Varley, Edgar John (1839-1888)

Varley, Edgar John (1839-1888)

The views of the English countryside and the beauty of the island of Guernsey are conjured in a glorious wash of watercolour by the 19th-century artist Edgar John Varley. A member of the Varley painting dynasty, Edgar John Varley was a spirited watercolourist and educator, keen to promote artistic instruction and interest.

Edgar John Varley was the son of Charles Smith Varley (1811-1888), a watercolourist who often exhibited in London. It seems very possible that his father was his first artistic instructor. Indeed, Varley must have been raised in an environment of artistic nourishment. Not only was his father an artist but his grandfather was the esteemed watercolourist John Varley (1778-1842). He had been instrumental in the rise of watercolour painting as a much-practised and legitimate form of landscape painting.

Alongside these two men was a plethora of other relatives who cultivated successful artistic careers, such as Varley’s uncle Albert Fleetwood Varley (1804-1876), his great-aunt Elizabeth Varley (1798-1864), and her painter husband William Mulready (1786-1863). Even the elder John Varley’s ex-pupils married into the Varley dynasty, such as watercolourist Copley Fielding (1787-1855).

Safe to say Varley was surrounded by artistic enterprise, and within him, too, was the same spirit. The influence of his father and his grandfather is quite evident in his work. Not only did Varley work predominantly in watercolour, but his scenes conjure the same delicate yet powerfully executed atmospheres.

Washes of colour are sophisticatedly applied to create skies of luminous personality. They shimmer from a stark, summer azure into the dusky, muted fall of twilight.

The seasons, too, are depicted in their varying curiosities. Varley captures the countryside in the glorious flush of summer, the ochre ache of autumn. His skilful wielding of colour creates scenes with a bucolic radiance. Combined with close attention to detail in the small additions, such as the wild animals and the foliage, there is a true sense of personality to his landscapes. The viewer feels they are seeing something celebratory of nature’s beauty, yet also enlivened with its truth.

Varley exhibited on a number of occasions in London, demonstrating the success of his works. Perhaps he would not reach the same heights of fame in his lifetime as his grandfather had, but along with his relatives, Varley was making a case for the continued excellence of the family’s artistic production.

Varley was also a passionate educator. For many years, he lived and worked on the Channel Island of Guernsey, nestled near the coast of northern France. Indeed, many of his scenic watercolours depict views of the island and the Channel beyond.

Varley taught drawing at the esteemed Elizabeth College, as well as offering his instruction to the Working Men’s Association. It seems that Varley was a generous and kind teacher. The obituary published in the Guernsey press following his death emphasises his ‘amiable disposition,’ and how he was ‘always ready to assist everyone who desired to cultivate art.’ In a letter concerning widening artistic education beyond Guernsey’s towns to its more rural parishes, Varley is keen to undertake such a task. It ‘seemed to me very good and quite practicable,’ the artist would enthuse. The instigators of this scheme were to have his ‘hearty sympathy and support.’

Varley cared deeply for Guernsey and its residents. In the 1880s he returned to England to live and work in London. However, he did not sell his house on the island, advertising it for let only, suggesting he intended to settle down on the island once more one day.

Once back in London, Varley took up a position as curator of the Royal Architectural Museum in Westminster, which specialised in artistic depictions of architecture and its practices. Varley also possessed an interest in architecture, so this was a position well-suited and very commendable.

Unfortunately, Edgar John Varley’s life was cut short by illness. He passed away in 1888 at the age of 49, leaving behind his wife and their young children. The house in Guernsey would never be re-occupied.

Yet his artistic contribution has not been forgotten. He remains a fond figure in Guernsey for his contributions to its artistic livelihood. Today, a number of his works are held in museums across Britain, including the Victoria and Albert Museum. Edgar John Varley was not only a member of the Varley family artistic dynasty but a celebrated artist and educator in his own right.




Exhibited at the Royal Academy.


Married Fanny Fay Fraser.


Exhibited at the Royal Academy.


Exhibited with the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours.


Exhibited at the Royal Academy. Appointed curator of the Royal Architectural Museum, Westminster, London.


Died in London, Britain.

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