Although not a name that attracts large sums at auction, John Varley (1778-1842) played a central role during the so-called ‘golden age’ of British watercolour painting.
The London-born artist, who was a founder member of the Society of Painters in Watercolours, helped to popularise the medium in the early 19th century, extending its appeal beyond the owners of grand country houses to those who dwelled in more modest homes.
He painted a wide variety of English subjects – mountains, towns, castles, rivers and coasts – in a style that encapsulated the transition between tinted topographical drawing and the bolder, more fully developed manner characteristic of 19th century watercolour painting.
A close friend of William Blake, Varley was also a highly regarded teacher (Samuel Palmer was one of his pupils) and he wrote instruction manuals on technique.
On the secondary market, his watercolours and drawings usually sell in four figures with his best works achieving around £15,000 at auction – a relatively low level when compared to other pioneering golden-age watercolourists such as Thomas Girtin, John Sell Cotman and Paul Sandby.
Spetchley Park source
Several of Varley’s 19th century watercolour landscapes were offered with modest estimates of £500-800 at Chorley’s (22.5/15/12.5/10% buyer’s premium) in Cheltenham on January 28.
The five works came with other residual contents from Spetchley Park, the stately pile built in Worcestershire during the Regency period for the Berkeley family. Many of the higher-valued lots deemed surplus to requirements by the family had already been sold in a £2.46m sale at Sotheby’s in London in December, including an Old Master portrait of a gentleman catalogued as ‘follower of Anthony Van Dyck’ which took £110,000 (estimate £8000-12,000).
Offered on its own at Chorley’s was a small and well-preserved view by Varley depicting Belgravia House in London with Westminster Bridge in the distance. Signed and dated 1824, the 8 x 11in (20 x 29cm) watercolour was produced during a particularly tumultuous period in Varley’s career when he was in and out of debtors’ prison.
Estimated at a modest £500-800, it was knocked down at £5000 to a UK trade buyer on the phone.
The four other watercolours came in equally good condition. Offered as a set, the quartet depicted unidentified views of rural landscapes, a castle and a town, and sold for £3500.
Old Master clean away
Competition also emerged for a small Old Master painting of the Madonna and Child from Spetchley described as ‘17th century Flemish School’.
Although dirty with a vertical split in the 20 x 16in (52 x 40cm) oil on panel, it was noted for its ‘very good quality’ painting in the catalogue entry. With the chance of a rewarding clean, it sold to a UK private buyer bidding in the room for £7500.
As well as the Spetchley lots, the sale at Chorley’s contained traditional pictures from several other private sources.
A collection in Gloucestershire yielded an Old Master half-length portrait of lady with a large lace colour in an ornate 17th century frame with cherubs and putti in scrolling leafage. It was catalogued as circle of Paulus Moreelse (1571-1638), the Dutch painter who primarily worked as a civic portraitist in his native Utrecht.
Based on an armorial in the painting, the auction house suggested the sitter was perhaps the wealthy widow Jane Kule (1582-1659). She was the daughter of a London brewer and married William James (1570-1627), a descendant of the Haestrecht family of Cleve near to Moreelse in Utrecht.
Admired for its strong subject and fine frame, and with scope for further research, it sold towards top estimate for £11,000 to a UK trade buyer on the phone.
Also selling from the collection were a 17th century English School portrait of a lady, traditionally thought to be Elizabeth I, and a commanding 17th century English School portrait of a nobleman, perhaps Thomas Radcliffe, 3rd Earl of Sussex (c.1525-83). Both sold for £6000 on thesaleroom.com