Circle of John Varley, Mutford, Suffolk - Early 19th-century watercolour

An original early 19th-century watercolour painting, Circle of John Varley Near Mutford Bridge, Suffolk.

This evocative watercolour sketch shows a cowherd and cattle grazing near the mouth of Lake Lothing, which opens onto the North Sea near Lowestoft in Suffolk. Lake Lothing forms part of the network of man-made bodies of water known as the Broads, which are thought to be the result of Medieval peat-cutting. On wove paper watermarked "[1]794 [J W]hatman".

Unsigned. Inscribed upper left. "Near Mutford Bridge".
In good condition for its age. There the odd tiny scattered mark, as shown.
11cm x 18cm.

This interesting drawing forms part of a collection of accomplished sketches of landscape surveys around Suffolk and Norfolk, recording various local landmarks such as churches, castles and country estates. The works have the appearance of preparatory sketches, numerous and freely executed with a lightness of touch.

The drawings, some of which are watermarked, are on quality Whatman 1794 wove paper. The inside cover of the sketchbook is very indistinctly inscribed “Suffolk Book 1816[?]” (please note that the inscription is pictured for information only and does not come with the artwork). One of the drawings is inscribed “John Varley 1801”. John Varley OWS (1778-1842) was a central figure to the watercolourists of the early 19th century – a prolific exhibitor and influential teacher.

The question of whose hand these drawings are by is an intriguing one. Our artist is someone not only with extensive local knowledge, and the time and means to tour and sketch, but also someone with knowledge of and connections to local landowners: drawings of views of local country estates are inscribed with the names of the estate owners.

The Langley Park seat of Sir Thomas Beauchamp-Proctor 2nd Baronet (1756–1827) in Norfolk is of particular significance as two of the drawings refer to objects within Langley Hall – an engraving by Dusart, painting by Teniers, and a turtle. Sir Thomas had connections with notable artists of the day. He completed a European Grand Tour in the 18th century, and married a beauty, Mary Palmer, who was painted by George Romney, Benjamin West and John Opie. It would appear that our artist, by association, would have had access to works of this quality. Furthermore, the drawings evidence an interest in archaeology and antiquity, having sketched Roman pottery fragments at Icklingham.

It is unclear whether the artist had access to copy an 1801 work by John Varley, or whether there is a more personal connection, perhaps as student or friend. The Suffolk topographical draughtsman John Preston Neale, for example, was a lifelong friend of Varley, and is known to have drawn Sir Thomas Beauchamp-Proctor’s Langley Hall – a drawing reproduced in his major work “Views of the Seats in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland” vol.III, published 1820.

The hand of these drawings remains a mystery and they are perhaps all the more charming for it.

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Product code: JE-871

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