As an artist and as a teacher, John Varley (1778–1842) was one of the central figures in British art of the first part of the nineteenth century. A founder member of the Society of Painters in Watercolours in 1804, he played a central role in establishing the popularity of an art form whose appeal extended from the owners of grand country houses to suburban terraces and villas throughout the country. The author of an influential Treatise and inventor of his own range of colours, David Cox and Peter DeWint turned to him for lessons in order to perfect their watercolour technique. Varley’s lady pupils were legion; ‘angelic legions’, as Samuel Palmer wryly put it. In the first exhibition devoted to his art for over twenty years, his favourite mountains, castles, rivers and coasts are all to be found. The words of the critic William Hazlitt, penned in 1816, could have been written with Varley in mind: ‘True genius, though it has new sources of pleasure opened to it, does not lose its sympathy with humanity’.
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