A LONE FIGURE BY A POOL AT SUNSET, WITH CLASSICAL RUINS
With pencil sketch verso, bears inscription verso J Varley
Watercolour heightened with white, with scratching out
10 x 15.5cm
John Varley is among the very best-known of British watercolour artists from the field’s so-called ‘Golden Age’. Randall Davies, sometime editor of the journal for the Old Watercolour Society, said of Varley that he did for watercolour painting “what St Paul did for Christianity”, and history has borne out this statement.
He was born in Hackney, the son of a tavern-keeper, and grew up in a large family in their large house adjoining the tavern. Despite his father’s disinclination towards “limning” (drawing), John and both of his brothers were to become artists, displaying an affinity for drawing from a young age.
Varley was almost entirely self-taught, save for a stint as Joseph C. Barrow’s assistant (a very minor topographical artist by comparison). Barrow ran one of the early drawing schools and permitted Varley to sketch alongside his pupils once he had completed his errands (another assistant at the time was Francois Louis Francia, later an important artist in his own right and R.P. Bonington’s teacher). Varley first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1798 to what was later recalled as great success. In that year, embarked on his first tour of Wales. By 1800 he had become part of the circle of artists around Dr Thomas Monro, an influential collector and drawing master (and early patron of Turner and physician to J.R. Cozens in his final days).
Varley was one of the founding members of the Old Watercolour Society in 1804, with a fine reputation as a drawing master by this stage already. His influence as a drawing master cannot be understated: among his unprecedented number of students, he could count Turner of Oxford, David Cox Sr., John Linnell, William Mulready, and many others. He published handbooks and continued to paint for exhibition throughout his life. His subjects range from early topographical views to his later ‘Compositions’, and he was noted as being – unlike his pupil Cox – an advocate for watercolour as a medium which could hold its own against oils. Varley was concerned with compositional techniques throughout his career, being at first a disciple of the ‘Picturesque’ theories of the late 18th century which required visits to sites deemed such; and later an artist who could create successful compositions simply from his own mind.
An excellent biographical summary of Varley can be found in the opening pages of C.M. Kauffman’s monograph, published in 1984 to accompany the V&A’s exhibition of its Varley holdings.