This characterful portrait depicts the great nineteenth-century watercolourist and astrologer John Varley, by his close friend and pupil, the painter John Linnell.
This carefully painted portrait is signed and dated 1824, only a few years after Linnell captured Varley in animated conversation with William Blake in a famous drawing now at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Varley had intermittent success as a topographical watercolourist, teacher and astrologist. There were many who admired his prognostications, of which there are countless stories, not least that he foretold the fire that burnt down his house in 1825. It was his belief in visions that cemented his friendship with William Blake, whom he encouraged to envision and draw portraits of historical and imaginary figures during their evening sessions at Varley's house in Great Titchfield Street between 1819 and 1825. Many of Blake's figures were drawn into two of Varley's sketchbooks. Varley also shared Blake's interest in Lavater's theories of physiognomy, which sought to demonstrate that a man's innate qualities determine his outward appearance. In his autobiography, Linnell left a description of Varley’s heavy build and imposing physique, describing him as ‘bull like in strength’. Varley was also a keen pugilist, though his skill was said to be marred by his ungainliness. Linnell noted that he was also ‘a man of the most generous impulses… but deficient in sagacity and most easily imposed upon by the crafty.’ A further watercolour of Varley by Linnell is at the V&A and an oil portrait at the Ashmolean in Oxford.