Born and raised in the town of Isleworth, just west of London, Francis Towne initially trained as a coach painter. Although he soon turned to painting on canvas, and eventually studied at the St. Martin’s Lane Academy, Towne stayed with the lucrative coach trade until around 1763, when his employer sent him to Exeter, the county seat of Devon, in southwest England. Enchanted with the area, he settled there for a number of years, earning a living as a drawing master. In 1780, determined to win success as a fine artist, he toured Italy, and then a year later moved back to London, where he exhibited his paintings regularly for the remainder of his life.
While the demands associated with his career kept him near London for most of the year, Towne usually found time in the late summers to return to the environs of Exeter. The watercolors he produced there, at the time likely intended, at least in part, as studies for oils to be executed later in the studio, are today considered to be his most significant achievement. The appeal lies in the artist’s intricate approach to the landscape, perfectly illustrated here in On the River near Bath, which offers a view over the River Avon, in Somerset county, adjacent to Devon. He first sketched the scene lightly in pencil, sur le motif, and then painted it with color. When it was dry, he revisited the sheet, carefully recreating much of original drawing, for the most part lost under the coloring, in pen and ink. The somewhat fastidious technique carried over to the verso, where, in addition to signing and providing the title of the work, Towne detailed not only the exact date that he executed the watercolor (May 22, 1783), but also the part of day (afternoon) and the direction of the light (“from the left hand”).