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