John Varley OWS (1778–1842)

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John Varley OWS (1778–1842) was an influential English watercolour painter, who was also an astrologer, and a good friend of William Blake's. Varley was one of the founders of the Old Watercolour Society, and he was a master in the medium, being particularly skilled in the art of overlaying flat washes of watercolour, to build up the pastoral landscape scenes that were his specialism. Varley was also an accomplished teacher, whose pupils included Copley Fielding, David Cox and John Linnell (Varley published A Treatise on the Principles of Landscape Drawing, and A Practical Treatise on the Art of Drawing in Perspective).

But it is for his interest in esoteric subjects, and his friendship with Blake, that Varley is best known today. In 1819-20 Varley and Blake collaborated on the book Visionary Heads, in which Blake drew the 'spiritual forms' of various famous historical and biblical figures (including Joan of Arc and Nebuchadnezzar), and creatures (including, famously, a flea), who appeared to him in visions, while Varley wrote the text, describing what happened as Blake 'saw' his subjects. Varley also wrote and illustrated an astrological text entitled A Treatise on Zodiacal Physiognomy, which attempted to explain differences in facial appearance with reference to the influence of the stars and planets.