Varley in Vancouver, Part 1: The Group of 7 “bohemian” heads west

Originally published in Vancouver Observer as a 3-part series , Aug 14-16, 2014. Republished here intact for posterity.

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What follows is the first of a three-part series exploring the decade in 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 Garibaldi – 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. 

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Bridge over Lynn by Frederick Varley
He painted muddy bodies in trenches as a WWI battlefield painter, his paintings hung with Picasso and Matisse in London, and in the permanent collection in Canada’s National Gallery. He explored the Arctic to sketch Inuit life, and ventured into the Soviet Union at height of Cold War armed only with paint brushes.

 This man was the fiery Frederick Horsman Varley, the bohemian of the venerated Group of Seven. In 10 vaguely mysterious and somewhat scandalous years around Vancouver, he produced seminal Canadian paintings by fusing techniques from both portraits and landscapes. Broke and discouraged, he left behind an estranged wife, a painterly mistress, and 18 months past-due rent, and headed east into a 15 year depressive struggle, leaving nary a trace but a massive impact on West Coast art.

Gypsy Comes West 

As a member of the Group of 7, Varley already had a reputation across Canada from his landscape “Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay” and he was also a skilled commercial artist and designer. Frederick was a wee bit fiery and markedly different from his G7 contemporaries. The early chronicler of the Group, F.B. Houser, described him in 1926 as “an artist of significant skill and talent and potential but Varley is a bit of an art gypsy.”

 Group of Seven at table (Varley far left)

Varley was raised by a draughtsman in England and trained first at Sheffield School of Art then at the same Antwerp school as Vincent van Gogh, L’École des Beaux Arts. Once he emigrated to Canada he quickly picked up on the natural splendor. 

He was elusive (or some called less productive) member of the group, and different by any measure: a portraitist rather than a landscape painter and he experimented with colour and form, rather than relying on the subdued palette of his contemporaries, and explored a metaphysical layer and symbolism to his paintings though the others called him the “unproductive member” behind his back.

Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay by Frederick Varley

Vancouver Seeks Art

Meanwhile in Vancouver in 1921, a group of art-minded citizens created the B.C. Art League with objectives of promoting art, opening a school, establishing permanent galleries and museums, and improving civic life in the rough and tumble town. In setting out to create an art school, they needed an established artist to give the school credibility and they knew no one in Vancouver could fit the position. They put out a search and made an offer to Varley. 

 When an offer came in 1926 to teach art at a new school on mysterious West Coast, Frederick was ready. He’d explored the Algonquin wilderness by canoe with famed explorer and painter Tom Thomson, and painted in the trenches of WWI battlefields. Rather than depicting victorious scenes of vanquished foes, Varley painted clumps of muddy bodies being loaded into a cart with a title of, “For What?” His superiors (who had hoped to help offset the cost of WWI through his paintings) were not impressed.

 “For What?” (WW1) by Frederick Varley

He was ready for most anything, especially if it kept him away from a routine of commercial art. And in Vancouver, this art gypsy found his style and his muse.

With the signed offer, the gypsy painter and his son boarded a train west – leaving wife Maude to hold a yard sale to raise money for the rest of the family to join them. 

Fred and the lad settled in the Badminton Hotel on the corner of Howe and Pender to be close to the new Vancouver College of Applied Art and Design. The Vancouver Archives notes about the Badminton hotel, “and while I’m not certain, it may have been somewhat of an artists’ hub, as I recently researched a local sculptor who also kept studio space at the Badminton.” Regardless, Varley was to become the most well-known figure in the local art scene for the next decade. 

Remixing Teaching

 Varley settled into his position of Department Head of Drawing and Painting at VSDAA and explored unique teaching methods like hiring a model with six toes to see if any student noticed (they didn’t). He incorporated First Nations and Asian art into the curriculum and even into the faculty. He invited artists to guest lecture on a wide range of topics from eurythmics to meditation. In all he encouraged his students to “think for themselves without fear.”

Art Historian Ian Thom points out the importance of the school acquiring a professor of Varley’s calibre: “What Varley brought to Vancouver was the authority of the Group of Seven landscape movement in Ontario.”

Varley was ecstatic upon arriving in B.C., exclaiming in a letter: 

“British Columbia is heaven, it trembles within me and pains with its wonder as when a first awakened to the song of the earth – what will you do if you become a constant worshipper of moving waters and mists, jack-pines and rocky promontories, glaciers and snow peaks, silver rain and an atmosphere so changing with forms playing hide and see and again stark and hard seen through an air so translucent that colours appears as if seen through still water or crystallised in ice – Japanese fish, Chinese have vegetable gardens, Hindus haul wood, and I often feel that only the Chinese of the eleventh and twelfth centuries ever interpreted the spirit of such country.”

Varley’s inspirational teaching methods and enthusiasm for perfection brought him a loyal following amongst his students who sought his praise and company. He frequently fraternized with students, faculty, and artistic-minded folks with late night frolics drinking wine on a wide veranda and discussing this emerging West Coast aesthetic while Varley lithely pounded classical music on piano. 

Among his frequent visitors, student Vera Weatherbie quickly formed a close relationship with her professor – much older, but charming with a shock of red/blonde hair and piercing blue eyes. Equally charmed by Vera was art photographer John Vanderpant whose Robson Street studio hosted artistic lectures and salons, and his business card featured a heroic photo of the beautiful young artist.

 Vera Weatherbie (photo by John Vanderpant)

When the depression hit and Varley’s wages and hours were reduced by 60%, school administrators’ wages were not reduced. Infuriated, in 1933, he and abstract painter Jock MacDonald started a school called B.C. College of Arts on West Georgia Street on the site of a former car dealership. Varley served as President and MacDonald acknowledged him as, “the revolutionary who had laid the foundation stone of imaginative and creative painting in British Columbia.”

Start All Over

Many of the key students migrated over to start the school with 278 studying painting and drawing and also theatre arts, design, modelling, and colour theory. Recent plum graduates joined the faculty working alongside their mentors in a hitherto unknown bohemian work environment.

With help from a student’s wealthy grandfather, the faculty and students worked in a studio on Bute in the West End called Parakontas. But there was already a palatable sense of urgency as they tried to continue to create and teach art, and explore the evolving West Coast aesthetic, while also trying to keep the school operational.

It was at this studio during the tumultuous final months of the school that Varley created a Canadian masterpiece. The painting depicting Vera in a painter’s smock was unlike any portrait created in Canada, and new for Varley himself, who changed his technique to suit the subject. 

Vera Weatherbie by Frederick Varley

In his book Art B.C. (D&M), Ian Thom provides the significance of this portrait (which undoubtedly had many subtexts between the painter and his subject), describing it as “…the B.C. equivalent of Leonardo’s lady—a beguilingly simple, almost clumsy composition, with unorthodox lighting, that presents a strong, ethereal view of womanhood rather than a specific portrait. The painting is, undoubtedly, the finest portrait by the most important portraitist of his generation.” 

The school struggled to stay afloat and the tension took a toll on Varley whose artistic output decreased as the tabs at the cocktail lounge at the Hotel Georgia increased. However, Varley and Vanderpant and other collaborators continued to rally up groups of students for weekend hiking forays to Capilano, Grouse, and Seymour, crossing aboard the ferry from Jericho to Ambleside to explore their place within nature.  

Dharana  by Frederick Varley

Varley broke through styles and conventions again with 1932’s Dharana – a spontaneous work of Vera on a ranger’s cabin porch deck. The title is the Hindu-term for a state of meditation in which the mind looks into the soul and indeed the painted Vera is serene and beguiled by the swirling nature around her glowing form.

Varley’s relationship with Vera had evolved from a student/mentor to collaboration and admiration. Though she was the age of his daughter, Varley yearned for a soulmate who understood his work and could dialogue about art, declaring, “The worst thing any artist can endure is to live with a woman who doesn’t understand his art.”

Finding a Retreat

On another one of the excursions along Lynn Creek in 1935, Varley spotted a house on the trail to Rice Lake. Overgrown with bushes, the entrance was elusive but he found a path and peeked in the windows to find it vacant. Smitten, he secured the house for $8/month including a piano. He had found his retreat and quickly set up “irregular arrangements” with Vera at his front porch view of Lynn Valley, while Maude and the kids remained in Kitsilano.

Rice Lake  by Frederick Varley

Hunkered down to paint and trying to avoid business and disturbance while hunger gnawed at him, the curmudgeonly Varley had visits from Emily Carr who called his paintings, “delightful appealingly Canadian, a new delineation of a great country” but the two strong personalities later distanced themselves after she lambasted the students when Varley invited her to judge a contest. Varley described her as “masculine and dirty” while Ms. Carr’s retort was “what a fish he is!”

Eric Brown Birefort of the National Gallery ventured up to arrange for paintings to be boxed and shipped to far-flung galleries to encourage sales. But “where’s the money in that?” Varley would say. He was told the “Establishment” galleries wanted more “Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay” landscapes rather than his style of odd looking portraits. While Varley occasionally relented to commission portraits to raise money, he refused to paint anyone whom he judged to be *too* beautiful…limiting his options.

Varley was painting solely to create art and reflect the ideas about form, perspective and texture burgeoning from his restless mind. He became so broke and in debt, he couldn’t even afford to ship his own paintings back from exhibition in London, U.K. 

Poverty Makes Gems

As the school went bankrupt and bills mounted, supplies became scarce, nevertheless he embarked on a barrage of masterworks eschewing oils and canvas for watercolours on torn pieces of insulation paper. Amidst this grinding poverty, he found his way of placing humans in nature, intertwined, framing the painting with the subject and evoking emotions through colour. 

The school finally closed and three years of destitute poverty ensued during which bailiffs seized anything of value to settle debts. Varley found solace in the canyons and peaks and set upon a prolific stretch of paintings despite inability to buy canvas and paint. Undeterred by the financial distress, he expanded technique and experimented with form, combining humans and nature intertwined, explored colour symbolism and tones, pushed subjects to the outside of canvas, and used unique vantage points.

Anything to do with the business of art evoked course indifference from Varley. Whether running the school or selling paintings, he was inept. In later years, a letter from his son Christopher, who became an art dealer exchanged with Vancouver Art Gallery, pointed out his father’s money management while also admiring his father’s technique and correspondence regarding “Bridge Over Lynn.” 

“One of the most extraordinary things about this magnificent watercolour is the aerial perspective. It’s as if Varley painted it sitting in midair about two hundred feet above the creek. His admiration for Chinese landscape painting, William Turner and Samuel Palmer are all evident.

“To the best of my knowledge, this painting has been in the same collection since my grandfather’s short stint in Montreal in the early forties. It’s quite possible that Louis Muhlstock arranged the original sale, for he tried to help grandad out whenever possible. Unfortunately, this proved to be a thankless task, for grandad and money were always soon parted.”

His dozens of scenes of creeks and trails include the “Bridge Over Lynn,” painted from second storey perspective similar to a Sung Dynasty scroll with two people on the bridge with the recently clear-cut “dumpling” of Lynn Peak in the background. The delicate and important work is watercolour, gouache and chalk on insulation backing paper since he couldn’t afford oils and canvasses. This along with dozens of other paintings and artifacts in fonds are in the Vancouver Art Gallery permanent collection.

This period also included Vera’s best known work, a 3/4 length view of Varley, stamped with their thumbprints overlapping in a symbol of their tenderness – spiritual comrades in their artistic struggle.

Gone, Eastward

Frustrated, broke and estranged, Varley left Maude and the kids, mistress Vera, paintings and everything else (including 18 months past due rent) and headed to Ontario into a decade long haze of depression and alcohol while occasionally finding ladies to serve as patrons to his sporadic art. 

Noteworthy, during this time, he painted a postcard of Vancouver which portrays a Night Ferry in swirling blues, greys and chaos evoking Munch, Matisse, Van Gogh and other international masters.

Night Ferry by Frederick Varley

Varley occasionally surfaced from his distress and was the resident artist on an expedition to the Arctic where he sketched Inuit life and culture giving most Canadians their first impression of their northern neighbours. He also embarked on a goodwill mission of sorts to the U.S.S.R. as the resident artist but didn’t really seem to do anything. He made another brief trip west to sketch in the Rockies but the magic was lost somewhere in a forest of broken dreams, broken heart, broken spirit.

He played himself in a short National Film Board piece which shows his artistic process in the style and enthusiasm of a man much younger than he appears. In the film, an elderly man (our Fred) complete with backpack, returns from a hike and hitchhikes into town. He buys bread and cheese fiddles about in his studio seeking inspiration while nibbling bread and cheese. In the film, he prepares to start a new painting, but look closely to see what was really on his mind. You’ll see a canvas in process behind him with a gaunt but powerful figure, seemingly glowing from the inside. Appropriately called “Liberation.”

Liberation by Frederick Varley

What Remains

As a founding professor at the school named for Emily Carr, his artistic legacy lives on through generations of Pacific artists who’ve fused European, Asian, and Native Canadian influences. Indeed, while he found middling success with curators, he inspired and instructed legions of admiring painters.

There is no tribute to his contributions beyond a trail which bears his name in Lynn Canyon where one can wander amongst the same boulders on the banks. You can almost see a ghost of ole Fred: wooden easel, full flask, gazing – brush in hand – up at Lynn peak, which he called “the dumpling,” and coaxing the spirit out of it all, and taming the wild onto a canvas.

On the Varley Trail

In Part 2 of the Varley in Vancouver series, you ramble along  “The Varley Trail” with maps, photos, and annotations about the locations where he lived, worked and painted. 

In Part 3 of the Varley in Vancouver series, you’ll see all the films, photos, and the author’s resources to explore and remix the G7 with your own medium and ideas.

Whatcha think?