institution: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art
category: Exhibition and Collection Extension
A Catalogue Raisonné of Francis Towne (1739-1816), by Richard Stephens, was published in May 2016 by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, London.
The catalogue identifies 1080 works by Francis Towne, an eighteenth-century watercolorist, doubling previously-described totals. More than 800 works are illustrated with high-quality images, many of which were specially commissioned for this project and are released under Creative Commons licenses. The dispersal of Towne’s drawings in the early twentieth century has resulted in a large proportion of his of works becoming untraceable. The expandable nature of this digital platform has meant that works that surface on the market can be added, supplementing the resource in a way that would be impossible to achieve in a print publication.
In combination with a major exhibition at the British Museum, this digital catalogue raisonné gives us a fresh opportunity to assess Towne’s achievement. It allows us to consider the experience of watercolourists working in an oil-based exhibition culture; the life of provincial artists in the shadow of London’s dominating art scene; and the response of Sandby’s generation to a watercolour market transformed in the age of Turner.
The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art is an educational charity committed to supporting original research into the history of British art and architecture of all periods. It continues support efforts to increase access to art history through digital publishing by channelling resources into new outputs and activities, while providing support and guidance to other institutions. The PMC has transformed some of its standard publication formats into digital-only platforms: the first, Richard Wilson Online (www.richardwilsononline.ac.uk), appeared in 2014, followed by the online journal British Art Studies in 2015 (www.britishartstudies.ac.uk).
The PMC has a long history of publishing catalogue raisonnés in print, but for this project several factors determined that a digital platform was more suitable to the content. Firstly, the proportion of works that have been lost since Towne’s death is quite high – the publication illustrates just around 800 of the 1080 works we know to have existed. As the market and appreciation for Towne’s work has been steadily growing over recent decades, with new works surfacing often, the opportunity to continue adding to the catalogue was very attractive. Those works which are known to us through exhibition and sales records but have not been traced are presented within the catalogue, inviting readers to contribute further information to help locate and expand the records. Since initial publication, more than a dozen previously unidentified works have surfaced as a result of the project.
Secondly, as Towne is a relatively unknown artist of the period due to working outside of the London art world, the possibility of charting an alternative career trajectory and making that knowledge and set of resources available to as wide a public as possible is quite compelling. The catalogue entries are supplemented by a series of more than fifty peer-reviewed essays that place Towne’s work within the broader context of the Grand Tour and among his better-known peers Paul Sandby, Richard Wilson and Salvator Rosa.
Finally, the drawings themselves are incredibly detailed and made on large sheets of paper laid together, meaning that it would be difficult to achieve an accurate reproduction in a print reproduction. Deep zoomable images have allowed us to reproduce Towne’s work in unprecedented clarity.
This catalogue is free to use and is presented under a CC-BY-NC licence, meaning that it can be copied, distributed and adapted for any non-commercial use. Further to this, photographic images in which the PMC holds the copyright are distributed under a CC0 licence.