Devoid of any background, this half-length portrait shows the watercolorist, astrologer, and boxer John Varley. His pinkish complexion, beady eyes, bright-red hair, and intense gaze are captured effectively in watercolor, and the lively rendering commands the viewer's attention. It was painted by John Linnell, who was Varley's pupil, and who by this time had eclipsed his master to become a very successful painter of portraits and landscapes in both oil and watercolor.
Both artists are now probably best known for their associations with the great British Romantic artist William Blake (1757-1827). John Varley's friendship with Blake was cemented by their common interest in visions, and between 1819 and 1825 the two would meet frequently for nightly séance-like drawing sessions. These resulted in over one hundred "Visionary Heads," drawings of the spirits of historical figures, legendary characters, and a range of imaginary beasts, including the one now made famous in the tempera The Ghost of a Flea. John Linnell, a couple of generations younger than Blake, instead became one of the elderly and impoverished artist's most loyal patrons, supporting him through commissions for watercolors and engravings, most significantly the unfinished series made after Dante's Divine Comedy.