Sunday, 12 June 2016

An Ecstasy of Looking - Simon Turner and Rochelle Sibley on Francis Towne

Towne - A Sepculchre by the road between Rome and the Ponte Nomentana, 1780
Light, time, legacy: Francis Towne's watercolours of Rome, at the British Museum until August 14th, 2016

ST: So, Francis Towne.  It feels entirely typical of Gists and Piths' approach that one of the first pieces we've posted since its reinstatement is a review of an exhibition (which has been running since January) of an obscure-ish English watercolourist (long since dead), detailing the architectural revenants of a civilisation (classical Rome) that had given over to inertia and decline many centuries before Towne arrived with his paintbrushes.  Read into that what you will.  Nonetheless, the paintings in the exhibition in question were genuinely a revelation.  Jonathan Jones had raved about them in the Guardian, and given that I usually think he's an insufferable blowhard, I was initially sceptical, but it turns out in this one instance his opinion was actually worth airing.  These paintings are, in a way, hymns to light, to the way light moves across the landscape, across architectural detail, creating an architecture of its own in shadow.  I was just taken aback by them in a way I really hadn't expected.

RS: They whipped it, didn’t they? I arrived at the exhibition with absolutely no idea of what to expect (which is often my modus operandi), but these paintings were a complete revelation. It took a while to work out why, but I think it has something to do with Towne’s interest in the architectural detail of those ruins. It would be easy to create something self-consciously Romantic from what is now quite a hackneyed subject (and indeed some of the later, reworked paintings edge towards this) but the paintings I most enjoyed were those where the texture and patterning of the stones themselves were the focus. Despite the locations themselves being almost overwhelming in scale, Towne is just as aware of their fine detail as he is of their overall impact, which suggests a level of obsessive observation that I can only admire.

ST: Yes, the detailing was eye-catching.  I think part of the reason they were so surprising as a series was that we’ve been led to believe (wrongly) that watercolour is a medium that favours gauzy abstraction, whereas if you’re after hard and glittering detail, oils are the paints for you.  It’s a very English tradition, in a way, painting en plein air well before it was popularised by the French, but painting in the open in England means rain, means mist, means a landscape that’s almost perpetually veiled and blurred.  But there’s none of that in Towne (partly due, I’m sure, to the fact that it rains less in Italy, but also because that’s not the way Towne’s eye is inclined): these are deeply architectural pictures, not simply because of the subject matter, but because of the sculptural uses to which Towne puts the light.  There’s so much weight to these paintings, even as they’re so filled with light and space. 
Towne - Inside the Colosseum, 1780

RS: I think you’re right, watercolour as a medium often gets a raw deal in the popular imagination. It’s often associated with the kind of appallingly precious flower-strewn landscapes that only surface as budget jigsaw puzzles, when actually watercolour allows for a lucidity and precision that is very difficult to achieve with oil painting. Watercolour Challenge has a lot to answer for. Admittedly, it’s far easier to paint en plein air with watercolours since you don’t have to worry about passing insects getting stuck to your canvas, but watercolours are too often viewed as sketches rather than as finished works. It speaks volumes that Towne left this collection to the British Museum because at that point the Royal Academy didn’t consider watercolours to be “proper” art. But this exhibition included a couple of the oil paintings that Towne based on the watercolours, and they just don’t have the same impact. In oils, the ruins feel stolid rather than substantial, and without the translucency of watercolour even the natural elements of the landscapes feel flat rather than three dimensional.

ST: It’s the difference between the world seen with the naked eye, and the world as envisaged by a particularly Romantically-minded cinematographer, isn’t it?  And it’s a shame, in a way, that Towne felt the need to try his hand at oils, because watercolours were clearly his medium; he very much made them his own.  I kept thinking about the notion of the watercolour as preliminary sketch during our time in the exhibition, and its relationship to writing.  Watercolours are, or can be conceived as, the visual equivalent of a writer’s journals: they’re not the finished work, but point to the possibilities of the finished work.  But I increasingly find journals and diaries exciting in and of themselves: I find, too, that they age better than the ‘finished’ work from the same era.  Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal entry on the stand of daffodils that inspired Wordsworth’s ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ reads, give or take a couple of era-specific particularities of phrasing, as though it were written last week.  Old Bill’s poem, excellent as it is, has its period written through it like Blackpool through a stick of rock.  The same pertains to watercolours and oils of a given era.  The ‘serious’ painting in the 18th and early 19th centuries is, primarily, narrative, or mythic: the landscape has to mean something, and however well-executed the incidental details of the painting, it’s the meaning that dominates.  For Towne, it’s the act of looking that’s the subject, chiefly, or that’s my reading, at least: these paintings are ecstatic acts of looking, and looking closely.

RS: And also of trusting your artistic judgement to a different degree than you see with the oil paintings. There’s an immediacy to the watercolours that comes in part from the nature of the medium. You haven’t got time to mess about, particularly in a Mediterranean climate. The exhibition made me think of Georges Perec’s Bartlebooth, knocking out a watercolour seascape in an afternoon. The best watercolours have that level of confidence, and Towne’s work better than his oils because he hasn’t second guessed himself too much about the composition or the palette. Plus that impressionistic quality is more realistic to our eyes; it allows the artist to make a choice between polished detail and blurred background, while the painterly tradition of Towne’s era demands a more consistent level of focus throughout the plane of vision. With these watercolours you have more room, as a viewer, to fill in those subtle gaps yourself rather than having every element of the painting wallop you over the head with its intended meaning.

Towne - Inside the Colosseum, 1780
ST: That’s why they feel so modern, or not so era-bound at any rate.  I think, post-impressionism, we have a different conception of what a landscape painting should do.  That narrative tradition has died out, by and large – though painters like George Shaw are renewing the hyperrealism of the older tradition in mutated form – and there’s no way back as a viewer to really see what contemporary audiences would have seen: we can only talk about technical details, the quality of the light, the composition, and so forth.  (Also worth noting is the fact that this allows previously comparatively neglected figures, like Samuel Palmer and Towne himself, to be rediscovered and reappraised.)  Maybe the contemporaneity of Towne’s Rome paintings is aided by the absence of historical detail from his own period: these Roman revenants have been around forever, or may as well have been – they’re almost natural rather than historical phenomena, like the trees and the cliffs they’re set among – and the few scattered figures that do appear scurrying through the huge stone corridors are sketched in a rather cursory manner (quite at odds with the palpable architectural presence of the ruins themselves), in such a way that they could be Italian citizens who’d wandered into the frame during Towne’s sketching of the scene, or they might just as readily be ghosts, or flash-forwards to our own era.  You get the sense that these paintings will feel just as fresh in 100 years’ time as they do now.       

RS: I need some lunch. (Gannettry ensues.) Right. Those little figures, who are often absolutely dwarfed by the rest of the composition, are a wonderful example of all the things we’ve been talking about. The oil paintings of these scenes do sometimes have people in them, but they tend to be quite awkward, fixed little manikins who are eternally of their own time. In contrast, the vagueness of the watercolour figures allows them to exist outside time, particularly since their clothing is so lightly drawn as to be as suggestive of togas as it is of more contemporary dress. They don’t anchor the painting to any specific time, but they also remind us that these are landscapes that you can move through. In fact, Towne’s tiny people remind me of the blurred figures captured in early street photography, where you only get a sense of an individual’s movement through space rather than of their face. It adds something almost improvisatory to the paintings, so that you have an appreciation of the scale of the ruins without some ponderous numpty throwing allegorical shapes and generally undermining the sense that Towne has captured a single flicker of time out of all the ages that these buildings have been standing. That might be why I like these watercolours so much, you have the sneaking feeling that if you turn away from one and then look back, those little figures might have moved.  Not in an M.R. James, scare you straight kind of way, but rather that they are just getting on with the rest of their day.

ST: Clearly lunch was an excellent idea: I really like your point about early photography, and it’s never a bad thing to shoehorn an M. R. James reference into an exhibition review.  I’m sure there’s more we could say, but nothing we could add would be a match for the paintings themselves.  The Townes are on display until mid-August, so I would urge anyone interested to make their way to the British Museum as soon as humanly possible.  Right: shall we post this and go and do something productive with the day instead?

RS: Lunch is always a good idea and yes, let’s trundle off, possibly to find cake. 
ST: Capital!  Avanti!

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