Cornelius Varley in Wales

July 3, 2020 3 Comments

Among the many artists who came to draw and paint in Wales around the turn of the eighteenth century, Cornelius Varley is yet to receive just attention.  The pictures he made in Wales are fresh, delicate and strong, the work of a young man with great visual intelligence who reacted with instinctive wonder and clarity to the landscape of the country.  They were mainly created on the spot, in the open air, with pencil, ink and watercolour wash.  Most were ignored in Varley’s lifetime, and only a few art historians since have taken them seriously.

Cornelius Varley, Mountain landscape, north Wales [undated] (Yale Center for British Art) [detail]

There are several reasons why Cornelius has been overlooked.  He was overshadowed as an artist by his elder brother John, a trained and more prolific painter, who was well-known as a friend of William Blake and John Constable.  He worked on a small scale and in watercolour, rather than in the more prestigious oils.  Although he never gave up painting – he was still exhibiting almost to his death at the age of 92 – he tended in later years to concentrate on other interests, and his art never regained the grace and sparkle of his Welsh period.  Today his works are widely scattered, in public institutions but also in private hands.

Cornelius Varley, Sketches of trees and foliage [undated] (Royal Academy of Art)

Cornelius was born, one of five children, near London in 1781.  In his vividly written, fragmentary manuscript, ‘Cornelius Varley’s narrative, written by himself’, he writes, ‘Our Family were all born at Hackney in a large house that had been the Blue post Tavern with large garden & Fruit trees & Grounds with some large trees’.  When he was ten years old his father died.  His course in life was set when he was taught ‘Mechanical and Scientific knowledge’ by his uncle Samuel, a watchmaker, jeweller and maker of optical instruments.  ‘It was there’, he says, ‘I first saw the wonders of Science, and became eager to make some lenses’.  Later he invented several devices, including sundials, microscopes and a ‘graphic telescope’, a type of camera obscura of use to visual artists.  He patented a version of the telescope in 1811 and went on to manufacture examples himself: one version was on show at the Great Exhibition in 1851.  In 1839 he co-founded the Royal Microscopic Society, and 1845 published a book, A treatise on optical drawing instruments.

Cornelius Varley, Lord Rous’s park, Henham Hall, near Eccles, Suffolk (1801) (British Museum)

In 1800, Cornelius tell us, he taught himself how to draw from nature (though he may have had some help from his brother John).  He spent time in 1801-2 drawing and teaching drawing in country houses, Gillingham Hall, Norfolk and Henham Hall, Suffolk.  That he was already an accomplished artist is obvious in a sensitive and expertly composed watercolour of countryside near Henman Hall (1801).

After this brief East Anglian period Cornelius returned to London, but made several sketching trips to Wales.  The first was in June 1802, with his brother John and a young Orkney-born architect (and later geologist), Thomas Webster.  He returned to Wales in 1803, in the company of Joshua Cristall and William Havell, and came back for a third time, this time alone, in 1805. It was on these three Welsh tours that Cornelius Varley did his most significant work as an artist. 

The 1802 tour

Cornelius Varley, Craig Goch, Moel Hebog (1802) (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The 1802 tour to north Wales is poorly documented, but some sketches are dated or can be attributed to it.  The Varleys and Webster toured Snowdonia, visiting, among other places, Dolgellau, Harlech, Caernarfon and Conwy.  The watercolours take in broad sweeps of mountains from below.  In [Mynydd] Craig Goch, Moel Hebog from Harlech or Traeth Bach Cornelius uses flat washed to echo the tonal gradations of the different mountains, and on the slopes of the most prominent peak, Moel Hebog.  He also suggests the shifting waters and sandbanks of Traeth Bach in the foreground. 

Cornelius Varley, Sunlight over a lake near Snowdon, Llanberis, north Wales (1802) (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)
Cornelius Varley, Sunlight over a lake near Snowdon, Llanberis, north Wales [detail]

In Sunlight over a lake near Snowdon, Llanberis, north Wales, which may also date to 1802, Cornelius uses similar flat washes of slightly different tones to record the receding planes of the mountain slopes in front of Snowdon.  But this time the surface of the water on the lake is wind-ruffled rather than still, and he meticulously reproduces the flashes of light on it, giving special attention to the ragged edges of the sunny area.  As in the Moel Hebog picture, the sky is mostly plain.

Cornelius Varley, Caernarfon Castle (1802) (Yale Center for British Art)

A third watercolour, dated 1802, shows the Eagle’s Tower of Caernarfon Castle, from across Afon Seiont.  Again, Cornelius uses flat grey washes for the castle walls.  But this time he’s more interested in the sky, where cumulus clouds are massing in the south-west over the dark mountains and threaten to overwhelm the calm wisps of cloud to the left (a boat is making heavy weather as it sails along the river).

Cornelius Varley, Tygwyn ferry (1802) (Yale Center for British Art)

Cornelius’s pen and ink sketches from the tour are very different.  They’re painstakingly but delicately drawn, and not afraid to remain as partial sketches, with areas of the paper left blank when the main subject’s been captured. Tygwyn ferry, dated 1802, captures a stout house, raised above the water, with a rowing boat in the foreground.  (Tŷ Gwyn y Gamlas, near the hamlet of Ynys, was the old ferry terminal for travellers wanting to cross Traeth Bach and Traeth Mawr by boat, before William Madocks built the Cob.)  Cornelius’s interest is focussed entirely on the distinctive architecture of the old house, with just a few other details suggested to give context and balance to the composition.

Cornelius Varley, A Welsh kitchen (1802) (National Museum Wales)

There’s a similar attention to small detail in a rare interior view of an old cruck-built hall house in Conwy.  From this drawing Catherine Weston has been able to give a detailed analysis of the furniture Cornelius itemises: the unusual cwpwrdd tridarn, the clwyd fara (a cratch or rack for storing food), several tables, a clock and stick chair.  Again, the composition is very assured.

John Varley, Caernarfon Castle [undated], (Yale Center for British Art)

To turn to John Varley’s watercolour of Caernarfon, also presumably from the 1802 tour, is to realise how much more conventional and calculated was his approach to landscape painting.  He paints the castle from the south, in a calm, pastoral light, in both respects following in the artistic footsteps of Richard Wilson many years before.  He includes the obligatory human figures, men in a rowing boat and two women on the shore.  Perhaps, as a self-taught artist, Cornelius felt unburdened by the weight of the historical landscape tradition that lay on his brother.

The 1803 tour

The following summer Cornelius returned to Wales, with Joshua Cristall and William Havell, both talented young artists, as his sketching companions.  This time he entered the country much further south.  We first find him, in a drawing labelled Cristall under his parasol, sketching Cristall, a miniature figure dwarfed by an overhanging rock on the banks of the river Wye.  Cristall is himself sketching.

Cornelius Varley, Joshua Cristall under his parasol, sketching by the River Wye (1803) (Private collection)

The trio seem to have passed through south Wales quickly, via Llanthony Abbey, intent on spending time in Merioneth.  It may be that Cornelius was eager this time to climb mountains, rather than just admire them from below.  In his autobiography he writes about their ascent of Cadair Idris.  It’s worth reproducing his account of the climb at length:

But To keep a little order I will return to 1803 when I ascended Cader Idris from Dolgelly with Cristal, Havel, & several others.  When evening approached all the party except me & Cristal descended for prudence sake while there was light enough to see their way but the increasing grandeur & brilliancy of the scene above detain’d us (thro’ all risks) to enjoy the splendour we were much higher than the surrounding mountains.

The Sun surrounded by small bright & lofty clouds illum’d the whole heavens & was spreading his beams over a bright ocean of lower clouds which in one great sheet spread over all the lower Mountains causing a gloomy dark & early night in all the valleys, & distant cottage light cou’d be seen feebly glimmering.  Thus night below & glorious sun shine above, then golden Vapour began to play on our Mountain, but on looking Eastward that end of the mountain was coverd by a luminous fog or Cloud on which we saw in perfection (what has been mysteriously described as the Spectre of the Brocken) a bright halo or ring of light with our distinct Shaddows within.  We were on the highest brow of the mountain the shadow of which intercepted the lower part of the ring & on it stood our whole shadows.  The head of my shadow was in the center of his ring & my shadow beside his.  We threw up our hats & moved about.  The shadow did the same & when we moved rather far apart each others shaddow quickly lost distinctness & faded away but not our own for each of us had a perfect shadow & concentric ring around it …

… This bright vision & the sun gradually disappeared leaving us in grey twilight.  Clouds at such time are not visible when you are close to them so whilst we were being glad at the absence of clouds keeping from us we were suddenly enveloped in them clouds & they became so dense that at arms length our finger ends touching, we cou’d not see each other.  We then hastend down lower to get below these clouds & endeavord to find the horse track road, but we cou’d not so we return’d close round the summit & hasten’d down the natural slope of many fallen stones, sometimes sliding midst a number & having to jump aside to avoid the loosen’d ones which rolld after us.  I had stiff boots on so cou’d risk more & being in advance of Cristal had to avoid the stones which he loosen’d some of which we heard splashing into the pool below, the light from it being our only guide.

This slope was certainly dangerous in the dark & with a hurried descent but having escaped it we were fairly below the clouds & cou’d see about tho the darkness was rapidly increasing.  We then hasten’d to see the second lower lake & groped our way down to its margin with its light being our only guide no track to lead us but when then we follow’d a track which led us along its outlet till we found ourselves in a road & here we were lighten’d of our anxiety tho it was so very dark that we coud se but little before us.  This road led our really weary steps into Dolgelly were we arrived after 12 O clock nearly overcome by anxiety & fatigue (having spent a day of 18 hours) but to our delight we found a hot substantial supper on the table to which (tho’ scarcely able to keep awake) we set to in good earnest.

Cadair Idris was a magnet for energetic tourists of the time, but few contemporary descriptions of climbing it can match this narrative, which could almost have been written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, with its ecstatic response to nature, its close observation of an unusual weather phenomenon (the ‘Brocken spectre’ was described in verse by Coleridge) and its deflating humour.

Cornelius Varley, Cader Idris (1803) (National Museum Wales)

A single sketch in National Museum Wales, misattributed by the Museum to John Varley, was drawn by Cornelius at the summit of Cadair Idris.  He adds the note: ‘From the top of Cader Idris.  Sun setting, all the lesser mountains covered with clouds causing night underneath’.

Cornelius Varley, Panorama of Cadair Idris (fol.12v) (1805) (Pierpont Morgan Library)

The Pierpoint Morgan Library in New York has a sketchbook which Cornelius filled with drawings of the 1803 tour, mainly of Cadair Idris, Tal-y-llyn and Dolgellau.  It’s clear that the mountain made a deep impression on him, and not only when he was climbing it.  Many of the pencil sketches, dashed off immediately and with joyful freedom, aim to capture the wide sweep of the Cadair ridge from the north.  Again and again – not only in the sketchbook but in other, separate drawings – Cornelius returns to the great long wall of rock and the multiple peaks of the mountain, each time from a different angle, as if he’s intending to stitch together a virtual panorama. 

Cornelius Varley, Panorama of Cader Idris and Dolgelly (f.11) (1803) (Pierpont Morgan Library)
Cornelius Varley, Mountain panorama in Wales, Cader Idris (1803) (Yale Center for British Art)

‘Stitching’ is an apt word, because Cornelius isn’t so concerned to express in his sketches the masses within the landscape and to give an impression of three dimensions.  He aims to translate what he sees before him into a textile-like, essentially two-dimensional pattern of shapes.  Joshua Cristall, by contrast, in his view of Cadair Idris, uses multiple colours and tones to suggest what Basil Taylor termed ‘sculptural forms’, like the hollow bowl of Cwm Cau and the cragginess of Mynydd Moel in the foreground.

Joshua Cristall, Llyn Caye, Cader Idris (1803) (Pierpoint Morgan Library)

In the Sketchbook drawings the sky appears blank, but in another one of his Cadair Idris sketches, drawn with black chalk, Cornelius focusses less on the mountain and more on the massive clouds gathered along its ridge.  The notes under it reveal the intensity of his concentration on their movement over time:

Fine weather wind S.E.  Clouds coming towards me all the morning but dissolved into transparent atmosphere as fast as they came so that I had constant blue sky over head … Sun shine yet the hills came forward darken.

Cornelius Varley, At Beddgelert (1803?) (National Museum Wales)

At Beddgelert is a watercolour of the freshest, most vivid kind: mountainsides in green and grey, and an azure sky obscured by fast clouds, grey and the darkest of blues, scudding past.

Cornelius Varley, Sky study (1803) (Tate Gallery)

This interest in the formation and appearance of different kinds of clouds preoccupied Cornelius at this time.  Another 1803 sketch, on the verso of a drawing of a dead tree stump, is a pure cloudscape, with no land in view – almost twenty years before John Constable’s more famous studies of clouds.

Cornelius’s companion William Havell used his sketches of the 1803 tour to work up and exhibit oil paintings, including Tintern Abbey, his first picture to be accepted by the Royal Academy, in 1804.  But Cornelius was content to leave his own perceptions on paper. 

Timothy Wilcox sums up Cornelius’s achievement in 1803:

Varley’s pencil drawings of 1803 conjure up a vast spatial field with extraordinary clarity. His use of the pencil is now subtly nuanced, both in weight and in the flexibility of outline, ranging from the neurotically jagged to loose, curly arabesques. As if further to replicate the visual experience, he also creates blur, or slight indistinctness at the boundaries of the field of vision … Apart from his precision in drawing, in 1803 Varley achieved a new purposefulness in his use of colour. This, too, is directed chiefly towards a more accurate representation of the texture of grassy hillsides and rock surfaces. The direct method he used previously is now replaced by a broken, layered effect with smaller touches in one colour applied over a dry layer of a different colour. This might seem almost insignificant in itself, yet it demonstrates once again Varley’s acknowledgement, through visual means, of the time taken up by repeated acts of looking. The appearance of this technique in Varley’s work of 1803 is also important as it seems to anticipate the very distinctive, and more controlled, use of a similar procedure in Cotman’s watercolours a few years later.’ 

Tour of 1805

Perhaps in the end Cornelius found sketching companions more of a hindrance than a support, because when he came back to Wales two years later for his last tour he travelled alone.  He returned to many of the places he had visited before, including Harlech and Snowdonia.  The weather was disappointing, as he says in his autobiography:

… the whole season was so Rainy that in most places I was the only traveller.  This apparent solitude amidst Clouds & Mountains left me more at large ‘To hold converse with Natures Charms & view her stores untold’.

A new feeling seems to pervade some of the paintings from this tour.  It’s not wholly attributable to the weather.  One or two have a more sombre tone, and lack the exuberant freedom of movement in the earlier sketches.  But they make up for that loss by a new weight and power.

Cornelius Varley, Evening at Llanberis, North Wales (1805) (Tate Gallery)

Evening at Llanberis is a tiny watercolour (200 x 238mm), dated ‘1805’.  This is no glowing, romantic sunset, but the slow death of what little light there’s been all day.  The sky’s uniformly grey.  Against it is the dark shape of a mountain, the details on its flanks only vaguely visible. The foreground (a field?) is an echo of the dull sky, just as featureless.  The overall effect is one of sombre oppression.

A new base on this tour was Llanllyfni, a small village on the western edge of the Snowdon massif.  This was an ideal observatory from which to scan the highest mountains and the weather surrounding them.  In this breathless stream of reminiscence from his autobiography Cornelius recreates one transcendent passage of observation:

In 1805 whilst seated on the North bank of the Vale of Llanllyfni, Snowden seen on my left hand over the Eastn. end the Sky was clear pale blue except a little line of small clouds sailing above the southern range & keeping their path over those summits proceeded eastward towards Snowdon over whose highest peak they all in succession passed but here they paid particular respect each cloud as it approached & passed over the peak or highest part took a very determinate & stratified form, but when passed & clear of its attraction they resumed their unshapely form, some whilst proceeding sent out projections towards 3 or 4 summits as they passed between & drew them in again when they got clear of those attractions. But while these clouds were passing eastward fresh formd one kept adding & following so they grew larger & longer towards the wind which fed them & carried them along till their size wrapped over & hid the top line of the whole southern range of hills. Then rain began at the eastern end & obscured that portion of the hills & the rain gradually extended westward over the range while the line of clouds were growing for miles over the sea whose distant horizon was still clear and […] but the rain gradually extended till over the sea & then progressively obscured the whole horizon. here was a single line of clouds & rain of many miles in length I was yet in fine weather on the northern side & the rest of the sky clear.

Cornelius Varley, Snowdon from Llanllyfni (1805) (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery)

In an unusually elaborated watercolour now in Birmingham, Snowdon from Llanllyfni, Cornelius condenses this ever-changing cloudscape into a single moment, where horizontal cloud strata partially obscure the grey triangle of Snowdon in the distance, while the foreground and Mynydd Mawr on the left, in contrast, remain in bright light.  A brief sketch in the National Library of Wales takes a broader view, a delicate, economical outline, in his earlier style, of Dyffryn Nantlle, with Snowdon in the centre.  

Cornelius Varley, Snowdon from Llanllyfni (1805) (National Library of Wales)

While in Llanllyfni Cornelius made at least two other pictures. One is a brief sketch looking from the village towards Snowdon: with.  Another is the view of buildings in the a village street, similar to earlier streetscapes.  But the third is very different, a new kind of painting, one that must have absorbed Cornelius’s attention for many hours.  It would be no exaggeration to call it the modest masterpiece of his entire painting career.  Its title is Cottages at Llanllyfni.  The paper size is small (10.3 x 24.8cm), but the care lavished on the piece and the degree of detail are astonishing. 

Cornelius Varley, Cottages at Llanllyfni (1805) (Yale Center for British Art)

Two things strike you immediately.  One is that part of the picture, on the left of the tree trunk, is ‘missing’.  Cornelius has signed the paper here, and clearly felt the painting was, for him, complete.  Second, unlike his other sketches of architectural subjects, viewed from an angle, here he abandons perspective and tackles the building head on, using the bare tree, forking and bending, to give a strong structure to the composition.  As with Evening at Llanberis the palette is restricted: this is a dark study in tonal gradation.

Matthew Hargraves draws attention to the meticulous care Cornelius gives to rendering the detail of the façade of the cottage, and points to a crucial moment of change this painting marks in the status of the sketch:

Details such as the blocked-up window on the right have been carefully observed as have the leaded lights, which have been rendered painstakingly.  The cottage door has been painted with such fidelity to nature that he scrupulously recorded the aging door furniture, some printed papers pinned to the wood, and even the rotting, moss-covered panels at the bottom.  Meanwhile the left-hand side of the cottage is barely sketched in, the stonework only lightly pencilled, and the roof and foreground foliage left unfinished.  What was distinctive about Cornelius’s attitude to these sketches, however, was his willingness to exhibit them in an incomplete state as works of art in their own right.  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.

Cornelius Varley, Cotman of Norwich (c1810)

Cottages at Llanllyfni seems to open up a new chapter in painting, a break with the old classical traditions, and a move towards a bolder, simplified approach to finding a pictorial correspondence to the world seen by the eye.  Cornelius’s friend John Sell Cotman, whose portrait he drew, was working the same vein during his golden period in north Yorkshire and Durham in 1803-5.  Cotman too had made tours of Wales when a young man, in 1800 and 1802.  For both artists, Wales – a land that was wholly strange to their previous life experience – opened up their visual imaginations and released a stream of works that deserve to be better known today.  Their freshness of vision and freedom of manner are in some sense a pictorial parallel to the contemporary revolution in poetry we associate with the Lyrical ballads of Wordsworth and Coleridge.

Cornelius Varley, Graphic telescope, plate from A treatise on optical drawing instruments (1845)

Comments (3)

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  1. Jeremy Yates says:

    Dear Andrew……Did I just hear you (with half an ear) on R4 talking about Gilbert White? I shall have to listen again! – and get my dusty copy of Natural History down off its shelf. My brother lives not far from Selborne (Alton) and we hope to see him soon, now we can travel a bit further afield – I wonder if anything will be open – the churchyard of course. Last time I was down there (in the 1970s!) I called on the monks at the abbey in Farnborough, not knowing anything about it, or the Napoleon III connections – a very nice monk showed us all the Napoleonic relics they protect there – fascinating.

    However the reason for this comment is that I have read your essay on Cornelius Varley and must congratulate you on it – You have obviously got a copy of the Lowell Libson exhibition catalogue (2005) and quote Timothy Wilcox from it – Michael Pidgley of Exeter has been a voice for Varley for longer than I can remember – he also contributed to that catalogue. Michael was involved in producing the Colnaghi show of 1973 which showed the drawings he had ‘discovered’, and which then were sold through Colnaghi to the museums and collectors ‘of discernment’ – who recognised the special genius of his observations – so the Morgan and the Fitzwilliam bagged sketchbooks of delicious pencil drawings, many of Welsh views of course. I did make a point of visiting the Morgan Library to look at their sketchbook, and have photocopies of all the pages from it, most generously given to me by the staff there. Some of the panoramas of mountain views stretch over several double pages and are impossible to reproduce in entirety – how he maintained scale and accuracy from one page to the next I have no idea – just astonishing draughtsmanship. Michael still has a few of his watercolour studies – I think one reason he is ‘undervalued’ is that he did not produce the quantity of finished / exhibition works that every curator needs to catch public / wider attention – small scale, often unfinished studies require study (!) and although ‘sketches’ are appreciated, his are not the freely dashed-off stuff that attracts the casual eye. Nonetheless Varley does appear in selections from the most respected collections such as the Yale Center. Even his brother John, important as he is, does not command wide acclaim or monographic shows – always a supporter of wider surveys. And Cornelius was too diverse – being a trained scientist and instrument maker – and Cotman was given one of his Graphic Telescopes by Sir Henry Englefield to take on his first trip to Normandy in 1817. They were very popular with artists – Chantrey the sculptor used one in his portrait work.

    I shall have to catch up with your other postings – and look forward to hearing more of you on the radio?


    • Andrew Green says:

      Many thanks, Jeremy, for these comments. As usual, your knowledge far exceeds mine. Cornelius Varley was little more than a name before I started looking into his life and work. As you say, he’s unlikely to have a critical ‘resurrection’, for the reason you give, but I’m sure his wonderful sketches will always be be valued by those taking a serious interest in landscape art – and he’ll also be of continuing interest to historians of Cadair Idris.

      No it wasn’t me on the radio!

  2. Jeremy Yates says:

    Well, someone is impersonating you then! I did think the voice sounded a bit ‘young’ – sorry for the useless directions around Alton / Farnborough then….

    Best wishes Jeremy

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