ID: 0016 [see the .xml file]
Identifier: V&A National Art Library MSL/1984, 74
Editors: Edited with an introduction by Elizabeth Edwards
Cite: 'Cornelius Varley’s Narrative written by himself ' edited with an introduction by Elizabeth Edwards in Curious Travellers Digital Editions []

Cornelius Varley’s Narrative written by himself

Our Family were all born at Hackney in a large house that had been the Blue post Tavern with large garden & Fruit trees & Grounds with some large trees. I was born on the 21st of November 1782. When about 4 yr. old I fell head foremost out of a first floor window I was soon afterwards taken to see the deep impression of my head the softness of the ground saved me from any harm that I can remember (Gall the Phrenologist attributed to such a fall the starting into activity of his intelect) our mothers name was fleetwood regular descended from Genrl. Fleetwood who married Cromwells daughter).

We lost our Father before I was quite 10 yr. when near 12 My Uncle S.l Varley took charge of me he had always been progressing in Mechanical & Scientific knowledge

It was my good fortune to be with him during the most important of his ^experiments in Philosophical & Chemical progress science having to help him in every thing & so had to put my hand to all kinds of work When I was first there he was engaged in watch & watch escapment1 making & in Jewelling them & had several pupils from the country Male & female learning those arts. It was there I first saw the wonders of Science & became eager to make some lenses then that my practice in polishing might be profitable I was set to work the jewels for jewell’d holes of watches. These ^are made of rubies the diamond is for ornament not for use, a thin polished ruby disk is under it to touch the pivot end. Thus I made many sets & fitted them accurately into their respective watches. ^my Uncle having made excellent tools for that purpose Whilst soldering diamonds into their steel mountings with a blow pipe I saw one take fire a small flame rose from it (this was confirm’d some yrs after when I saw diamonds purposely burnt under the Oxygen blow pipe).2 After this I made lenses & the microscopes for them

Bees wax harden’d by much polishing powder3 in it was used for polishing all our lenses it is not strong enough to scratch & has no springing or yielding but fits perfectly close to the lens & so secures a perfectly continuous surface & a perfect figure to the very edge

The very deepest lenses required shell lac4 strengthened with polishing powder

With this I made ^many lenses 1/30 focus ^several lenses 1/60 of an inch focus & three of the 100th. I used lenses of 1/10 & 1/20 focus to examine this very small work such lenses bear the largest apperture from being so finely perfect in surface & figure. When 14 ^ys. I made for myself a pocket microscope lenses brass work & all

In 1794 when my Uncle was 50yrs. he began adding Chemistry to his many pursuits & afterwards gave me many courses of lectures he contrived much of the apparatus which has continued in use.5 In all these I had to help & to work at Philosophical & Chemical apparatus Electrical & Galvanic


My Uncle held ^musical parties & also microscopic parties6 on one of these a lens of my making 1/30 focus was declared to greatly excel all the other Microscopes.^that were brought together on that occasion The longer a lens is being polished on the usual cloth surface the more is its figure spoil’d besides having a superfine wavy surface invisible to all but the most careful optical examination.


I had to make large quantities of Oxygen & other gases both for his lectures & Patients he cured by Gas very many maladies that had baffled every other aid.7 I was eager after all the Chemical knowledge that were then opening on the world & had learnd that knowledge is no burden but it lightens all other burdens

In 1800 I commenced drawing & sketching from Nature taught myself & was soon engaged to teach others^the Earl of Essex recommended me & told me what to change & in so doing I became acquainted with some of the most amiable & excellent of the human race. In ^June 1801 I was invited to a happy mansion in Norfolk to sketch from Nature The ladies coming to sketch with me when ever they liked, here the hardest work I cou’d ^have perform’d was Glorious holiday ^so closely following compar’d with the former indoors occupation tho’ ^that was among the wonders of science. The pure air the sense of liberty to ramble any where among the works of creation & when indoors to be amidst the most cultivated & amiable kindness that removed care & brighten’d hope, has left an impression that nothing will efface. I remain’d in Norfolk & then in Suffolk8 till Midwinter sketching out of doors in frost & snow, whilst in Town I was engaged in teaching drawing & perspective ^this I learned by having to teach it till June ^1802 when I went into North Wales & was soon join’d by My Brother ^John & Webster.

In 1803 ^[...] me & Cristall went ^[...] into Wales9 & was join’d by Havel. In 1804 I went to St Albans to sketch10 I was one of the Party who held several meetings & determined on forming the Water Colour Society11 & on their first Exhibition had Pencil drawings & Colour’d sketches ^from Nature of St Albans Abbey..12

In 1805 I travelled in North Wales quite alone, for the whole season was so Rainy that in most places I was the only traveller.

This apparent solitude amidst Clouds & Mountains left me more at large “To hold converse with Natures Charms & view her stores untold”.13 For having been familiar with most of the known Electrical experiments I was better prepared & more at liberty to observe & understand what I saw. But To keep a little order I will return to 1803 when I ascended Cader Idris from from Dolgelly with Cristal, Havel, & several others.14 When evening approached all the party except me & Cristal descended for prudence sake while there was light enough to ^see their way but the increasing grandeur & brilliancy of the scene ^above detain’d us (thro’ all risks) to enjoy the splendour ^we were much higher than the surrounding mountains the Sun surrounded by small bright & lofty clouds ^illum’d the whole heavens & was spreading his beams over ^a bright ocean of lower clouds


which in one great sheet spread over all the lower Mountains causing a gloomy ^dark & early night in all ^the valleys, & ^distant cottage light cou’d be seen feebly glimmering.15 Thus night below & glorious sun shine above, then golden Vapour began to play on out Mountain, but on looking Eastward that end of the mountain was coverd by a luminous fog or Cloud on which we saw ^in perfection (what has been mysteriously described as the Spectre of the Brocken)16 a bright halo or ring of light with our distinct Shaddows within we were on the highest brow ^of the mountain the shadow of which intercepted the lower part of the ring & on it stood our whole shadows the head of my shadow was ^in the center of his ring & my shadow beside his we threw up our hats & moved about the shadow did the same & when we ^moved rather far apart ^each others shaddow quickly lost distinctness ^& faded away but not our own for each of us had a perfect shadow & concentric ring around it. These shaddows appeared to be distant & therefore gigantic (the only cause of mystery). The suns rays penetrated into the cloud quite as far as any vapour cou’d receive our shadows ^& as cloud light spreads laterally it therefore rendered our shaddows pale & the only light on the shadows was from the blue sky consequently they appeard exactly of the same pale milky grey as only the most distant clouds & mountains can appear this gives the notion that they ^also must be far off but their distinctness ^& their size is the real corrector of that error.

The sun at 10y.^ds – from our eyes measures 3 inches ^diameter consequently our shadows at that distance has 3 inches of penumbra all round ^causing just so much softening ^or indistinctness of their margin. but at 60y.^d the sun is 18 ^inches which is about the width of our body.

Consequently the two penumbra meet & soften the whole Shaddow leaving scarcely a bur17 to indicate its place. Therefore I conclude that our shaddows were not more that 10y.d distant altho’ their pale grey colour impress’d us with a notion of their being 100 or more yds distant & exactly gigantic in that proportion. also appeared on the same angle which can be known & our shadows ^remain of one size keep to our size so measure the radius by our shadow its real diameter & its real distance may be known

This bright vision & the sun gradually disappeared leaving us in grey twilight

Clouds ^at such time are not visible when you are close to them so whilst we were being glad at the absence of clouds ^keeping from us we were suddenly enveloped in ^them clouds & they became so dense that at arms length our finger ends touching, we cou’d not see each other we then hastend down lower to get below these clouds & endeavord to find the horse ^track road but we cou’d not so we return’d close round the summit & hasten’d down the natural slope of many fallen stones sometimes sliding midst a number & having to jump aside to avoid the loosen’d ones which rolld after us I had stiff boots on so cou’d risk more


& being in advance of Cristal had to avoid the stones which he loosen’d some of which we heard splashing into the pool below the light from it being our only guide. This slope was certainly dangerous in the dark & with a hurried descent but having escaped it we were fairly below the clouds & cou’d see about tho the darkness was rapidly increasing we then hasten’d to see the second lower lake & groped our way down to its margin with ^its light being our only guide no track to lead us but ^when then we follow’d a track which led us along its outlet till we found ourselves in a road & here we were lighten’d of our anxiety tho it was ^so very dark ^that we coud se but little before us this road led our really weary steps into Dolgelly were we arrived after 12 O clock nearly overcome by anxiety & fatigue (^having spent a day of 18 hours) but to our delight we found a hot substantial supper on the table to which (tho’ scarcely able to keep awake) we set to in good earnest*18

A Commencement of Clouds & then of Rain

In 1805 whilst seated on the North bank of the Vale of Llanllyfni19 Snowden seen ^on my left hand over the East.n end the Sky was clear ^pale blue except a little line20 of small clouds sailing above the southern range & keeping their path over those summits proceeded ^eastward towards Snowdon over whose highest peak they all ^in succession passed but here they paid particular respect ^each cloud as it approached & passed ^over the peak or highest part took a very determinate & stratified form, but when passed & clear of its attraction they resumed their unshapely form, some ^whilst proceeding sent out projections towards 3 or 4 summits as they passed between & drew them in again when they got passed clear of those attractions. But while these clouds were passing eastward fresh formd one kept adding & following so they grew larger & longer towards the wind which fed them & carried them along till their size wrapped over & hid the top line of the whole southern range of hills. Then rain began at the eastern end & obscured that portion ^of the hills & ^the rain gradually extended westward ^over the range while the ^line of Clouds were growing for miles over the sea whose distant horizon was still clear ^and [...] but the rain gradually extended till over the sea & then ^progressively obscured the whole horizon. here was a single line of clouds & rain of many miles in length I was yet in fine weather on the northern side ^& the rest of the sky clear. At first the mountains renderd the air electrically minus21 & as the ^moist air followed it ^kept lost electricity enough so coud not hold its vapour in invisible solution but deposited it ^& kept adding small clouds & as these floated over the mountains they were kept minus so more clouds kept forming behind them, & when they began to descend


Authorial notes

i. ‘* Our friends at the other Inn had twice sent over to know whether we had arrived & I suppose that in the perfect stillness our foot steps were heard approaching’
ii. ‘whilst rejoicing at so clear a day thre little clouds ^*** appeard over the hills before one these were slowly sailing towards Snowdon as they left others formed in their first place & followed then three more
forming a ______________________
iii. ‘The moist air over them minus, its moisture thus became visible as small clouds’

Editorial notes

1. An escapement is part of the internal mechanism of a watch.
2. In the 1770s, the French chemist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier succeeded in burning a specimen of diamond (a phenomenon predicted by Isaac Newton) by placing it in an oxygen-filled jar and focusing sunlight on the specimen with a lens. This experiment enabled the English chemist Smithson Tennant to carry out follow-up experiments, the results of which he published in 1797, proving that diamond is nearly pure carbon. See Robert M. Hazen, The Diamond Makers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 9-10.
3. Varley gives tripoli (primarily consisting of limestone) and iron oxide as examples of polishing powder in an exacting account of making and polishing lenses in Transactions of the Society … for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, vol. 48 (London: n.p., 1831), pp. 332-400, p. 372.
4. Shell lac is an insect-derived resin, used in sealing wax, varnish and lacquer.
5. In 1794, Samuel Varley gave twelve lectures on chemistry at Hatton House, Hatton Garden. See Ian Inkster, ‘“Under the eye of the public”: Arthur Aikin (1773-1854), the Dissenting mind and the character of English industrialization’, in Felicity James and Ian Inkster (eds), Religious Dissent and the Aikin-Barbauld Circle, 1740-1860 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 126-55, p. 132. Like Cornelius after him, Samuel also made his own microscopes, among other forms of scientific apparatus, such as a customised blow pipe and lathe mandrel (device for rotating other pieces of equipment).
6. An obituary for Cornelius Varley, published in volume 11 of The Monthly Microscopical Journal (1874), describes this as a meeting of the ‘Friendly Microscopical Society’, founded by Samuel Varley in 1795.
7. For an account of Samuel Varley’s use of oxygenated air for medicinal purposes, see The Philosophical Magazine, Vol. 3 (London: Alexander Tilloch, 1799), pp. 300-2
8. This was with the Rous family at Henham Hall in Suffolk, where Varley also taught drawing.
9. A 17-page sketchbook (not digitised) survives from this tour, featuring views of Dolgellau and Cader Idris, and is now held at The Morgan Library & Museum; see For pencil sketches by Varley of Llantony Abbey and a scene on the Wye, almost certainly dating from this tour, see and
10. For an 1804 sketch by Varley, titled ‘Near St Albans’, see
11. The Society of Painters in Water Colours was founded in London in 1804 by a group of artists keen to raise the status of watercolour, which was, they felt, poorly served by the Royal Academy. John and Cornelius Varley were founder members of the Society, as was Joshua Cristall; together with a number of older, more experienced practitioners, this talented group of young painters staged annual shows of their work that created a new taste for watercolour.
12. For sketches of St Albans that may date from this period, see and
13. Varley is quoting from Canto II of Byron’s Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage (see ll. 224-5). The publication of Cantos I and II of Childe Harolde in 1812 give this as the earliest possible date for Varley’s undated account of his Welsh travels.
14. For a depiction of Cader Idris by Joshua Cristall, probably made on the spot on this tour, see
15. This scene may be the one portrayed by Joshua Cristall in a sketch dating from c.1803, ‘Mountainous Landscape with Clouds’; see
16. In this passage Varley describes the appearance of a Brocken Spectre, an optical effect produced when the observer stands above the upper surface of a cloud or fog, with the sun behind them so that their shadow is projected onto the cloud. He goes on also to describe the appearance of a glory (‘a bright halo or ring of light’), a circular rainbow-like phenomenon, which surrounds the Brocken Spectre or shadow. For a discussion of the Brocken Spectre in Romantic-period literature, see Sebastian Mitchell, ‘Dark Interpreter: Literary Uses of the Brocken Spectre from Coleridge to Pynchon’, Dalhousie Review, 87: 2 (2007) 167-88;
17. ‘A circle of light round the moon (or a star) … The original sense seems to have been merely “circle, halo”; but in modern use there is usually the notion of a nebulous or nimbous disc of light enfolding the luminary’. OED.
19. For Varley’s watercolour sketch of cottages at Llanllyfni, a village west of Snowdon, dating from this tour, see
22. This fair copy manuscript is closely related to an expanded account published by Varley in The Philosophical Magazine in 1807. The published version, however, makes no mention of the explicitly Welsh context of these observations, outlined in Varley’s memoir-tour and in the unpublished draft of the paper. It also expands the list of general laws at the end of account from six to seven, and adds a further section discussing electricity, weather and atmospheric conditions. See ‘On Atmospheric Phænomena: particularly the Formation of Clouds; their Permanence; their Precipitation in Rain, Snow, and Hail; and the consequent Rise of the Barometer’, The Philosophical Magazine, Vol. 27 (London: R. Taylor, 1807), pp. 115-21