This beautifully fluid watercolour was made by John Varley in around 1815, it shows the Scottish Presbyterian Albion chapel in the City of London. An unusually free sketch, this watercolour was assumed to be by Varley’s more innovative younger brother, Cornelius. But the survival of a ‘finished’ watercolour by John and its similarity to other limpid studies from around 1815 confirm it to be one of the freshest and most engaging works by the elder of the two Varleys. Preserved in excellent condition, this rare watercolour sketch demonstrates how direct and compelling John Varley could be as a landscape painter.
Varley belonged to the generation of young landscape painters working at the beginning of the nineteenth century, who adopted watercolour as their principal medium for artistic and professional advancement. Varley was one of the founder members of the Society of Painters in Water Colours in 1804 and among its most prolific and respected exhibitors. He attended Dr Monro’s informal academy in Adelphi Terrace and from 1802 to 1804 was a member of the Sketching Society. Throughout the first decade of the nineteenth century, Varley built up a flourishing practice as a teacher in watercolour; Peter DeWint, William Henry Hunt and Anthony Vandyke Copley Fielding were all trained under his supervision. Despite giving so much time to teaching, Varley was also an extraordinary prolific painter. With a large family and little financial acumen, he was often short of ready money, and so it was not unusual for him to send more than forty exhibits at a time to the annual watercolour exhibitions. Varley’s motto was ‘go to nature for everything’ and he encouraged his followers to sketch outdoors. Varley himself was in the habit of working outdoors in London, particularly along the Thames, as Rudolph Ackerman noted in his 1809 New Drawing Book, Varley: ‘passes many days in the summer and autumnal months, in making accurate studies of the boats, barges, punts, eel pots, fishing nets, anchors and other appendages used by fisherman upon the Thames.’
Whilst the present watercolour is not a Thames view, it does show Varley working en plein air in London. The view is taken on the street called London Wall looking west towards the Albion chapel. On the right of the view are the remains of an ancient brick wall and palisade, which were shortly to be replaced by the South elevation of Finsbury Circus. The domed structure in the distance is the Albion Chapel which was erected on the site of the old Bethlem Royal Hospital and completed in 1815. Drawn first in pencil on thick, wove paper, Varley has then used remarkably fluid washes of watercolour to capture the leafless tree silhouetted against the blue sky and the figures traversing London Wall. This fluency reveals why Varley was so highly regarded by his contemporaries. A more finished watercolour by Varley of the same subject survives in the British Museum giving a fascinating insight into his working practice. In contrast to the quiet naturalism of the present sheet, in the finished watercolour Varley has shifted the season, adding foliage to the tree, neatened the wooden palisade and added colourful, prosperous figures to the pavement.