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John Varley OWS (1778-1842)

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.

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