2016 is the bicentenary of Francis Towne's death and his historic bequest to the British Museum of 75 uniquely beautiful watercolours made on his visit to Italy in 1780-1. To celebrate this generous gift the watercolours are all on display here - at their heart are 52 views of Rome that have not been shown together since 1805. Towne’s decision to give the Museum such a major group of his drawings, so that they could be seen in the wider context of a collection that charted the history of the graphic arts from its Renaissance beginnings, was both strategic and pioneering as it set a pattern for artists to donate their work that endures to this day, as seen in the recent gift of 200 prints made by the American artist Jim Dine.

Towne was born in London in 1739 where he later trained and then moved to Exeter. He tried unsuccessfully to gain recognition in the London art world, and failed to be elected to the Royal Academy on eleven separate occasions. Towne gained artistic recognition in his posthumous legacy at the British Museum. At the start of the 20th century, through these watercolours, Towne became the poster boy for the ‘new Georgian’ revival of interest in 18th century art. The clarity and abstracted economy of Towne’s watercolours were not only admired by the public but also by early 20th century modernists, and he is today recognised as one of Britain’s greatest watercolour artists

Through Towne’s vision, the exhibition will explore Enlightenment Britain's relationship with the classical past and Ancient Rome. Towne travelled to Rome in 1780-1 during a period of political crisis in England when America was in revolt, a French invasion of England was anticipated and a highly divisive general election had just concluded. Towne, and his social circle, viewed ancient Rome as a catastrophic precedent for what they perceived as a corrupt ruling power in England. The ruins that Towne depicted in his landscapes signified a warning to contemporary society not to suffer the same fate as the fallen Roman Empire.

Italy had a transformational effect on Towne’s work. When Towne first arrived in Rome he started making excursions north of city, making rural sketches instead of focusing on the ancient monuments. Towne’s delicate early studies were eventually replaced with large scale bolder work when Towne depicted such subjects as the Colosseum and other iconic Roman ruins. The experience of Rome was much different in the 18th century, few ruins had been excavated and tourists were free to explore them.

When Towne returned to England in 1781, these watercolours played a central role in his subsequent career. Although he was never accepted by the London art establishment, he organised an exhibition of his life’s work in 1805 with the Museum’s watercolours at its centre. Towne bequeathed the watercolours of Rome and others to the British Museum in 1816, with a further selection by his executors arriving in 1818.

A new open access catalogue raisonné of Francis Towne’s work by the guest curator of this exhibition, Dr Richard Stephens, will be published online in early 2016 at www.francistowne.ac.uk by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.