This is one of the most beautiful tree studies made by Cornelius Varley. Varley received his early artistic education from his brother, John, who we know encouraged his pupils to study the component parts of landscape as he believed that it was only through intimate study would one be able to more fully understand nature and thus be able to reproduce it successfully. Another of John Varley’s pupils, William Henry Hunt, recorded that he and his fellow students would: ‘sit down before any common object – a cottage, garden rails, a mossy wall or an old port and endeavour to imitate them minutely a rareful mode of practice not then recognised as it has since become.’ In this beautifully observed watercolour, Varley has singled out the trunk of a birch tree, faithful recording the minutiae of a section of its bark. Varley leaves the remainder of the sheet remarkably plain, simply washing in the foreground in rich green watercolour. In its intensity of vision, spareness and powerful sense of design, this drawing points to Varley’s important place as an innovator in nineteenth-century British landscape painting.
Cornelius Varley had been brought up from the age of twelve by his uncle Samuel Varley, a watch and instrument maker as well as an amateur scientist, Cornelius gradually came to appreciate that, in his own words, ‘knowledge is no burden by lightens all other burdens.’ For many years his interest in science and art ran in tandem, as his enquiring mind came to scrutinise all aspects of the natural world. A sketchbook used by him in Wales in 1802, for example, containing views of Dolbardern, Barmouth, Harlech and elsewhere, is also inscribed with recipes for curing poisonous animal bites and cancer of the lips.
Varley seems to have been strongly influenced by Thomas Girtin’s practice of sketching from nature in all weathers, having apparently seen him ‘sitting out for hours in the rain to observe the effect of storms and clouds upon the atmosphere.’ This remarkable drawing shows Varley’s observational powers. Drawn en plein air on a trip he undertook to Gillingham Norfolk with his brother in 1801. The Varleys were stayed at Gillingham Hall with the Bacon-Schultz family; John had been teaching the daughters to sketch in London. Whilst there he was able: ‘to sketch from Nature the ladies coming to sketch with [him] whenever they liked. This happy change was like a glorious holiday. The pure air The sence of liberty to ramble anywhere and to have the boundless works of creation open before [him] and when indoors to be in the midst of the most cultivated amiable Kindness, that hid care and brightened hope.’ Taking full advantage of this freedom, Varley made this intense study of a birch tree. Rather than delineating the whole tree, Varley concentrates on the lower section, producing a minute record of the bark in the lowest section, there is no sign of the canopy or leaves. Varley eschews all the conventions of the picturesque, placing the tree at the centre of the composition and delineating in minutely applied watercolour the mottled, knotted texture of its bark with scientific precision. Indeed the composition and approach to the drawing recalls botanical drawing, rather than traditional landscape studies. Varley’s scrutinising vision produces a surprisingly compelling portrait of a single birch settled in its moss green landscape. The sheet is further lifted by Varley’s distinctive inscription, which floats away from the totem-like tree.
There is considerable contemporary evidence to suggest that informal studies such as this were exhibited by Varley in his lifetime. His aesthetically compelling watercolours combined careful observation with intensity of feeling in a manner which anticipates John Constable and the emerging strain of naturalism in early nineteenth-century Britain. Indeed Constable may have seen Varley’s work at the first exhibition of the Society of Painters in Watercolour in 1805; two of his twelve exhibits that year were listed by him as sketched ‘made on the spot.’ In the second half of the twentieth century, his work became appreciated for its freshness and its role in pioneering a ‘naturalistic’ mode of landscape painting. The present sheet was owned by the notable fashion designer and collector Bill Blass.