'A Mountain Stream', a watercolour by Francis Towne – £8000 at Halls.

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Works with the label of a leading dealer on the back often arouse extra interest at auction.

Especially if they are pitched at lowly levels, they tend to catch the attention of potential buyers trawling through online catalogues on the look-out for a bargain.

A case in point was a watercolour that emerged at Halls (20% buyer’s premium) of Shrewsbury at the end of last year.

Emerging from a local private collection and having been within the same family for two generations, the 11 x 8in (28 x 20cm) signed work on paper carried a Thomas Agnew & Sons label to the back of the frame giving the artist as Francis Towne (1739-1816) and the title as A Mountain Stream.

Agnews, of course, is one of London’s most prominent and longstanding dealerships, and works by Towne featured in numerous exhibitions the firm staged over the years. These included dedicated shows such as the Paul Oppé collection of Towne works on paper in 1949 as well as Agnews’ annual watercolours and drawings exhibitions held from the 1920s-90s.

Market confidence

Given that hundreds of Towne’s watercolours have passed through the trade, finding a label to Agnews, Colnaghi or the Fine Art Society on one that appears at auction is therefore not unusual. Generally speaking, they bring a bit of extra market confidence.

The example in Shropshire was a small but attractive composition demonstrating Towne’s trademark free-flowing hand, sense of line and flourishing colours.

The work was signed to the lower left and indistinctly inscribed and initialled to the top right but, although it was kept under glass and was not inspected out of the frame, a few condition issues were noticeable. It had two small tears and a crease running about 12cm long and also had some minor fading. However, the colours were reasonably well preserved overall.

Despite being catalogued as a fully attributed work at the sale on December 8, the auction house gave the lot a cautious £400-600 estimate. This piqued the interest of multiple parties. On the day, three online bidders were involved but eventually it came down to a battle between two phonelines, with the work selling to an American buyer at £8000.

Although watercolours by Towne can easily make strong five-figure sums, the size and condition of this work meant this example was unlikely to reach those heights.

But the sum at Halls appears to have been the highest for a Towne watercolour sold outside London in 2021 and was comparable to a slightly smaller depiction of a rural scene near Exeter that made £8500 at Cheffins in June 2018. That latter work had a few condition issues too and featured a label for Agnews.


'Portland' by John Warwick Smith – £950 at Halls.

Another small watercolour from the same source that also carried an Agnews label was a coastal view of Portland by John Warwick Smith (1749-1831). In terms of condition, again there were a few issues including three spots of pale discolouration in the sky and one small puncture – the size of a pinhole – in the sea in the bay in the foreground.

The artist was associated with Towne – they are known to have sketched together – although commercially his prices are much further down the scale.

The estimate on the 5 x 8¾in (12½ x 22cm) picture was slightly higher than the Towne watercolour at £500-700 but it drew decent bidding making a final £950 – showing how the artist is significantly more affordable than his more famous contemporary.