Cornelius Varley: artist, astronomer, and instrument maker

An instrument maker and artist, Cornelius Varley came from a talented family. In the early 19th century he invented an instrument called the graphic telescope (Image 1), which allowed accurate drawings of any subject. The graphic telescope was used by Varley himself to record astronomical events, and sketch portraits and landscapes.

Cornelius Varley's graphic telescope
Image 1 Cornelius Varley's graphic telescope; circa 1840. The telescope is pointed at the subject to be drawn, and a magnified image of it is projected onto paper. Image © the Whipple Museum [copyright] (Wh.0069).
Sundial made by Varley
Image 2 A plaster sundial made by Cornelius Varley; mid-19th century. Image © the Whipple Museum (Wh.0948).
Microscope with Varley's stage
Image 3 Microscope with a stage designed by Cornelius Varley; circa 1860. Image © the Whipple Museum (Wh.0082).

Observation and artistic skills

Cornelius Varley XR  (1791-1873) was the second eldest of five talented siblings. The best known of these, his brother John, was a renowned artist who worked with both William Blake and John Constable. Cornelius was also a gifted artist, but spent much of his life working as a maker of scientific instruments. During his lifetime these two areas of craftsmanship were not far removed from one another: many artists considered themselves to be examining nature using observational techniques that were just as valid as the techniques of contemporary naturalists. Furthermore, artistic skills have often been necessary in science, for example, when recording what is seen through a microscope or telescope.

Varley himself linked the two disciplines by inventing an optical aid for artists called the graphic telescope. His drawings and paintings are now in the collections of, among others, Tate Britain, the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

» View a list of institutions that have works by Varley

Varley's other projects

Varley's artworks contain some distinctive and interesting techniques. He used his invention to sketch landscapes accurately, and in a less stylised manner than some of his contemporaries. He ignored the standard conventions of landscape composition, which were more concerned with 'improving' nature than recording it. Another example of the naturalistic movement in art, which can be seen in Varley's drawings and watercolours, is a more precise representation of trees based on an understanding of their biological makeup.

Varley was an active member of the scientific community: the Whipple Museum owns a set of live cages G  that were Varley's own equipment; he made sundials (Image 2), microscopes, and other instruments; he invented a type of microscope stage which allowed smooth sideways movement (Image 3). Between 1845 and 1858 he made at least 20 astronomical pictures of comets, planets, and stars with his graphic telescope. This is his best known invention, and it was patented in 1811 as a device which enabled artists to project magnified images on to paper. The Whipple Museum owns a graphic telescope made by Varley around 1840, which is signed: "CORNELIUS VARLEY. Patent Graphic Telescope".

» More on the graphic telescope

Boris Jardine

Boris Jardine, 'Cornelius Varley: artist, astronomer, and instrument maker', Explore Whipple Collections, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge, 2008 []

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