Work & Bio

F.H. Varley

Born in 1881
 / Died in 1969

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F.H. Varley
Born in Sheffield, England, 02 January 1881

Died in Unionville, Ontario, 08 September 1969

“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)

F.H. (Frederick Horsman) Varley saw art as a spiritual vocation. His interest in the figure as well as landscape set him apart from other members of the Group of Seven, of which he was a founding member (1920).

At the age of eleven, Varley enrolled in the Sheffield School of Art, and between 1900 and 1902 he studied at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Antwerp. He emigrated in 1912 to work as a commercial artist in Toronto, following in the path of Arthur Lismer, also from Sheffield. There he met the future members of the Group of Seven and painted in Algonquin Park in 1914 with Tom Thomson and others. In 1918-20 he served as a war artist in England and France, producing some of the most moving canvases of the war.

One of Varley’s most famous works is Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay (1921), painted after a summer at Georgian Bay, yet he was primarily a figure and portrait painter. In 1926 he moved to Vancouver to teach at the recently established Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts, and for the first time landscape painting, in oil and watercolour, became his principal interest. His attraction to Asian philosophies and Chinese painting and colour symbolism characterizes his paintings from this period. Severely affected by the Depression in 1936, he left British Columbia for Ottawa, eventually moving to Montreal and then Toronto in 1944. He travelled to the Arctic in 1938 and to the Soviet Union in 1954 with a group of other Canadian artists, writers, and musicians.

Courtesy The National Gallery of Canada


Frederick Horsman Varley

In early life he spent much time in the English countryside and became intensely spiritual, finding God in nature, not in the church. He received a solid art education, first at the Sheffield School of Art (1892-1900), then the Académie royale des beaux-arts in Antwerp, Belgium (1900-02) where he studied original paintings by Rubens. After unsuccessful starts at careers as an illustrator and art teacher in England, Varley immigrated to Canada in 1912. Through Arthur Lismer, a Sheffield friend who had moved to Canada a year earlier, he found employment as a commercial illustrator in Toronto and befriended Tom Thomson and Frank Carmichael.
In 1918 Canadian War Records commissioned Varley to illustrate the war in Europe. He painted several portraits in England and made 2 trips to France. The 4 large war scenes that resulted were critically acclaimed and brought him to the forefront of painters in Canada. In May 1920 Varley became a founding member of the Group of Seven. He did not share the Group’s enthusiasm for the Ontario landscape, however, and during the early 1920s attempted to make a living as a portraitist. The family of Vincent Massey commissioned several, but Varley made little money and in 1926 began to teach at the Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts.
During the next 10 years he painted hundreds of landscapes in oil and watercolour, marked by fine draftsmanship, exotic colour, unusual vantage points, and after 1933 by metamorphosis of forms. In 1933, he and J.W.G. MacDonald opened their own school, the BC College of Arts. Though it was well attended, it closed after 2 years, a victim of the Depression. By 1936 Varley was broke, and moved to Ottawa to try to resume his career as a portraitist. During the next 9 years he drifted between Ottawa and Montréal, making few paintings, except in 1938 when he travelled to the Arctic on the government supply ship Nascopie. In 1944 he returned to Toronto and, in 1948-49, taught at the Doon Summer School of Fine Arts near Kitchener. In 1955 he made a sketching trip to Cape Breton, and in 1957 the first of several more painting trips to BC. Romantic and independent, Varley was known as the “gypsy” of the Group of Seven. His gifts as a colourist, draftsman and intimate observer of life are best displayed in both his drawings and small watercolours.

Courtesy The Canadian Encyclopedia