VARLEY, F.H.




Author Tags: Art

Born in Sheffield, England on January 2, 1881, Frederick Horsman Varley immigrated to Canada in 1912 and became a founding member of the Group of Seven. He came to Vancouver in 1926 to teach at the Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts. “What Varley brought to Vancouver was the authority of the Group of Seven landscape movement in Ontario,” says art historian Ian Thom. He painted hundreds of landscapes but few works compare with his 1931 portrait of his lover Vera Weatherbie. According to Thom his book Art B.C. (D&M), it's the B.C. equivalent of Leonardo’s lady—-a beguilingly simple, almost clumsy composition, with unorthodox lighting, that presents a strong, ethereal view of womanhood rather than a specific portrait. “The painting is, undoubtedly, the finest portrait by the most important portraitist of his generation,” says Thom.

The prim but promising Vera Weatherbie first met Frederick Varley at his Vancouver studio. His seduction of her, as well as her seduction of him, led Vera to model for both Varley and the photographer John Vanderpant, a Dutch-born experimentalist. Weatherbie, 29 years younger than Varley, became the ideal handmaiden for the teacher. While Varley’s wife Maud was hard-pressed to look after their children in their rented home above Spanish Banks, Varley preferred to play his beloved Beethoven on the piano and instruct Vera. If Maud complained about lacking funds to manage the household, Varley told her she was bourgeois. “The worst thing any artist can endure,” Varley once said, “is to live with a woman who doesn’t understand his art.”

At Varley’s studio there was a Christmas pageant in which Vera was given the role of the Virgin Mary. Both Varley and Vanderpant portrayed Vera as the Virgin Mary in their work. Varley’s infatuation for Mary/Vera must have been transparent to his wife when she was introduced to his prize pupil. “Vera is a green person,” he said. Varley took his class to the North Shore mountains and decreed that every person is surrounded by an aura that can be represented on a canvas. “My illustrious forebearer, Samuel Varley, believed that every thought gives rise to a set of correlated vibrations in the material of the body.” That afternoon she posed for him on the steps of a ranger’s cabin. At his studio Varley proudly exhibited a finished work called Dharana. “It’s a Hindu term,” he explained. “It describes a state of meditation in which the mind looks into the soul.” According to Harry Adaskin, Weatherbie directly influenced her teacher’s work and “taught Varley about auras: vibrations which surround all people revealing the true state of their emotions and spirit.”

Seeking a reprieve from landlords and his wife, Varley escaped to an idyllic Lynn Valley cottage where he and his muse literally shacked up. Vera and Varley caused a scandal in Vancouver’s art circles. Varley created his unsettling, blue-green, portrait of Vera Weatherbie in 1931. That same year Vanderpant wrote to the director of the National Gallery urging him to buy Vera Weatherbie’s portrait of Varley. In 1933, Varley and his Scottish-born colleague Jock Macdonald left the art school to found their own B.C. College of Arts on West Georgia Street. Varley was generously acknowledged by Macdonald as the ‘revolutionary’ who had “laid the foundation stone of imaginative and creative painting in British Columbia.” In return Varley left his friend Macdonald ‘holding the bag’ for the College’s debts when it closed two years later.

As documented in Maria Tippett’s Stormy Weather (M&S) and Sheryl Salloum’s Underlying Vibrations: The Photography and Life of John Vanderpant (H&S), Varley could be a self-centred, drunk, womanizing spendthrift but he could also be charming, romantic, playful and extremely talented—all colours of a self-serving rainbow. Returning down ‘n’ out to Ontario, Varley went on to have relationships with other supportive women but none produced art as original and compelling as his various views of Vera. “She appears mysteriously aloof,” says Thom, “looking outward but remaining spiritually closed… The pink lips suggest sensuality, yet her face is a mask.” The ardour between Vera and Varley inevitably cooled, eroded by social pressure, but the famous portrait called Vera endures. It hangs in the National Gallery of Canada at the bequest of Vincent Massey. Varley returned to B.C. on several painting trips. He died in Toronto on September 8, 1969.

BOOKS:

Varley (Key Porter, 1983) by Peter Varley

Stormy Weather: F.H. Varley (McClelland & Stewart) by Maria Tippett

[BCBW 2004] "Art"