Numerous topographical watercolours or prints of this period were produced by artists from drawings sketched by soldiers or naval officers, sent on campaigns to little-known territories. This example, as an inscription formerly on the back of the frame indicated, was made by Varley ‘from a Sketch by Lieut. Lawson of the Royal Engineers’ in 1825. Nothing is now known of Lawson or why he was posted to this location.
This watercolour, or a similar work, may have been ‘Mr. John Varley’s sketch of Gibraltar’, exhibited at the annual exhibition of Messrs. Rodman & Co. in Belfast, in 1881. A reviewer described it as ‘remarkable for its lovely atmospheric effect. The air is so clear that it might almost be called dazzling.’
John Varley, watercolour painter, was born in Hackney, Middlesex. He was a pupil of Joseph Charles Barrow and exhibited his first work at the Royal Academy in 1798. He worked in Wales from 1798/9 to 1802, making studies that would provide subject matter for the rest of his career. His subjects were frequently English and Welsh towns, Welsh mountain views or English landscapes, and his work demonstrates the influence of Thomas Girtin. In 1804, Varley played a leading role in establishing the Society of Painters in Water Colours. He was also a teacher of artists. By 1821 his fortunes had declined and he was declared bankrupt. He appears to have remained insolvent for the next two decades until his death at the age of 64.
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