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Cornelius Varley, 1781–1873, British

Cottages at Llanllyfni, North Wales

Watercolor and graphite on medium, moderately textured, cream wove paper
4 1/16 x 9 3/4 inches (10.3 x 24.8 cm)

Inscribed in pen and brown ink, lower left: "Llanllyfni N. W."

Watermark: JW HATMAN | 1804

Signed in brown ink, lower left: "C Varley | 1805"

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 | cottage | door | glass | house | shed | tree | walls | windows
Associated Places:
Caernarfonshire and Merionethshire | Cymru | Gwynedd | Llanllyfni | United Kingdom | Wales
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IIIF Manifest:

Whereas John Varley was gradually seduced by pseudoscience, his brother Cornelius was interested in more pragmatic knowledge of the natural world. After around 1814, his early attachment to painting was increasingly replaced by scientific concerns. While John remained an active professional watercolor painter, Cornelius painted only for amusement or as a tool in his investigations into optics. This enthusiasm for science came from his uncle, Samuel Varley, who had raised him after his father died in 1791. Cornelius's chief contribution was his work with optical devices, using both the camera obscura and camera lucida to sketch from nature, before developing his drawing aid in 1809 known as the "Patent Graphic Telescope." Prior to this, Cornelius Varley was an active tourist, visiting the established regions of Britain favored by artists. His watercolors from these years frequently take the form of unfinished sketches; the statistics show that he produced about four times as many sketches as finished works in the period before 1810. Although Cornelius claimed to be self-taught, it is probable that John Varley began to teach him the rudiments of watercolor around 1800, at a time when he was encouraging his other pupils to study direct from nature. Cornelius Varley imbibed this philosophy and cited the illustrious precedent of Thomas Girtin (cat. nos. 39-42) to support it, claiming that when "sketching from nature," the late Girtin used to "expose himself to all weathers, sitting out for hours in the rain to observe the effects of storms and clouds upon the atmosphere." Perhaps this recollection fortified him against the dismal weather when this watercolor was made on a Welsh tour in 1805. According to his own account, he spent his time "quite alone, for the whole season was so rainy." Llanilyfni was then a small, but ancient, village that Varley found on the fringes of Snowdonia. His study Cottages at Lanilyfni, North Wales is typical of the sketches of vernacular architecture that Varley made throughout this period. In this watercolor, the disparity in interest between the various elements of the cottage is particularly striking. 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 rot ting, moss-covered panels at the bottom. Meanwhile, the left-hand side of the cottage is barely sketched in, the stonework only lightly penciled, 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.

Through the Looking Lens - The Story of Artist Cornelius Varley and his Telemicroscope, 1800-1860 (American Philosophical Society, 2013-05-17 - 2013-12-29) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

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]

Fairest Isle - The Appreciation of British Scenery 1750-1850 (Yale Center for British Art, 1989-04-12 - 1989-06-25) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Duncan Robinson, Fairest isle, the appreciation of British scenery, 1750-1850 : Yale Center for British Art, April 12-June 25, 1989. , Yale Center for British Art, [New Haven, 1989, p. 11, no. 86, ND1354.4 F35 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Yale Center for British Art, Great British watercolors : from the Paul Mellon Collection, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2007, pp. 130-31, no. 56, ND1928 .Y35 2007 (LC)+ Oversize (YCBA) [YCBA]

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