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John Varley, 1778–1842, British

Vauxhall Bridge

ca. 1816
Watercolor and graphite on medium, moderately textured, cream wove paper
11 3/8 x 14 7/8 inches (28.9 x 37.8 cm)

Inscribed in graphite lower left: "[ . . . ]"; inscribed on back in black chalk upper left: "1< . . . >/8/1 1/8"; in graphite upper center: "The Thame<...>"; in pen and black ink upper right: "[ . . .]< . . . >"; in graphite center: "Vauxhall Bridg<...> | <...>arley. | Atlas"

Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Copyright Status:
Public Domain
Accession Number:
Drawings & Watercolors
Prints and Drawings
Subject Terms:
architectural subject | bridges (built works) | buildings | fishing boats | landscape | marine art | masts | rocks (landforms) | shores | trees
Associated Places:
England | London | United Kingdom
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IIIF Manifest:

Varley's early motto was "Go to Nature for Everything," advice that he drummed into his pupils. By 1809 Rudolph Ackerman's "New Drawing Book" could cite Varley - "that admirable professor of watercolor painting - as an exponent of outdoor sketching. Ackerman's readers were informed that he "passes many days in the summer and autumnal months, in making accurate studies of the boats, barges, punts, eel pots, fishing nets, anchors, and other appendages used by fishermen upon the Thames." Varley had been exhibiting these Thames-side views since 1806 and kept returning to the theme until around 1835. By then, this series of Thames views had followed the river all the way from Windsor down to Greenwich. Around 1810 he was sketching and painting the river just above Westminster: Millbank and Chelsea on one side, Lambeth and Battersea on the other. Varley's view of Vauxhall Bridge was taken from Millbank, an area that his student John Linnell (1792-1882) remembered as being "still rural then and constantly visited by Varley's pupils to make studies from." Before the Thames was embanked in the 186os, the river regularly flooded the low lying ground on its banks, making these regions marshy and inhospitable. Millbank's rural identity stemmed from its particularly boggy situation, which was thought suitable only for growing vegetables. It meant, however, that semirural scenery was accessible to artists with only a short walk from Westminster, a circumstance that suited Varley's teaching philosophy. Nevertheless, Varley's watercolor captures London in a period of transformation as it ceased to be the eighteenth-century city surrounded by fields to become the vast metropolis of the Victorian era. In 1809 the Vauxhall Bridge Company was granted Parliamentary approval to construct a new iron bridge and, despite early setbacks, work began in 1813 with designs by engineer John Walker. The bridge was finally unveiled in 1816, just as Varley was making this watercolor. The foreground of Yauxhall Bridge is conventionally picturesque with its pollarded willows, wooden barge, and rustic figures. But the back. ground with the new iron bridge - the first erected in London - points towards a new era of modernity and the eclipse of picturesque aesthetics in favor of a new kind of urban visual experience. Indeed, by the time Varley returned to sketch at Millbank in 1830, the bridge had stimulated a transformation of the area. In the 1820s the architect and speculative builder Thomas Cubitt (1788-1855) had begun to encroach on this region by building Belgravia, and in the 1830s he drained the boggy ground to turn "rural" Millbank into the stucco terraces and squares of Pimlico.

Matthew Hargraves

Hargraves, Matthew, and Scott Wilcox. Great British Watercolors: from the Paul Mellon collection. New Haven: Yale Center for British Art, 2008, pp. 125-126, no. 54

Great British Watercolors from the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art (Yale Center for British Art, 2008-06-09 - 2008-08-17) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Great British Watercolors from the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art (The State Hermitage Museum, 2007-10-23 - 2008-01-13) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Great British Watercolors from the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2007-07-11 - 2007-09-30) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Yale Center for British Art, Great British watercolors : from the Paul Mellon Collection, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2007, pp. 126-27, no. 54, ND1928 .Y35 2007 (LC)+ Oversize (YCBA) [YCBA]

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