Along his namesake trail on banks of Lynn Creek comes story of Group of 7 bohemian painter Frederick Varley’s 10 wild years in Vancouver teaching and founding art schools, developing new aesthetics and shacking up in an $8 mountain home with mistress.
Originally published in Vancouver Observer, Aug. 15 2014. Republished here intact for posterity etc.
What follows is Part 2 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 Garabaldi – 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.
Frederick Varley, a founding member of the noted collective of Canadian painters called the Group of Seven came to Vancouver after working as a commercial artist in Toronto along with fellow G7, Arthur Lismer. Varley’s paintings are in the National Gallery (including his seminal work Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay).
After a tempting offer, they became the founding professors at Vancouver’s first arts school (which grew into Emily Carr University). His unique teaching style and exhibits were critical catalysts for the young and artistically “unsophisticated” city.
In a decade living in Vancouver (1928-37), the transplanted Brit and Group of Seven painter Frederick Varley changed addresses frequently as he rearranged living situations between his family – wife Maude and a bundle of children – and his mistress/student/collaborator, Vera Weatherbie.
He also accommodated his desire for weekend excursions into the North Shore mountains using a ferry from Jericho to Ambleside, and often further afield with long summer painting camps in Garibaldi, complete with a clutch of students in white canvas tents and easels abounding in the vibrant landscape.
Frederick left Vancouver with wreckage in his wake in the form of an abandoned family, a dismissed mistress, significant debt from the BC College of Arts failure (which he left for colleague and “friend” to sort out), plus 18 months back due on rent on the Lynn Valley house – which wife Maude later bought and raised her children in while she eeked out a living with odd jobs including door to door sales in her neighbourhood.
He also left a legacy of painters he inspired and a sense of a true west coast style which is evident in the works of his former students.
Wander the Varley Tour
Time and development have erased most any sign of Varley as most addresses which are replaced with office buildings, tennis courts and apartment blocks. However, his spirit is perhaps felt most strongly along the Varley Trail in Upper Lynn Canyon where you can practically determine right where he set his easel to paint these evocative, rugged scenes – the mountains swirled in colour and dimension, clumps of bushes giving way to darting trees in the recently clear-cut canyon, and Rice Lake through season renewal and decay.
Follow along to see the if you can catch Fred’s shadow at one of his former homes, schools or watering holes.
The trail goes from Jericho to Lynn Valley with many stops along the way. The accompanying photos of the current, rather ordinary, structures contrast with often surprising stories from an artistic past. Notably, as he changed addresses, he also changed his listed professions, identifying himself sometimes as school teacher, sometimes as artist, and finally as President of BC College of Arts.
With this annotated map created from city directory and census records with thanks to Vancouver Archives, you can explore his home and work addresses via transit, or load up a car for a day out with fellow artists.
Badminton Hotel: 7 1/2 – 603 Howe Street
Varley kept personal studio space at the Badminton Hotel at Howe and Dunsmuir – then an artist’s hangout and registered address of many of Vancouver’s early intellectuals and artists amidst a small city of longshoremen, traveling prospectors and tugboat racers.
Now another grey tower, and shiny baubles in department store windows leave no trace of the artistic area of past.
Jericho Beach House: 3857 Point Grey Road (rear), Vancouver
In 1928, he moved his young family to a small house right on Jericho Beach where he hosted lively discussions into the night on the wide veranda with full view of the North Shore Mountains.
From here, Varley would gather with his students, colleagues, and artists – fraternizing and partying into night with Varley often leading charges in the cold water or playing classical music on a piano, and falling hard for Vancouver.
Now, the address can be most closely assigned to a gardener’s shed behind a retirement manor and manicured tennis courts for Vancouver’s leisurely athletic.
Delighted with the natural splendor in front of him and pleased to have successfully moved his family from Toronto, Varley painted the tiny cabin, steps from the sea, in lavish sea-greens and blues. You can imagine a strong drink and stirring conversations on wide porch in this charming painting which sold at auction in 2006 for a thrifty $207,000.
Vancouver School of Applied Arts and Design: 590 Hamilton Street, Vancouver
Frederick lept into his position of Department Head of Drawing and Painting at Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts (which eventually evolved intoVancouver School of Art, and later Emily Carr University). This was BC’s first art school and was conceived a few years earlier by the BC Art League, citizens who sought to spark art and culture in the city with the creation of a gallery and a school. The new VSAAD opened with 89 day and night students, and a first graduating class comprising of nine women and two men.
At the Hamilton St. campus (in the upper floor of Vancouver School Board offices), he extolled his students to “think for themselves without fear” – his innovative teaching methods, quest for perfection, and passionate personality inspired his students – including his first meetings with a striking student named Vera Weatherbie, who would play a variety of roles in the ensuing years.
BC College of Art: 1233-39 West Georgia St., Vancouver
The depression hit and Varley’s wages and hours were reduced by 60 per cent. Infuriated, in 1933, he and Glaswegian abstract painter and craft teacher Jock MacDonald started a competing school called BC College of Arts and set up a campus in a former car dealership showroom on West Georgia St. now swallowed by skyscrapers.
With the beloved Varley as President, many of the key students migrated over, while recent plum graduates joined the faculty working alongside with mentors in a hitherto unknown bohemian work environment.
For two years, the school offered a full slate adding commercial and theatre arts, design and colour theory for over 250 students while also fostering a lively lectures and performances and frequent forays into the hills. Finally, financial pressures caused the school to close.
Parakontas / West End Studio: 1087 Bute Street, Vancouver
With help from a student’s wealthy grandfather, the faculty and students worked in a studio on Bute St. in the West End called Parakontas.
Here, they worked with a sense of urgency trying to keep the school operational while evolving a west coast aesthetic.
The studio is now replaced (likely soon after their use) with an apartment block. But it was here in a relatively inauspicious unimpressive location where Varley created a Canadian masterpiece – Vera painted 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 and alludes to the true role of the artist in a letter to his sisters in 1936.
“The artist’s job is to unlock fetters and release spirit, to tear to pieces and recreate so forcefully that . . . the imagination of the onlooker is awakened and completes within himself the work of art.”
(F.H. Varley, letter to his sisters Lili and Ethel, February 1936)
Varley seemed to embrace the tension to produce some of his finest portraits in fresh colours, unique shapes and a fusion of European, Native and Asian styles to create arguably the first truly Canadian portraits created by a master artist. And in return, Vera painted a portrait of Varley, showing her now matured technique and became a feature in her shows.
Kits House: 3318 West 1st Avenue, Vancouver
By 1934, he’d moved the family into a house on 1st Avenue in Kitsilano – perhaps trying to salvage family life, or create the appearance of a “normal” household. But while Maude and the kids settled in, Varley spent most of his time on forays to the mountains with his band of artists, intellectuals and explorers. And more and more time with Vera.
Along with Varley and MacDonald, the wanderers included John Vanderpant, an experimental photographer whose Robson St. studio became the site of salons, discussions and concerts.
The classic Kits house with porch and mailbox which remains today is likely the original “bones” of the house, but has obviously been renovated to the times. On a personal visit to the site, I learned the genial homeowner didn’t have any knowledge of the art-ish backstory.
Lynn Valley Retreat: 4400 Lynn Valley Rd, North Vancouver
It was on a mountain excursion in 1935 that Varley spotted a house on the trail to Rice Lake. There he set up living arrangements with Vera and although poor, they painted together. Vera was often the subject, as well as dozens of paintings on the local mountains, trees, and boulders. Significantly during this time, he showed his full range of styles and pushed his experimentation with colour theory and symbolism.
Varley had found his retreat. He quickly set up “irregular arrangements” with Vera while Maude and the kids remained in Kits… with a front porch view of Lynn Valley.
The green 2-storey house sits on a slope looking at a bridge crossing Lynn Canyon and the trail onto Rice Lake, or, a left turn takes you to the trailhead of his namesake trail. The address is now listed as Rice Lake Road rather than the historic address.
The Varley Trail
The Varley Trail meanders up and down gullies and weaves between the massive stumps of trees cut years ago. Many benches share memorials of loved ones, and there are many natural places to sit and think or paint. Now there are more joggers then bears, but the boulders remain the same.
As the trail comes out at Lynn Valley Headwaters, you can read an interpretive plaque about Varley and pop into the Heritage Museum on Sundays to catch a picture of life in Varley’s time with various artifacts from the early logging days on the area.
You can cross the river at the Headwaters and return by the more graded trail, and even extend your wander with a loop around the Rice Lake, which freezes enough for skates or ice fishing every few years. But for me, doubling back along the heavily treed westside feeds my artistic dreams.
Getting to the Varley Trail by Transit
Take the SeaBus from Waterfront station (14 minute crossing) and then catch 228 Lynn Valley bus and ride to end of the line.
Take the 210 Upper Lynn Valley from Burrard Station and ride (via Ironworker’s Memorial Bridge and Phibbs Exchange) to the very end of the line.
Start your foray with a stop into The End of the Line shop by the trailhead. A remarkable selection of candies (including Popeye “cigarettes” and Pop Rocks) plus salty licorice, a variety of chutneys, lattes, and loads of to go snacks including my favourite “Trail Pucks.”
NOTE: The images were captured with one of the last rolls of Kodachrome film by globe-exploring BC photographer, Kris Krug of Static Photography or @kk on Twitter & Flickr.
On a trail to interesting boulders along Lynn Creek, Uncle Weed enjoys beer, bread and cheese while exploring the impact of bohemian painter Fredrick Horsman Varley on West Coast art culture. Varley, a member of the venerated Group of 7, lived in Vancouver for 10 years during which he moved from Jericho to Lynn Valley with his student/muse/mistress Vera Weatherbie, while his wife and kids lived in Kits. Anecdotes include: WW1 battlefield painting, trips to Algonquin Park with Tom Thompson, visits from Emily Carr, collaborations with photographer John Vanderpant, exhibits at the Tate in London and his later years with a short NFB film and CBC interviews in which he proclaimed his refusal to paint people who were too beautiful.
Originally published in Megaphone Magazine (Vancouver, Canada) on February 9, 2012. Republished here intact for posterity.
When painter Fredrick Horsman Varley arrived in 1926, Vancouver was an industrial outpost where drunken tugboat captains raced across inlets and loggers and longshoremen found money to be made.
Seeking to foster culture, an ambitious league of citizens committed to a project to create an art school and gallery. And, needing a ringer to bring credibility to the newly minted college, they hired Varley, a “bohemian” member of the esteemed Group of Seven as the founding professor of drawing and painting.
Over the following decade, Varley brought a progressive style, rigorous standards and unique teaching techniques that left a permanent mark on Vancouver through generations of students. His time also included scandalous personal liaisons and swings between high-living parties on Jericho and desperate times in his artist’s cottage in Lynn Valley.
The structures where he lived and worked have disappeared like tea steam amidst decades of change. But when wandering his streets and capturing the same views, you can feel the spark in the artist’s eye—arriving in a glorious new place with no predetermined way to be, it’s wide open and ready to define any way you choose.
Raised by a draughtsman in England and trained at the same Antwerp school as van Gogh, Varley was an elusive (some say less productive) member of the Group of Seven, and different by any measure: a portraitist rather than a landscape painter, he experimented with colour and form rather than relying on the subdued palette of his contemporaries.
Having explored the Algonquin wilderness with Tom Thompson and painted in the trenches of WWI battlefields, Varley was ready for most anything, especially if it kept him away from a routine of commercial art.
The painter and his son boarded a train west on a grand adventure, leaving wife Maud to hold a sale to raise money to join them. The pair settled first in the Badminton Hotel on the corner of Howe and Pender in the shadow of Holt Renfrew to be close to the new Vancouver College of Applied Art and Design.
By the time the family arrived, he’d rented a small cottage on then-remote Jericho Beach. There he soaked in the view of the North Shore mountains and inlet, then poured it out on canvas.
He 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 played classics on the piano.
Varley’s inspirational teaching methods and enthusiasm for perfection brought him a loyal following amongst his students who sought his praise and company. The college gained a reputation based on the excellent faculty, but when the depression brought pay cuts, Varley and Scotsman protegee Jock MacDonald set off on their and created the Vancouver College of Art.
Professors visited from Europe, incorporating interdisciplinary studies from abstract performance art to elaborate puppet shows, and included meditation and eurythmics into the curriculum. The school actively reached out to the Chinese community for artists and students with ads in the community newspapers. It also offered studies on First Nations art and artists.
The school took along the most promising students and recent grads, as faculty including the striking Vera Weatherbie, who’d become more than a muse to Varley. At a studio space rented in what is now a leafy West End neighbourhood, Varley painted a defining Canadian portrait of Vera as a peer, clad in artist’s smock, paint chunky and broad, seafoam greens and languid eyes, and his signature thumbprint in the corner.
On one of his hiking forays, Varley spotted a clapboard house hidden in the forest in Lynn Valley. Intrigued, he tracked down the owner and agreed to rent it for $8/month, including a piano. Meanwhile, he moved Maud and the kids to a house in Kitsilano, trying to keep up appearances of a regular home life while he spent most of his time in the rustic house at the end of the line with Vera.
But the school’s struggles to stay afloat took a toll on Varley, whose artistic output decreased as the tabs at the topshelf cocktail lounge at the Hotel Georgia increased. As the school went bankrupt and the 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 grinding poverty, Varley found his way, placing humans in nature, intertwined, framing the painting with the subject and evoking emotions through colour. Bridge Over Lynn Canyon is part Chinese scroll, part modernist, with an impossible point of view painted from a second storey window from the house. Dhrana finds a metaphysical state of enlightenment depicting Vera gazing skyward leaning against a ranger’s cabin on Rice Lake.
The director of the National Gallery came to visit the reclusive artist, as did Emily Carr. His paintings were exhibited in major shows, but nothing really sold. Paintings were stranded in London because he couldn’t afford to ship them back. The establishment galleries wanted more Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay-style landscapes rather than the odd looking portraits.
Frustrated and broke, Varley left Maud and the kids, Vera and everything (including 18 months past due rent) and headed back to Ontario into a decade long haze of depression and alcohol. He found a patron who encouraged him to resurface, and he played himself in a short National Film Board piece showing his artistic process: an elderly man with a backpack returning from a hike, hitching into town, buying bread and cheese before starting on a new painting, all while a gaunt but powerful figure glowing from the inside hangs on an easel behind him. The film was called Redemption.
As a founding professor at the college which is now named for Emily Carr, Varley’s artistic legacy lives on through generations of Pacific artists who’ve fused European, Asian and Canadian influences. Despite finding middling success with curators, he inspired and instructed legions of admiring painters.
Tracing Varley’s steps amidst the neighbourhoods in Vancouver where he captured his artistic lightning is to experience something of importance from the seminal days of local art. A slice of the story preserved.
Along a trail which bears his name, amongst the same boulders on the banks of his beloved Lynn Creek, you can almost feel the ghost of ol’ Fred—wooden easel, gazing brush in hand up at the peak he called “the dumpling” and coaxing the spirit out of it all and taming the wild onto canvas.