(London Borough of Hackney, 17 August 1778 - 17 November 1842, Margaret Street, Cavendish Square, London)
Landscape-painter, art-teacher, and astrologer, was born at Hackney, the son of Richard Varley, who came to Hackney from Epworth in Nottinghamshire. His mother was a descendant of the General Fleetwood who married Cromwell's daughter, Bridget. His father's profession is uncertain, but according to Redgrave he was of scientific attainments and tutor to the son of Earl Stanhope. John was the eldest of five children, two of whom, Cornelius and William Fleetwood, are treated separately. One of his sisters (Elizabeth) married William Mulready [q. v.] As a boy Varley was distinguished by his great muscular strength, his pugilistic propensities, and his love for sketching. His father, objecting to art as a profession, placed him at the age of thirteen with a silversmith; but at the death of his father in 1791, after a short time with a law stationer, his mother allowed him to follow his bent. Poverty compelled the family to move from Hackney, and a few years after 1791, they were living in an obscure court off Old Street, City Road, opposite St. Luke's Hospital.
Varley drew indefatigably, obtained some employment from a portrait-painter in Holborn, and when about fifteen or sixteen years of age became pupil and assistant of Joseph Charles Barrow, a landscape-painter and drawing-master of 12 Furnival's Court, Holborn, where François Louis Thomas Francia [q. v.] was his fellow assistant. In 1796, when out sketching, he made the acquaintance of John Preston Neale [q. v.], and formed a friendship which lasted for life. He agreed to help Neale with the landscapes to illustrate his Picturesque Cabinet of Nature, the first and only part of which was published in September 1796, and contains none of Varley's work.
He also became acquainted with Dr. Monro, the celebrated encourager of young artists. Barrow took him on a professional visit to Peterborough, and he made his first success with a drawing of the cathedral, finely finished in pencil, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1798. He now, or soon after, started as a teacher on his own account, and prospered sufficiently to become the chief support of his family. During the years 1798-1802, he made three tours in Wales, and in 1803, to Yorkshire, Northumberland, Devonshire, and other counties, laying in a store of sketches and studies which, with his earlier ones on the Thames and about London, formed the principal material for his exhibited drawings for many years. From 1799 to 1804, he exhibited at the Royal Academy three to six works yearly till 1804, when he assisted in the formation of the Watercolour Society (now the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolours), with which he afterwards identified himself almost exclusively. To their first exhibition in 1805, he sent forty-two subjects, nearly all Welsh, and contributed 344 drawings from 1805 to 1813 inclusive, or an average of over thirty-eight.
He was now recognised as a fine and original landscape-painter, and had earned, or was earning, an unrivalled position among art teachers. In 1800, according to his brother Cornelius, he was living with him in Charles Street, Covent Garden, but in the 'Academy Catalogue' of that year his address is given as Craven Street, Hoxton. From 1801 to 1804, he lived at 2 Harris Place, near the Pantheon, in Oxford Street, and thence moved to 15 Broad Street, Golden Square. In 1800 and 1801, some topographical plates ('Valle Crucis Abbey,' 'Stilton,' 'Monmouth') were engraved by J. Walker, and another of 'Chepstowe' appeared in Beauties of England and Wales. In the latter year he, with his brother Cornelius, went to Gillingham, and gave lessons to Mrs. Bacon-Schutz and her daughters, and about this time also to the Earl of Essex's seat, Hampton Court, in Herefordshire.
With his pupils (who lived with him) and his growing family he had a large household. He also made a large income, for he found a ready sale for his drawings, and his production was extraodinary, he received premiums with his articled pupils (that paid by Finch was 200l.), and he charged a guinea for a lesson to others. He earned in his most prosperous time 3,000l. a year. He had a very large circle of friends and acquaintances. He was genial and amiable, his views were large and liberal, and his conversation striking and original. His house became 'the resort of wits and men of talent and education in every branch of art and the professions, and he attracted and delighted all alike by the kindliness of his heart and the extent and variety of his knowledge.'
One of his greatest attractions was his devoted study and practice of astrology. He kept his own horoscope up day by day, and he was always ready to draw those of others. When introduced to a stranger his first question was generally as to the day of his birth. Though he did not charge for his astrological services, he was conscious that many of his fashionable pupils were attracted to him rather by curiosity about their future than the love of art. Among his predictions which are said to have been verified were a fatal accident to Paul Mulready, the death of Collins the artist, the injury by fire of William Vokins's daughter, and the burning of his own house. He taught astrology to Sir Richard Burton the traveller and to the first Lord Lytton. With his pupils he was very popular, helping them in all ways, and seeking their advancement, even to his own prejudice. But he was a stem disciplinarian, and if he heard a noise in their room he would rush in and thrash them all round without any discrimination.
He had a cottage at Twickenham where they used to spend part of their time and draw, according to his precept, 'everything in nature and every mood.' Among the most celebrated of these were William Mulready, his brother-in-law, W. H. Hunt, John Linnell, F. O. Finch, William Turner of Oxford, and Samuel Palmer. Three others of the greatest of English landscape-painters, Copley Fielding, Peter De Wint. and David Cox, were greatly assisted by him in the formation of their styles, so that his training was the very backbone of the English school of watercolour. No one, except Tumer and Girtin, did so much for its development, and he was surpassed by none in his knowledge of its technique and the science of composition.
His industry was extraordinary. For forty years (he said) he worked fourteen hours a day, but he loved play too, especially boxing, and would often leave off work to have a bout with the gloves with one or other of his pupils. He was very strong, and weighed seventeen stone, so that he was more than a match for most of them except Mulready. Sometimes, it is said, when tired of boxing, he and his pupils would toss Mrs. Varley from one to the other across the table.
But, though outwardly prosperous, Varley was always in diificulties from his carelessness in money matters. Absteious and spending little on himself, he was the constant prey of his impecunious friends.
In 1812, the first Watercolour Society came to an end, but the meeting which resuscitated it as the Society of Painters in Oil and Watercolours was held at Varley's house in Broad Street. In 1813, he moved from 15 to 5 Broad Street, and in 1814 or 1815, to 44 Conduit Street, and in 1817, to 10 (afterwards 10½) Great Titchfield Street, where he built a gallery to show his pictures, and during this time contributed regularly, but not so profusely, to the exhibitions of the society. In 1819, Varley was introduced by John Linnell to William Blake [q. v.], and became his constant companion till the poet-painter's death in 1827. It was for Varley that Blake in 1819-1820 executed those strange drawings of visionary heads, some fifty or more, including the 'Ghost of a Flea,' a copy of which was engraved by John Linnell for Varley's Treatise on Zodiacal Physiognomy (pt. i. only, London, 1828, 8vo).
In 1820, the Oil and Watercolour Society allotted to Varley one of their premiums of 30l., to incite the production of important works, and in 1821, in response, Varley sent a large drawing of the 'Bride of Abydos,' which was followed in 1822, by another elaborate composition, 'The Destruction of Tyre.' From 1823 to 1836, he sent on the average twenty-two works yearly, but afterwards about six only. In 1825, he was burnt out at his studio, but, though he was uninsured, he was not disconcerted, because it agreed with a prediction he had made, of which he wrote an account while the fire was proceeding. In 1830, he was again burnt out, and this was his third fire, for one had occurred while he was living in Conduit Street. After a short stay at John Linnell's house in Porchester Terrace, he finally settled at 3 Elkins Road, Bayswater.
His second wife did all she could to make his life comfortable, but his last years were full of ever increasing difficulties. He had thirty writs served upon him in one year, most, if not all, for other persons' debts. He said he did not feel all was quite right unless he was arrested for debt at least once or twice a month. He generally freed himself very soon by drawings sold to Vokins and other dealers. It is not surprising that works produced in his later life were often hasty and nearly always mannered, for he was in the hands of the dealers and the money-lenders, and had no time to study nature afresh. But his spirits and courage never broke down. He once said to Linnell, 'All these troubles are necessary to me; if it were not for my troubles I should burst with joy.'
Nor did his interest in his profession decline. He constantly made experiments. At one time he tried painting in varnish over watercolour, and about 1837, commenced to paint on thin whitey-brown paper laid down upon white, which he scraped down upon for the lights. The drawings done by this method, with the darks enriched with gum, were almost as forcible as oil paintings, and produced quite a sensation among his brother artists. Shortly before his death he seemed to have a fresh access of energy. He exhibited thirty drawings in 1841, and forty-one in 1842. Nor were his energies confined to his art. He spent an immense amount of labour and a great deal of money, 1,000l. of which was borrowed, in striving to perfect a carriage with eight wheels, which he thought would move much more easily than one with four, but it was a complete failure and perfected his ruin.
A friendly clerk of his moneylender warned him of the issue of a writ, and provided him with a retreat in his humble lodging in Gray's Inn Lane. Here he was found by Vokins, who took him to his own house, 67 Margaret Street, Cavendish Square. But then or soon after he became dangerously ill from disease of the kidneys, brought on, it is said, by sitting on damp grass while sketching in the gardens of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society at Chelsea. At Vokins's he was visited by many distinguished persons, 'not more,' said that gentleman, 'for his artistic celebrity than for his astrological knowledge and for the interest there was in the man himself, for his was a most genial spirit.' To his eldest son, Albert, Varley said, 'I shall not get better, my boy. All the aspects are too strong against me.' His astrological books were lying on his bed. He died at Vokins's house on 17 November 1842. At the post-mortem examination all his organs, except the kidneys, were found in such perfect order that the surgeon said they looked 'as though they had never been used.'
As an artist Varley stands high among the early English watercolourists, although he produced a great deal of hasty and inferior work. He occasionally painted in oil. 'The Burial of Saul' (figures by Linnell) was in this medium. His early drawings, especially those of Welsh scenery, were full of fresh observation, and even his most conventional work has a fine style, caught perhaps from the Poussins and Claude, whom he greatly admired. He was a good colourist and a master of execution. Messrs. Redgrave says: 'When he laid himself out to do his best, and when he studied his subjects on the spot, his pictures have qualities that we find in no other painters -- freshness, clearness, and a classical air, even in the most common and matter-of-fact subjects.' Ruskin once wrote that he was the only artist (except Turner) who knew how to draw a mountain. But he was greater as a teacher than an artist.
As a man he was remarkable for vigour of body and mind, for courage and self-reliance, for industry, unselfishness, and generosity, and not least for credulity. He was said to have believed 'nearly all he heard -- all he read' (Edinburqh Phrenologiral Journal, paper by Mr. Atkinson, F.S.A., 1843.) He believed in astrology and his own predictions; he believed in the visions of Blake, even the ghost of a flea; but in religion he was a sceptic, was indeed almost destitute of a sense of the supernatural, apart from 'the stars.' But, if not spiritual, he was very humane, and spent his life mainly in endeavours to benefit his fellow-creatures, with little regard to his own interest.
In 1803, Varley married Esther Gisborne, sister of Shelley's friend John, and also of Mrs. Copley Fielding and Mrs. Clementi (wife of the famous musician). She died in 1824, and in 1825, he married his second wife, Delvalle Lowry, the daughter of his old friend, Wilson Lowry [q.v.] the engraver. Varley had eight children, all by his first wife. Two of them, Albert (d. 1876) and Charles Smith (d. 1888), followed his profession. John Varley, the son of Albert, and the painter of Cairene subjects, was still alive in 1899. Edgar John, the son of Charles Smith Varley, also a painter, died in the same year as his father.
Varley was the author of:
[Roget's Old Watercolour Society; James Holmes and John Varley by Alfred T. Story; Gilchrist's Life of William Blake; Redgrares' Century; Monkhouse's Earlier English Painters in Watercolours.]
View painter's work: John Varley (1778-1842)