John Varley, OWS (1778-1842) John Varley was a central figure for the watercolourists of the early nineteenth century. A founder member of the Society of Painters in Water Colours, and its most prolific exhibitor, he was also a highly significant teacher of both professionals and amateurs, and a writer of instruction manuals. He encouraged his students to paint in the open air, but also promoted the Picturesque theory of adapting nature to the requirements of composition. Of Lincolnshire descent, John Varley was born in Hackney, Middlesex, on 17 August 1778. He and his brothers ‘were said to have been born at the Blue Posts (formerly the Templars’ house), after their father had converted it to private use, although the building was still an inn in 1785’ (T F T Baker (ed), A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 10: Hackney, London: Oxford University Press for the Institute of Historical Research, 1995, pages 10-14).
Despite parental disapproval, three of his siblings would also become artists: Cornelius Varley, William Fleetwood Varley and Elizabeth Robinson Varley.
The death of Varley’s father in 1791 left the family in poverty, and forced a move to a more modest dwelling, off Old Street, Hoxton. Varley’s early attempts to undertake an apprenticeship – first as a silversmith and then as a law stationer – did not suppress his desire to become an artist.
So he spent a brief time working with a portrait painter in Holborn before becoming a pupil and assistant to Joseph Charles Barrow at the age of 15 or 16. Barrow ran an evening drawing school at his house – 12 Furnival’s Inn Court, Holborn – where he was assisted by François Louis Thomas Francia, and the young Varley had to undertake the more menial tasks when he was not receiving lessons.
While drawing in Hornsey Wood in spring 1796, John Varley met John Preston Neale and, forming a lasting friendship, would often accompany him on sketching expeditions to villages north-east of London. In the following year, he was lucky enough to accompany Barrow on a more distant journey, to Peterborough, in Cambridgeshire, and while there produced a pencil drawing of the cathedral. This became his first exhibit at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1798, and he then showed there regularly until 1804.
Either in 1798 or 1799, Varley made his first sketching tour to Wales, in the company of George Arnald, an experience that would prove decisive in the direction of his art. He returned there in 1800, and again in 1802, when he was joined by his brother, Cornelius. (John moved from Hoxton to live with Cornelius in Charles Street, Covent Garden, in 1800; then, a year later, moved again, to live with his other brother, William, at 2 Harris Place, an alley near the Pantheon, the entrance to which stood on the eastern section of Oxford Street.)
During the same period, Varley began to study at Dr Thomas Monro’s informal academy at his home in Adelphi Terrace, and he also visited him at his country cottage in Fetcham, Surrey. The association would last for 20 years and prove very useful to Varley, for Monro kindly introduced him to patrons and pupils. One early patron, Edward, Viscount Lascelles, invited Varley to his Yorkshire home, Harewood House, in 1803.
If he did not meet Thomas Girtin at Monro’s academy, Varley would certainly have copied examples of his watercolours, and the influence of Girtin soon showed in his work. At the time of Girtin’s death, in 1802, he joined the Sketching Society that Girtin had founded, which was then chaired by John Sell Cotman. In turn, Cotman’s use of clear, flat washes would also influence Varley.
Following his marriage to Esther Gisborne in 1803, Varley began to father a family of eight children, and so needed to combine his development as an exhibiting watercolourist with a settled career as a drawing master. While proving a mainstay of the Society for Painters in Water Colours, which he helped to found in 1804, he trained many of the leading watercolourists of the following generation. Two of the earliest were William Turner of Oxford and William Mulready, the latter becoming his assistant (and also his brother-in- law, marrying his sister, Elizabeth, in 1803).
In 1806, the Varleys moved to 5 Broad Street, Golden Square, Soho, which allowed more room for a growing family and an increasing number of pupils, including William Henry Hunt and John Linnell. In the same year, Peter DeWint became a neighbour of Varley in Broad Street, and took lessons from him. From 1809, Anthony Vandyke Copley Fielding also became a pupil (and four years later would marry the sister of Varley’s wife).
From the time of his move to Broad Street, Varley also rented a house in the summer months at Twickenham so that he and his pupils could sketch along the River Thames. However, he still found time to make more ambitious trips in order to inspire his art, notably a visit to the Northumberland coast in 1808.
From 1812, Varley altered the style of his work and exhibited fewer watercolours, a response to his commitments as a teacher and family man. By this time, he was charging amateurs a guinea a lesson and apprentices £200 for the seven years, so that his income would soon rise to £3000 a year (putting him on a par with those in the higher echelon of the mercantile class). At some point, the Varleys moved to Great Titchfield Street, in the artistic quarter north of Oxford Street.
Practising what he preached, Varley increasingly employed compositions that reveal the inspiration of the Classical tradition and of J M W Turner’s Liber Studiorum. He also made use of the Patent Graphic Telescope, invented as an artistic aid by his brother, Cornelius (who had trained under their uncle, Samuel Varley, a watchmaker and jeweller).
Varley disseminated his systematic approach to art through a series of manuals that were mainly intended for amateurs, including A Practical Treatise on the Art of Drawing in Perspective (1815-20), Treatise on the Principles of Landscape Design (in eight parts, 1816-21) and Precepts of Landscape Drawing (circa 1818).
In 1818, Linnell, a former pupil, introduced Varley to William Blake. He entered Blake’s circle of admirers, known as the Ancients, and gave lessons to at least two of its members: Francis Oliver Finch and Samuel Palmer. As Varley believed strongly in astrology, he was attracted to Blake’s propensity for visions and excited by the spiritual portraits that Blake drew on visits to Varley’s house at Great Titchfield Street between 1819 and 1825. Linnell would engrave some of these as illustrations to Varley’s Treatise on Zodiacal Physiognomy (1828).
From 1818, Varley began to ask Linnell repeatedly to lend him money but, still unable to manage his finances two years later, he was declared bankrupt and gaoled. Remaining insolvent throughout the 1820s and 30s, he attempted to improve his situation by exhibiting an increased number of works at the Society of Painters in Water Colours, in the years 1823-26, and opening a gallery at his home. However, a fire in Great Titchfield Street in June 1825 – that started in the workshops of Crozet, a carver and gilder – spread to Varley’s address, and the damage must have affected the artist’s chances of recovery.
Having lost his first wife in 1824, Varley married Delvalle Lowry, the daughter of his friend, the engraver Wilson Lowry, in the following year. They would have two children.
During the 1830s, Varley began to recapture the power of his early watercolours and, by the end of the decade, was inspired by the work of Samuel Palmer to paint dense washes in a glowing tonality on coarse paper. His imaginative compositions were received with enthusiasm, not least by the dealers, Samuel Woodburn and William Vokins, the second becoming a friend. He spent his last days with Vokins at his house at 5 John Street, off Oxford Street, dying there on 17 November 1842. He was survived by his second wife.
In 1843, the Society of Painters in Water Colours showed a posthumous group of Varley’s watercolours, ‘an unusual concession made ... for the sake of his penurious family’ (Wilcox 2005, pp 112-113); one was bought by Albert, the Prince Consort.
Of John Varley’s ten children, two became professional painters: Albert Fleetwood Varley and Charles Smith Varley.
His work is represented in the Government Art Collection and numerous public collections, including the British Museum, The Courtauld Gallery, Tate and the V&A; Dove Cottage and the Wordsworth Museum (Grasmere), Hereford Art Gallery, Manchester Art Gallery and Tyne and Wear Museums; the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; and the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (Victoria).
Further reading Adrian Bury, John Varley of the Old Society, F Lewis: Leigh-on-Sea, 1946; Claus Michael Kauffmann, John Varley, 1778–1842, London: Batsford/Victoria and Albert Museum, 1984; Claus Michael Kauffmann, ‘Varley, John (1778- 1842)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 56, pages 148-149; Anne Lyles, ‘John Varley’s early work’, Old Water- Colour Society’s Club, vol 59, 1984, pp 1-22; Anne Lyles, ‘Varley (1) John Varley’, Jane Turner (ed), The Dictionary of Art, London: Macmillan, 1996, vol 31, pages 908-909