Biography of Frederick H. VARLEY

Frederick H. Varley, self-portrait, 1919



Frederick Varley, like his colleague Arthur Lismer, was a native of Sheffield, England and studied there and in Antwerp, before immigrating to Canada in 1912. Through Lismer, he found work at the commercial art companies of Grip Limited and, later, Rous and Mann, where he met Tom Thomson and the artist who would subsequently from the Group of Seven. While he was excited by his first sketching trip to Algonquin Park with Thomson, Lismer and A.Y. Jackson, Varley did not at that time embrace landscape painting with the zeal of the others. In fact, he was more fixed on establishing his career as a portraitist, and following his experience as a war artist, he returned to Toronto and secured commissions from members of the Toronto art establishment. Only during Varley’s 10-year sojourn in Vancouver, where he moved in 1926 to accept a teaching position at the Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts, did the magnificent scale of the mountains, beaches and vast skies inspire an exploration of landscape painting. Although the Vancouver years were fraught with financial difficulties for Varley, they were also a time of joy and artistic growth. Writing years later of his passion for the West Coast landscape, Fred Varley said, “British Colombia is heaven…It trembles within me and pains me with its wonder as, when a child, I first awakened to the song of the earth”.

His friendships with artist Jock Macdonald and photographer John Vanderpant deepened his interest in spiritual theories of creativity whose seeds had been sown in Toronto through his contact with Lawren Harris. In 1936 he wrote, “ The artist’s job is to unlock fetters and release spirit, to tear to pieces and re-create so forcefully that…the imagination of the onlooker is awakened and completes within himself the work of art”. He died in Toronto in 1969.



Varley was a portraitist and a landscape painter.



Varley’s exploration of theories of colour associated with his interests in Eastern mysticism and his beliefs about he symbolic function of colour. In Varley’s world, green and blue evoked spiritually, and pale violet, beauty.


Source: Anne Newlands, Canadian art. From its beginnings to 2000, Firefly books, Canada, 2000

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