The work of John White Abbott will forever remain linked to that of his friend and mentor, Francis Towne. Abbott was born and educated in Exeter and he lived in this area throughout his life, establishing a practise as a surgeon. He studied art under his friend Francis Towne and he assimilated Towne’s style so closely that their works are at times almost indistinguishable. Abbott exhibited annually at the Royal Academy between the years 1795 and 1805; his last recorded exhibit being in the Academy show of 1822. Despite introductions to many of the leading artists and patrons of the day, Abbott chose never to become a professional artist, retaining his practise as a surgeon throughout his life.
Essentially a landscape artist, Abbott seldom travelled beyond the bounds of his native county of Devon, contenting himself with the local scenery which he portrayed with unceasing freshness and constant vigour. Apart from a number of classical and mythological subjects and some direct copies of Towne’s works, almost all of John White Abbott’s work depicts topographical scenery in the Exeter region.
Although Abbott gained his contemporary reputation as a painter in oils, the vast bulk of his work was executed in watercolour. In particular he mastered Towne’s technique of defining natural form with a precise and delicate pen outline developing the effects of light and shade through carefully varied layers of monochrome wash. This pre-disposition towards a grey or sepia monochrome medium was ideally suited to printmaking. Indeed, his earliest dated etchings reflect this natural ability in a monochrome medium, displaying a remarkably practised hand. In view of the skill required to produce the effects of lighting and recession which are apparent in these accomplished works, it is likely Abbott may have made some earlier etchings which are now lost.
John White Abbott lived the life of a country gentleman and is said never to have sold a picture – consequently, almost all of his works remained in his family’s possession until recent years. The Abbott family collection was reviewed by A.P. Oppé in his leading article entitled John White Abbott of Exeter (1763-1851), published by the Walpole Society in 1925 (vol.XIII, pp.67-84). All the works by John White Abbott offered on this website come directly from the Abbott family collection and are the very impressions described by A.P. Oppé as being in the possession of Mrs. J. White Abbott at the time of his article.
Only sixteen original printed works by John White Abbott are known and all are very rare – the only near complete series was presented to the British Museum by Francis Abbott, the artist’s second son, in 1880. With the exception of four small aquatints, it is unlikely that any of these works was ever published, although J.M.W. Turner is known to have kept at least one of Abbott’s etchings (Oppé 1) in his scrap book. Abbott’s beautifully wrought etchings with aquatint possess an unique period feel and embody perfectly the atmosphere of the places they depict.