Lowell Libson & Jonny Yarker Ltd

  • Watercolour on wove paper
  • 11 × 15 inches · 280 × 381 mm
  • Signed and inscribed: ‘Windsor’ in ink
    Verso: colour tests in grey
    Drawn in c.1806


  • London, Lowell Libson Ltd., Cornelius Varley: The Art of Observation, 2005, cat. no.43.

This spectacular, panoramic landscape shows a distant view of Windsor Castle, almost certainly made en plein air, this ravishing sheet demonstrates what a remarkably innovative artist Varley was at the outset of his career. Made in 1806, this monochrome study shows Varley’s remarkable technical facility, showcasing his controlled use of washes to capture a sense of atmosphere.

Cornelius Varley was a landscape painter and inventor of optical apparatus, born in London he was the third of five children of Richard Varley. Varley's elder brother, John, became a famous watercolour artist and his younger sister, Elizabeth, married the artist William Mulready. Following an apprenticeship to his uncle, Samuel, a watchmaker, Varley began to make lenses and microscopes. He was a largely self-taught artist, who learnt by sketching from nature in the company of his brother John. John Varley believed passionately in the importance of working directly in nature. Cornelius seems to have adopted this principal and cited the illustrious example of Thomas Girtin to support it, claiming that when ‘sketching from nature,’ the late Girtin used to ‘expose himself to all weathers, sitting out for hours in the rain to observe the effects of storms and clouds upon the atmosphere.’

This watercolour was made in around 1806 and is a rare example of Varley painting entirely in wash, there is no evidence of a preparatory pencil sketch. Varley has exploited the rich texture of the wove paper to receive a series of carefully modulated washes. The landscape composition is built in bands of wash, with a darker band in the foreground, a lighter grey capturing the distinctive profile of Windsor Castle and then a complex intersection of warm grey washes capturing the last of the light illuminating a band of cloud. This remarkably immediate and informal composition was clearly considered finished by Varley, who has boldly inscribed and signed on the bottom left of the sheet. Varley regularly exhibited drawings that at first sight appear unfinished or fragmentary, by doing so he helped to transform the status of the sketch in the nineteenth century from a mere aide mémoire to the purest expression of an artist’s engagement with nature.

Preserved in excellent condition, this unusually large watercolour is a very bold and complete view by Varley made entirely on the spot. Shortly after completing this work, Varley moved away from art towards engineering and optics. It was not until the second half of the twentieth century that his work began to be appreciated for its freshness and its role in pioneering a ‘naturalistic’ mode of landscape painting.