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.
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?
The film also available for download or on DVD.
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.
Book: Frederick Varley: Portraits into the Light (available as Google eBook)
A voluminous tome with great care given his artistic legacy and includes many rare sketches of Inuit from his trip to the Arctic.
Ephemera: Illustrated Vancouver’s Fred Varley tag — @JMV’s carefully curated collection of murals, folkart, beer labels and lost fine art and pointed out Varley’s sketch of, what looks like, a lady on a laptop.
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.
Megaphone Magazine: Published a 1500 word version of my discourse as Varley’s Vancouver, Discovering the City’s Artistic Hearts in Frederick Varley’s Past.
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
Steeple Mountain, Kootenay Lake, 1956
Sketch of Garrow Bay, c.1935
Mountain Vista, B.C., 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 seymour divots 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”.
Choogle On with Uncle Weed, audio podcast: Portrait of Varley