F.H. Varley in his studio

F.H. Varley in his studio

Selected Collections
McMichael Canadian Art Gallery, Kleinburg, ON
Hart House Permanent Collection, University of Toronto, ON
Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, ON
National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, ON
The Feckless Collection, Vancouver, BC

F.H. Varley, 1881 - 1969

War forever tainted us with its abortiveness and its cruel drama.
— F.H. Varley

Frederick Horsman (F.H.) Varley was born in Sheffield, England in 1881. He studied art in both the Sheffield School of Art and the Academie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Belgium. 

Varley met and married his wife in Belgium in 1908, together they  had two children. Varley had a few unsuccessful starts at careers as an illustrator and art teacher in England, so when his long-time friend Arthur Lismer encouraged Varley to move to Canada in 1912, Varley and his family relocated to Ontario. 

Straight away Varley found employment as a commercial illustrator in Toronto. At the same time he started making trips to Northern Ontario with Tom Thompson to paint the landscape en plain air. He also befriended Franklin Carmichael.

In 1918. the Canadian War Records commissioned Varley to illustrate the war in Europe. Varley returned to Europe, this time the France and England. He painted many scenes depicting battlefields and cemeteries, and the 4 large war scenes he created from these trips were critically acclaimed and brought him to the forefront of painters in Canada. However, like all men involved in war, he returned to Canada deeply disturbed by what he experienced and this reflected in his work.

In May 1920 Varley became a founding member of the Group of Seven. He didn’t share the Group's enthusiasm for the wild Canadian landscape, and attempted to make a living as a portraitist. Varley’s most noted portrait was that of Vincent Massey, commissioned in 1920, however it soon became clear that Varley simply wasn’t making enough money to support his family. 

In 1926 the Varley family moved again, this time as far west as they could go; to British Columbia. In Vancouver, Varley took the position of the head of Department of Drawing and Painting at the School of Decorative and Applied Arts. He was deeply impressed by the beauty of the British Columbia landscape, and it had a great effect on his art. Although he was not interested in landscape painting before, Varley became an avid hiker and often  hiked into the coastal mountains and painted the lush vegetation he found there. The scenery that he found in British Columbia took him on an emotional journey which changed the way he painted and his palette.

Career-wise, this was a high point for Varley. He was a successful teacher, influencing up-and-coming local artists like Charles H. Scott and Jock Mcdonald. On top of his classes at the school, he took on private students as well.

But soon the Depression hit, and  with it a reduction in his salary at the Schoo of Decorative and Applied arts. Varley left in protest.

He and his student and now colleague, Jock Macdonald, opened their own school called the B.C. College of the arts. Though it was well attended, it closed after 2 years, a victim of the Depression.

By 1936 Varley was broke again. His wife couldn’t take it anymore and left him, taking the children with her. 

Varley’s response was to move to Ottawa to try to resume his career as a portraitist. However, he drifted between Ottawa and  Montreal for years, suffering from alcoholism and depression. He made very few paintings, except in 1938 when he travelled to the Arctic on the government supply ship Nascopie.

In 1944 , he finally he got over his depression and returned to Ontario to begin focusing on his painting again. In 1948-49, taught at the Doon Summer School of Fine Arts near Kitchener, and in 1955 he made a sketching trip to Cape Breton. In 1957, he made the first of several painting trips to BC. However, he continued to live in Ontario until his death. 

Varley died Toronto on Sept 8th 1969. He was 88 years old.