Originally published on Aug 17, 2014 at Vancouver Observer. Republished here intact for posterity.
What follows is Part 3 of a three-part series exploring the decade which Group of Seven painter Frederick Varley lived in Vancouver and played a pivotal role in the creation of a west coast art movement and sensibility.
Trained in Belgium, and unlike the rest of the G7, primarily a portraitist, Varley explored his rugged new location – from a Jericho cabin to summer-long camps in Garbaldi – and often with a group of students and artists along, before moving to a cheap place in Lynn Canyon with his mistress. While there, broke and often drunk, he painted true masterpieces on insulation paper. Commemorated with only a trail along Lynn Creek, come along to learn about one of Vancouver’s (almost) unknown shapers.
Art creates our future. When master craftsman skills, meet emotional intent, and is amplified by originality and integrity, a piece of the human experience – a chapter in the collective history – is minted.
As these artifacts are assembled and cherished by subsequent generations they inspire and demonstrate the struggles of existence, evolutions of culture, sagas and stories, and idealized figures, through paintings and other medium.
But art is not static – or shouldn’t be anyhow. In the best works, the influences and interpretations are able to inspire beyond generations. And of course, there is no end of stories about artists who are undiscovered or underappreciated in their own time.
Frederick Varley fell somewhere in between.
Early notoriety came with the Group of 7 and adventures with Tom Thomson and the idea of hearty artists clambering mountains, canoeing rapids, and laying thick swaths of paint in free forms in the then emerging country. These painters created a new kind of Canadian hero, artistic Coureur des bois, adventurers seeking views, rather than pelts.
Unlike his peers, Varley was a portraitist and a reluctant landscape painter. However his landscapes were often so stirring, when complete the images somehow “felt” like nature more than “resembled” nature. So it goes, the painting which defines Varley to many art historians and enthusiasts is “Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay” which hangs in the Canada’s National Gallery.
The public (read: art dealers) always wanted more grand natural scenes like others of his Group produced – to great acclaim and often financial success. But Varley felt there was no challenge in landscapes, and since several other of his G7 colleagues had painted this same bay over the years, so he saw no point in creating an industry of this one location.
By any measure, during his time in BC, he produced his most transformative works. The mix of his eye and energy, coupled with the stunning, rugged vistas and interesting human faces, was a perfect match for Varley to create without restraint or direction from anyone.
By fusing Chinese scroll paintings and unique perspectives, colour symbolism, and pushing the subject to the outside of the canvas, he created a purely original aesthetic which was unlike any paintings hitherto created on the rugged West coast.
Though not a landscape painter per se, towards the end of his time in Vancouver area, flat broke living in Lynn Canyon he returned to landscapes because there were no other models besides the two of them, both of which he’d painted many times.
The results of these final months are often watercolour gouache on insulation backing paper, or odds and ends of colour tubes, and board. Yet even with scraps of supplies, his subtle technique captured both the tranquility and promise of unexplored nature, and the quiet potential power of the same nature around him.
While your humble writer attended school diligently in then barely sprawling suburbs of Vancouver, stomped around Lynn Canyon (and the free suspension bridge!) with my brothers, as a scout hiked along the Baden Powell trail, at no point did I hear of Frederick Varley – until I moved to a new neighbourhood, and found a perfect trail which led me to learn who Varley was, and what he left behind.
From a practical standpoint, he left debt to his partner in BC Arts College, his wife Maude and children (who later bought and lived in the Lynn Canyon house for many years until she died in 1975), his mistress/muse Vera Weatherbie, who after relationships with both Varley and Vanderpant, married Harold Mortimer-Lamb, a painter (whom Varley painted).
Later in her life, Vera received more appreciation of her art but, by that time, she had left her artist life mostly behind and preferred to promote interest for her husband’s works.
We know Varley left Vancouver towards Ottawa. We know he easily found art-minded ladies to be his patrons, he emerged for sketching and painting journeys to the Arctic, the USSR, and returned as far west as the Rocky Mountains. And he emerged for this film in 1953. Still somewhat spry, still somehow sad. But, tracing his steps amidst the neighbourhoods in Vancouver, where he captured his artistic lightning, i can’t help to feel like something of importance is missing from these seminal days of local art. A slice of the story, yet unpreserved or underused.
Link Library: Further Frederick Varley reading: This link library contains dozens of links to Varley bios, critiques, histories, plus anecdotes from local historians and hikers.
Film: In 1953, Varley played himself in a 16-minute film directed by Allan Wargon and produced by the National Film Board.
In the film which really has no dialogue, we see Varley returning from a hike in the hills. He hitchhikes back into town and into a small apartment and studio with canvases in various states of completion. Fred mutters and fumbles around before going out for bread and cheese. Soon after a nibble, he finds his spark, his flow, his inspiration and begins a new creation.
In the background, you’ll notice the his late masterpiece, the translucent and radiant “Liberation”. A skeletal man in a state of bliss or transcendence – or perhaps he is suffering?
CBC Interview: “A Visit to Frederick Varley” was again created by Allan Wargon. While not available for embedding or downloading, this interview which aired on CBC on April 20, 1965 (4 years before his death), is likely the last video footage of Varley. In this clip he candidly discusses his technique for painting portraits – including his opinion about beautiful people.
Blogger: Eve Lazurus in Spacing.ca also turns in a charming personal account of hiking around Varley’s Lynn Canyon home (and also stopping in at End of the Line cafe) in her Frederick Varley’s Vancouver.
Photographs: Kris Krug displays his favourites Kodachromes from the exploration of addresses on Flickr, KK Varley tag.
Gallery: There is a Varley Art Gallery in as part of the Varley-McKay Art Foundation of Markham, Ontario and a street in Unionville, Ontario bears his name. McKay refers to a patron who supporting Varley later in life.
VAG: Vancouver Art Gallery has collected 19 Varley paintings or sketches as well as a fond of personal papers including some illuminating letters from his son who became an art dealer and was agent for selling the elder Varley’s work.
Varley paintings at Vancouver Art Gallery
Portrait of H. Mortimer-Lamb, c.1930 Untitled Figure Study, 1939 Dawn, 1929 Steeple Mountain, Kootenay Lake, 1956 Sketch of Garrow Bay, c.1935 Mountain Vista, B.C., 1929 Untitled, 1929 Untitled, 1929 Untitled, 1929 Swimming Pool at Lumberman’s Arch, 1932 Untitled (Vera and Mr. Weatherbie), 1929 Young Artist at Work, 1924 Ice Floes, Low Tide, Cape Dorset, 1938 Blue Ridge, Upper Lynn, 1931 Bridge Over Lynn, 1932 Girl’s Head, c. 1931 Evening-Georgian Bay, c.1920 Mount Garibaldi, 1927-1928
Artists influenced by Varley
Along with the aforementioned Ms. Weatherbie, other painters influenced by Frederick Varley – either as students or contemporaries – include: Emily Carr, Charles Scott, Jock MacDonald, Irene Hoffar Reid, Beatrice Lennie.
There is a variety of ways to connect your contemporary experience with Varley’s era. Whether you paint, record, dance, hike, write or otherwise, find a way to create and share your work.
Below are more examples, resources, ideas, ephemera and creative prompts to inspire and celebrate the birth of a Vancouver art culture, and the renegades who shaped it, and us.
“Varley at Jericho”
Two swimmers, heads bobbing way out there beyond the buoys Varley solid after a bottle of red with gaggle of glowing students striving for direction and inspiration about how to go beyond ~ what is the level above?
when human and nature, face and landscape portrait and treatment are lost ~ all forgotten in the sublime asymmetry
Vanderpant and his photos showing more than just the realness – tell the story beyond the moment – the river doesn’t stop after the shutter closes where did the rivers without end begin?
Look closely across the inlet and you can see where to wander to find the first
drops of melting cascading over lichen and rock, filters through alpine moss & gravel into a ravine, the gullies collect the raw material to begin the rivers which continue to flow until they find their end
Blackberries grow where Varley sat Jericho now leisure-time activities weddings for international industrialists sandy for blue- haired lounger – leathery from routine silhouette of grey and green, cypress to seymourdivots for Capilano and Lynn the horseshoe toes slipping into the sound the only clears for the sky
island and headlands fjords and freshers lighthouses & old growth anoint the end of land give away to the space in between
higher now they climb wooden pioneers drifted into the concrete and glass cantilevered over cliffs craning to see what is directly ahead.
the veranda hosted parties fraternized student faculty late conversations with wine moving rugged frontier forms and vocabularies of culture not contrived, not crafted but not wrestled, – coaxed from the confluence of river, sea and land sit with your tools where were you when no one was here but beachcombers and outliers and occasional picnicers
the ferries would carry you from Jericho to Ambleside, forays and for day of weekend holiday respite but the more, someone needs to the tell the story of how the tree became logs and people grow into the land and emerged after exploration and surrender – well affected
Varley Residence & Studio Map:
Artist Joanna Ambrosio remixed the Google Map into something more “Varley-ish”.
Dave Thorvald Olson is VP of Community at HootSuite where he crafts programs and initiatives to spark the company’s rapid international growth.
Poet, podcaster, public-policy pundit and chronic documentarian from his earliest days, world-rambling Dave has spent his time writing, painting and listening to old vinyl albums on the back porch. Published in magazines and journals, he is most proud of his handmade literary chapbooks, static montage art, and audio hi-jinks.
Poet Randall Maggs discusses his book “Night Work” about the troubled soul of legendary hockey goalie Terry Sawchuk plus the nuances of story-telling, conversations with goaltenders, Sawchuk’s Ukrainian heritage and convergence of history and hockey with host Dave Thorvald Olson at the Robson Square covered outdoor rink in Vancouver following a poetry reading promoted by publisher Brick Books.
“On the Vancouver question, that is my birthplace and, though I haven’t lived there in a long while, I still think of it as home. The Canucks are my team. Over the years I have travelled back to the city often to visit my relatives and family. My grandparents lived in South Burnaby off Kingsway pretty much all their adult lives, my grandfather being a millwright and playing an important role in building many of the lumber mills in and around the city. A couple of summers ago my mother and I were having lunch on a terrace on Granville Island and my mother pointed out the remnants of one of my grandfather’s mills. Even after his retirement he’d be called back in to solve a problem that university-trained engineers couldn’t handle. He’d give mill officials fits, scrambling up long ladders long past the age of 80. I attended grade school in South Burnaby, I think Strathmillan School. After her years of following my Air Force father back and forth across the country, my mother went home to live in Surrey and White Rock where she lives at present. My son has been living out there as much as in Newfoundland for most of the past dozen years, having done an MA in Piano Performance with Jane Coop at UBC and working on his PhD in the Arts and Sustainability with John Robinson at UBC.”