph...It was almost impossible for the steadiest eye to look upon this waterfall without giddiness - Its beauties for a painter were noble and various; the wood which hung upon the rocks over the stream was of mixed hues, the trees projecting from each precipice knotty and grotesque, the cliffs were black and fringed with ivy and fern which gave a singular lustre to the water-fall - no fancy could exceed the happy assemblage of objects which rendered this view picturesque. (Hutchinson 1774, pp.171-3)This was evidently not an experience which could be captured in a single image, but Towne's response is exceptional in giving up three sheets of his precious Roman paper to this subject. The Ashmolean sheet is dated 10 August, which is also the date on an evening view of Clappersgate, on the other side of Ambleside, in the large sketchbook ('no.16'; Christie's, 14 March 1978 (78)). The other two views of the cascade may well have been made on different days, when Towne could take advantage of the quiet spot to allow himself the time to draw and colour from nature, the method for which this paper was particularly suited. The watercolour was applied broadly, though care was taken to reserve the white of the paper for the fine trunks of the birch trees. The penwork over the colour is here seen at its most independent, especially in the exuberant flourishes in the lower right corner of the Ashmolean sheet.
Timothy Wilcox, Francis Towne, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, pp.122-6 no.58, reproduced in colour p.124