William Townsend (1909-1973)

In the Rockies / Canadian Landscape - SOLD

Oil on canvas

75 x 49.5 cm (29.5 x 19.4 in)

This painting was discovered wrongly catalogued in a sale in Oxford. A label on the reverse indicated it was a Canadian landscape by William Townsend, but the cataloguer had wrongly assumed the artist was the Canadian, William Townsend, born in 1940. In fact, it was by Wandsworth, London born artist, William Townsend, a significant member of the Euston Road School of artists. As the art historian, Francis Spalding has written, "William Townsend occupies a particular role within twentieth century British art owing to his ability to try out, work through and assimilate what he needed from fast changing ideas and issues that animated painting before during and after the second world war. He was observer, practitioner, and commentator, a multiple role that gives him a special place in any record of the period."

William Townsend was born on the 23 February 1909, the son of William Lewis Townsend, a poetry-writing dentist. Both his parents were appalled by the carnage of the First World War and became pacifists and Quakers. One of his brothers, Peter Townsend, became a leading Sinologist, and an inspirational editor of Studio International, for which William Townsend wrote on Canadian Art.

Known as a significant landscape painter, his work encompasses Italy, France, Egypt and Tunisia, but he is best known for his English and Canadian landscape paintings, as well as his contribution to art education in both these countries. Townsend entered the Slade School of Fine Art as a student in 1926 under the professorship of Henry Tonks, and completed his studies in 1930. Among his fellow students were William Coldstream, Claude Rogers, Geoffrey Tibble and Rodrigo Moynihan, all of whom made up the back bone of the Euston Road School exhibitions of the late 1930s. He was awarded the Open Bursary and won the newly awarded Wilson Steer landscape prize for At Bashford, which is in the UCL Art Museum collection.

He held his first solo show at the Bloomsbury Gallery, London in 1932. In 1935 he contributed to the Anti-Fascist Solidarity Exhibition in Soho Square, London, alongside artists such as Duncan Grant, Paul Nash, Eric Gill and Henry Moore. He became more involved in anti- fascist, protests and politics declining an invitation by the Labour party to stand as a parliamentary candidate for Canterbury. With the start of the Second World War he enlisted as an officer in the Royal Artillery, before transferring to the Army Education corps. He married Mary Baxter in 1942, and his daughter Charlotte was born in 1945, his son Richard in 1951.

When Sir William Coldstream became the Slade Professor in 1949, William Townsend was appointed as a lecturer at the Slade. He moved to Kent, retaining a small flat in Bloomsbury. The landscape of the Weald of Kent was to occupy his painting in England for the rest of his life.

In 1951 he was invited to the Banff School of Fine Arts in Alberta, in the Canadian Rockies and started painting the Canadian landscape. He was later appointed as a visiting professor, then head of painting at the Banff School. For the rest of his life he returned repeatedly to teach in Alberta, surveying the state of contemporary painting across the country while en route. Sharing lessons of modern painting from London, Townsend promoted Canadian art and artists internationally.

This painting appears to be from his first series of paintings in Canada in the early 1950s after he was invited to teach at the Banff School of Fine Art. It is clearly a transitional work, embodying many of the characteristics of his English landscapes in the later 1940s and early 1950s such as Hop Alleys, 1951-52 in the Tate collection. In both, Townsend’s fascination with the underlying structure of his painting can be seen in his interest in the architectural developments as well as in the strong geometric underpinning to the composition. Other examples of this period of Canadian landscape painting can be found in the Government Art Collection, The Towner Gallery, Eastbourne, and the London Borough of Camden Collection.

Townsend’s Canadian paintings were celebrated as a whole in a one-man exhibition at the Art Gallery of Alberta in March 2018. The promotional literature reads: "Townsend’s legacy includes a collection of modern paintings of the Canadian West and a lifetime of journals detailing his travels, works and artistic encounters. He captured the scale and quality of Alberta’s landscape, both its urban and mountain terrains, using abstract shapes and vivid colouring. Featuring paintings of Edmonton and the Rocky Mountains from the artist’s estate, and informed by journal entries about Canada, this exhibition celebrates Townsend’s legacy. Organized by the Art Gallery of Alberta. Curated by Laura Ritchie. Presented by Capital Powered Art, an exhibition series sponsored by Capital Power Corporation."

In 1968 Townsend was appointed an individual chair as professor at the Slade with responsibility to develop a postgraduate Fine Art course, which continues in the form of the MFA and MA in Fine Art at the Slade to this day.

He died on 4 July 1973 in Banff, Alberta, Canada, aged 64. The Tate Gallery held a retrospective of his work in 1976, and published extracts from his journals edited by Andrew Forge as: "The Townsend Journals: an Artist’s Record of his Times". The Tate Gallery holds several of his paintings in its collection. Thanks to the generosity of William Townsend’s family, the Slade School of Art is able to continue to represent the legacy of an artist and educator who made a major contribution to Fine Art in England and Canada through the William Townsend Memorial Lectures.


In the Rockies / Canadian Landscape by William Townsend at Kynance Fine Art, London.