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.”