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watercolours

John Varley at Harewood House

John Varley (1778 – 1842) was a key figure in the history of the development of British watercolours. From 1800 he studied at Dr Monro’s Academy and made early sketching tours to Wales from 1798 – 1802.  He was initially strongly influenced by Thomas Girtin. A founder member of the Society of Watercolour Artists in London in 1804, he would go on to exhibit over 700 works there. As a teacher, he impacted the next generation of watercolourists, counting among his successful pupils David Cox, Copley Fielding, John Linnell,
Samuel Palmer and Peter de Wint.

Varley first came into contact with Edward, Viscount Lascelles, son of the first Earl of Harewood and an avid collector of watercolours, in 1801. Two years later, in 1803, he visited Yorkshire and painted a number of accomplished views of Harewood House and one of the Castle.  This group of works was an important early commission for Varley. The watercolours displayed on this wall – Harewood House from the North West and Harewood House from the South West – are of considerable scale and ambition. They give far more architectural detail than the earlier more famous works by J.M.W Turner, also commissioned by Edward Lascelles.  The smaller Harewood House from the South by Varley shows the house from a distance, set within the landscape with a felled tree and woodsman in the foreground.  Boldly painted, it is undoubtedly influenced by Turner’s Harewood House from the South East but the tones are paler (displayed on the central wall).

It was only natural that the romantic medieval ruined castle, dating back to 1366, would attract visiting artists and it was painted by Varley, as well as his predecessors Turner and Girtin.  In Varley’s work, the castle is distant, partially covered in foliage and the broad landscape and foreground figures dominate the composition (displayed above the fireplace).

A further watercolour of the ‘model’ village at Harewood is also attributed to Varley or his circle (displayed next to the fireplace). The village drew the attention of the pastel painter, John Russell, who visited in 1802 and noted that the buildings were all ‘of stone, with a regularity and neatness that I never saw exceeded with a wide main street’, before being escorted through the arch by the steward to visit the house itself. Edward, Viscount Lascelles, who died in 1814, also owned an early view of Snowdon by Varley, but does not seem to have patronised him later in his career.  Varley went on to write a number of important books on watercolour painting, including Treatise on the Principles of Landscape Design (1816 – 18), and invented his own range of colours. This fine group of watercolours illustrates a key early commission when the artist was still painting views of country houses before developing an accomplished landscape style influenced by the 17th century artist Claude Lorrain.