John Varley (painter)

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Portrait of John Varley by William Mulready, 1814
Portrait of John Varley by John Linnell, 1820
Hackney Church by John Varley
The Straits of Gibraltar

John Varley (17 August 1778 – 17 November 1842) was an English watercolour painter and astrologer, and a close friend of William Blake. They collaborated in 1819–1820 on the book Visionary Heads, written by Varley and illustrated by Blake. He was the elder brother of Cornelius Varley.

Life and work

John Varley was born at the Old Blue Post Tavern, Hackney, on 17 August 1778. His father, Richard Varley, born at Epworth in Lincolnshire, had settled in London after the death of his first wife in Yorkshire. For a brief time John Varley was employed by a portrait painter in Holborn and then, at the age of 15 or 16, he became a pupil of Joseph Charles Barrow (fl. 1789–1802) who had an evening drawing school twice a week at 12 Furnival's Inn Court, Holborn. It was Barrow who took Varley on a sketching tour to Peterborough from which he emerged as a professional painter. In 1798 he exhibited a highly regarded sketch of Peterborough Cathedral at the Royal Academy and became a regular exhibitor at the RA until the foundation of the Old Watercolour Society in 1805. As one of the founders of the OWS Varley exhibited largely there, over 700 drawings. He also became a highly successful drawing master with pupils including Copley Fielding, David Cox, John Linnell and William Turner (artist) of Oxford. Despite his success he was constantly in financial difficulties, "since he was both a hopeless businessman and by temperament something of a Micawber". (Mallalieu). Varley was particularly skilled at the laying of flat washes of watercolour which suited the placid, contemplative mood that he often sought to evoke.

Varley published A Treatise on the Principles of Landscape Drawing, 1816–21 and A Practical Treatise on the Art of Drawing in Perspective. He also wrote an astrological text (with illustrations) entitled A Treatise on Zodiacal Physiognomy in 1828.

He is buried at Kensal Green Cemetery.[1]


  • A Treatise on the Principles of Landscape Drawing...
  • A Practical Tratise on the Art of Drawing in Perspective: adapted for the study of those who draw from nature; by which the usual errors can be avoided (printed for Sherwood, Gilbert, and Piper,...and R.Ackermann, ..., London ?1815/1820?).
  • A Treatise on Zodiacal Physiognomy, illustrated by engravings of heads and features, and accompanied by tables of the time of rising of the twelve signs of the zodiac; and containing also new and astrological explanations of some remarkable portions of ancient mythological history (published for the author, 10½, Great Tichfield Street, London 1928; sold by Longman) IV, 60pp.: 6 Plates, (8vo), 25 cm; plates engraved by J.Linnell.

See also


  1. Paths of Glory. Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery. 1997. p. 101. |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  • Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Varley, John". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Alfred Thomas Story. James Holmes and John Varley (London, R. Bentley, 1894).
  •  "Varley, John". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Randall Davies. "John Varley", (OWCS (Old Water Colour Society) Club Annual, II, 1924-5) pp. 9–27.
  • Adrian Bury. John Varley of the Old Society, (Leigh on Sea, 1946).
  • Huon Mallalieu. The Dictionary of British Watercolour Artists, up to 1920 (Antique Collectors' Club, 1976).
  • C.M. Kauffmann. John Varley (Batsford, 1984) - contains a full bibliography, including manuscript sources.
  • John Ramm. Neglected Master (Antique Dealer & Collectors' Guide, Feb 1992, Vol 45, No. 7) - principally concerned with Joseph Charles Barrow.
  • Anne Lyles. "John Varley's Thames" (OWCS Club Annual, LXIII, 1994) pp. 1–37.
  • Curry, Patrick. A Confusion of Prophets: Victorian and Edwardian Prophecy. London: Collins & Brown, 1992.
  • Herrmann, Luke. “John Varley, David Cox, Peter de Wint, and their Followers.” Nineteenth Century British Painting. London: DLM, 2000. 54-65.

External links