Wordsworth Trust acquires new watercolours

The Wordsworth Trust is delighted to announce its recent acquisition of two Lake District watercolours by major British artists.

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FRANCIS TOWNE Lake of Coniston, 1786 (Download the complete image below)

THOMAS GIRTIN Lake Windermere and Belle Isle, c.1792-3

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The Wordsworth Trust is delighted to announce its recent acquisition of two watercolours depicting the Lake District by major British artists of the Romantic period. Both artists are internationally acclaimed as masters of landscape painting as well as in the art of watercolour itself; each had a unique vision of the countryside and a personal manner of representing it. We are grateful to Cecilia Powell for providing the following details.


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Lake of Coniston,1786

Pencil, pen and ink and watercolour on two joined sheets of paper; 15.5 x 47 cm, 6 x 18.5 inches

Signed, dated and inscribed on the verso: No. 24 / Lake of Coniston light from the left hand / August 25th 1786 / F. Towne

Provenance:Bequeathed by the artist in 1816 (as part of his entire artistic estate) to his lifelong friend James White of Exeter (c.1745-1825); thence, by Towne’s own expressed wish, to John Herman Merivale (1779-1844), the son of another close friend John Merivale (1752-1831); by descent to J H Merivale’s grand-daughters Maria Sophia Merivale (1853-1928) and her sister Judith Anne Merivale (1860-1945) who jointly inherited it in May 1915 (within a partially disbound sketchbook); sold by Judith Merivale in February 1945 to Horace Bernard Milling (1898-1954), founder of the Squire Gallery, Baker Street, London; sold to Colnaghi, 25 January 1946; sold to David, Viscount Eccles (1904-99), 1 February 1946; with Agnew’s from 18 April 1979; sold to a private collector, 14 January 1980; anonymous sale, Sotheby’s, London, 14 November 1991 (lot 68); private collection, USA, until September 1997; with Spink-Leger, London, September 1997 to March 1999; sold to a private UK collector; with Guy Peppiatt Fine Art Ltd; acquired by the Wordsworth Trust through the generous support of the W W Spooner Charitable Trust 2012

Literature: Timothy Wilcox, Francis Towne, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London, 1997, p. 117 under cat. no. 52

Exhibited: Colnaghi 1963 (no. 13); Agnew’s 1980 (no. 7); Spink-Leger 1998 (no. 11); Guy Peppiatt Fine Art Ltd, ‘British Drawings and Watercolours’, 2012 (no. 12)


Francis Towne 1739-1816

Although Towne is chiefly associated with the West Country and his date of birth has often been given as 1740, it is now known that he was baptised in Isleworth, a Thames-side village to the west of London, in August 1739. His early years as an artist were spent in that city where, at the age of thirteen, he was apprenticed to a coach painter. He later set his sights on being a landscape painter, attending classes and exhibiting works in London. In the 1760s he made his first visit to Devon, forming long-lasting and vital connections, and for many years he divided his time between Exeter and London. His lack of commercial success with his paintings and his failure to achieve recognition in professional artistic circles were, to some extent, balanced by his success as a teacher of drawing as a polite accomplishment to amateurs in Exeter; the income from his numerous pupils, combined with his extreme frugality, permitted him to amass substantial savings.

Towne’s first experience of the awe-inspiring splendour of mountain scenery came in 1780-1 when he visited Italy: his outward journey took him through the French Alps and he returned via the lakes of northern Italy and Switzerland. His experience of the Alps, coupled with the stimulating company of a talented younger artist, John ‘Warwick’ Smith, led him to create watercolours of extraordinary originality, strength and beauty that have to be regarded as his greatest achievement. The lessons of the Alps were reflected five years later, on a smaller scale but with comparable quality, in his sensitive responses to the grandeur of the Lake District.


Towne and the Lake District

Towne’s visit to the Lakes in August 1786, with two Exeter non-conformist friends, James White and John Merivale, resulted in a superb series of around sixty watercolours which he gradually worked up over a period of nearly twenty years, meticulously elaborating the on-the-spot drawings he had made in his sketchbooks. The majority of these, including Lake of Coniston, originate from the larger of the two sketchbooks he used simultaneously on the tour (page size 15 x 23 cm; 6 x 9 inches) and are horizontally elongated in format, using two facing pages of a sketchbook to capture broad and deep vistas. The drawings record the principal lakes from Windermere and Coniston in the south to Buttermere, Derwentwater and Ullswater in the north and they bear dates from 7 August onwards. A surprisingly large proportion concentrate on the southern lakes and the environs of Ambleside (the party’s main base), given the contemporary preference for the sublime wildness of Derwentwater and Borrowdale; it seems probable that the tour was hampered by bad weather, causing the friends to reduce their time in the Lakes from five weeks to less than three weeks and depriving them of further study of northerly subjects.

Coniston Water was depicted in two works, that now acquired by the Wordsworth Trust and one in the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, USA. Both show the head of the lake from the north-east, the most easily accessible viewing area for tourists coming by road from Ambleside, and both are dominated by the magnificent slopes of the Old Man of Coniston seen beyond a sliver of lake and dense groves of dark trees. Although West’s Guide to the Lakes (first published in 1778) had not suggested viewing Coniston from here, the area was apparently coming into fashion at the time of Towne’s visit; just two years later, in 1788, three separate vantage points around Monk Coniston were to be recommended on Peter Crosthwaite’s map of Coniston, published in Keswick for the new tourist market.    

Towne’s tour of the Lakes was the last high point of his career, stimulating works of great power and majesty that combine acute observation with a powerful feeling for landscape. He himself valued the drawings very highly, exhibiting about 45 of them in his one-man exhibition of some 200 works held at 20 Lower Brook Street, Grosvenor Square, London, early in 1805; these included a Coniston Lake, Lancashire (no. 86), to be identified with the drawing now in the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, which retains Towne’s original mount. His very individual style has both a visionary quality and a truth to reality that all lovers of the Lake District can instantly recognise.



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Lake Windermere and Belle Isle, c.1792-3

Pencil, pen and ink and watercolour on paper, 35.3 x 48.7 cm; 13.75 x 19 inches

Stamped lower left with the monogram of its former owner Dr Theodore Besterman

Inscribed with notes on the back of the frame by its former owner Leonard G. Duke

Provenance: with Walker’s Galleries, New Bond Street, London; with Agnew’s (no. 32063); Leonard G Duke (1890-1971) (D3816); anonymous sale, Sotheby’s, 5 March 1970 (lot 83 as ‘Lake Windermere and Wray Castle’); Dr Theodore Besterman (1904-76); his sale, Christie’s, 14 December 1971 (lot 52); anonymous sale, Christie’s, 8 June 2000 (lot 141); by descent; with Guy Peppiatt Fine Art Ltd; acquired by the Wordsworth Trust through the generous support of the W W Spooner Charitable Trust, the V&A Purchase Grant Fund and an anonymous donor 2012

Exhibited: Guy Peppiatt Fine Art Ltd, ‘18th and 19th Century British Drawings and Watercolours’, 2011 (no. 22)


Thomas Girtin 1775-1802

Born in Southwark, south London, Girtin was apprenticed in 1789 to one of the leading topographical watercolour painters of the time, Edward Dayes (1763-1804) from whom he learned the basic skills of drawing. However, very soon, with his contemporary J M W Turner, he broke away from the eighteenth-century tradition of ‘tinted drawings’ and transformed the art of watercolour into a medium of power and expression. From c.1794 to 1798 Girtin and Turner spent many evenings jointly making copies of the sketches of John Robert Cozens (1752-97) for an eminent collector, Dr Thomas Monro, in return for their supper and a fee of a few shillings. Both young men were strongly influenced by the poetry and grandeur they found in Cozens’s work, so different from the prosaic offerings of other draughtsmen, and both were soon creating eloquent works that attracted the attention of the press and patrons.

Girtin’s promising career was cut short in his late 20s by respiratory illness, his death causing Turner to remark, ‘If Girtin had lived, I should have starved.’ His body of work thus remained small and many of his watercolours have faded as a result of being displayed too frequently. Fine examples in good condition, such as this Lake Windermere and Belle Isle, rarely come on the market.


Girtin’s links with the Lake District

By the 1790s there was a considerable vogue in Britain for visiting, depicting and describing mountain scenery and artists avidly sought out the higher parts of the country, being unable to explore mainland Europe following the outbreak of war with France in 1793. Although Girtin made several summer sketching tours of the north of England, north Wales and the Scottish borders (1796, 1798, 1799 and 1800), he never set foot in the Lake District; all his depictions of the area are now known to be either copies or adaptations of works by other artists. Several (including some tiny watercolours in Tate Britain and elsewhere) are copies of unidentified and untraced works. Other, much larger, watercolours are free interpretations of on-the-spot sketches by a frequent visitor to the Lakes, his patron Sir George Beaumont (1753-1827). These were commissioned by Beaumont himself and include an outstanding depiction of Borrowdale executed in c.1801, already in the collection of the Wordsworth Trust.

Lake Windermere and Belle Isle is visibly indebted to the composition of a watercolour by Girtin’s master Edward Dayes resulting from his visit to the Lakes in 1789 (National Trust collection, on loan to the Wordsworth Trust). It also echoes the schematic rendering of the landscape that was typical of eighteenth-century watercolours. While distant features are precisely rendered, the foreground is impressionistically built up through repeated shorthand marks signifying leaves, plants and bushes or rough and stony ground. Through such flourishes, dabs of paint and hatchings the artist could suggest the essence of his scene without being literally and minutely true to a given spot. However, Girtin has developed his master’s view in many respects: re-configuring the foreground, introducing more varied and livelier colours and replacing Dayes’s passive onlookers with figures who are actively involved with their surroundings.

Both Edward Dayes and Sir George Beaumont, patron and friend of many artists and writers including Wordsworth, are already well represented by Lake District sketches and watercolours in the Wordsworth Trust’s collection. With the addition of Girtin’s Lake Windermere and Belle Isle the Trust can now boast two very different views of the Lakes by this short-lived but distinguished artist, one from his youth and one from his maturity.



The W W Spooner Charitable Trust has been a major supporter of the Wordsworth Trust for many years. This support reflects W W Spooner’s own family links with the Lake District, especially with Grasmere, and commemorates his love of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English watercolours and drawings by enabling the Wordsworth Trust to add fine examples of such works to its existing collections.

In his pioneering monograph Francis Towne. Lone Star of Water-colour Painting (1962) Adrian Bury RWS recorded five works by Towne in the possession of Mr and Mrs W W Spooner, three of which had descended, like Lake of Coniston, through the Merivale family. One had then passed from the Merivales to the dealer H B Milling who was briefly the owner of Lake of Coniston in 1945-6 (see Provenance above).

After Milling’s death in August 1954, his widow Mercie (or ‘Mouse’; née Weller) became the second wife of the industrialist and inventor William Wycliffe Spooner (1882-1967), a widower since 1941. To his passion for drawings she brought her own knowledge and experience (having, indeed, played an important role in the establishment of Milling’s Squire Gallery in London in the 1930s). Before their marriage in 1955 Spooner had already assembled a collection of nearly thirty drawings, having acquired several through Milling; and by Spooner’s death a dozen years later the couple had added no fewer than eighty more. Their collection, bequeathed to the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, has long been internationally recognised as being of outstanding quality. Besides three watercolours by Towne and four by Girtin it includes fine works by Thomas Gainsborough, Paul Sandby, John Constable and J M W Turner. In 2005-6 it was displayed in a major exhibition organised jointly by the Courtauld Institute and the Wordsworth Trust and shown at both venues and also at the Huntington Library, San Marino, USA.

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