Posted by: Bob Fisher | March 2, 2012

The Varley: An Uncommon Art Gallery With a Canadian Sense of Place


In his article, “Sense of place: Writers and artists explore how geography shapes their work,” Governor-General award-winning writer Nino Ricci, comments:

“… every place is like no other, particularities, when they are entered into fully enough, have a way of becoming universals, so to understand one place fully is a way of understanding all places…. [t]he job of making the particular universal is one that the arts do especially well…”

And at the Frederick Horsman Varley Art Gallery in the historic town of Unionville, Ontario, this quintessential Canadian sense of place is articulated in a local as well as universal framework.

The gallery is, in many ways, the home to the artwork of one of Canada’s most expressive painters, Frederick Horsman Varley — a member of The Group of Seven.

Another “regional” art gallery, the Abozzo Gallery (not too far away, in Oakville, Ontario), articulates the concept of a sense of place in another way:

“Canada is a country blessed, as the saying goes, with too much geography and too few people. Yet, despite the vastness of the place, we have never lacked for artists, poets and writers to appreciate it, and celebrate both its spectacular and subtle beauties. Landscape has always been the central subject of Canadian art, since before the Group of Seven’s bush-whacking ambitions propelled it to iconic status. But a landscape is more than just the physical facts of topography and environment that surround us. The idea of landscape inevitably incorporates our own presence in it, and the sense of identity that arises from our history, experiences and associations with a particular place. Eventually, the landscape inhabits us, and its accumulated stories and memories become part of our collective narrative. It is this kind of ongoing relationship that, over time, binds us to the landscape and gives us a sense of place.”

A community resource

The local art gallery is often the focal point and core of a community, and analogous to other vital social institutions such as education and health care. Often it is a microcosm of unique communities in which there is embedded a great deal of social history.

Such cultural industries are also good for business. See “Why Cultural Industries Are Good for Business”.

Art is especially “good for business” because  it celebrates an essential component of a community by going to the heart of the matter; defining its distinct heritage. Artistic expression can be found everywhere, if you know where to look. It is a reflection of distinct geographic landscapes; but is also at the core of the cultural anthropology and social history of any community.

The multidimensional art of Frederick Horsman Varley

I have often said that “landscape shapes culture.” And at the core of that psychological-cultural phenomenon lies the individual and collective unconscious. Without a doubt this is how Frederick Horsman Varley perceived, conceptualized, and felt the world around him.

But like so many visionaries, Varley’s art transcends time and space; especially his portraits in which clearly his interpretation of the human subject shows his ability to engage in intuitive “critical analysis.”

Like other members of The Group of Seven, Varley’s art interprets landscapes, as well as the human beings in them, through imagery and allegory. This heightened awareness also has metaphysical qualities as well as a spiritual dimension; and herein lies the true nature of art.

As many cultures around the world have demonstrated — especially indigenous peoples like the First Nations people of Canada — physical landscapes have intrinsic elements in them that are generic and infinite. As Auguste Rodin said, “Art is contemplation. It is the pleasure of the mind which searches into nature and which there divines the spirit of which nature herself is animated.” The brain is the hardware; but the mind is the software.

The Portraits of Frederick Varley

Because of his association with The Group of Seven, Varley was often assumed to have been primarily a landscape artist.

However, as a portrait artist, Frederick Varley also explores unconscious elements in his subjects, which in turn he communicates to susceptible viewers. In a complex and subliminal manner, he reveals the inner thoughts and feelings of the subject — primarily through the body language implicit in the portraits.  In brief, he activates the affective/right brain of human consciousness.

Although each of his portraits expresses something unique about human beings, each also depicts the internal “landscape” of the mind.

His portraits also reflect the full humanity of the subject, and in my opinion, Varley has an astonishing ability to reveal the character of his subject through her or his eyes. And as the aphorism says, “The eyes are the mirror of the soul.”

Varley the war artist

However, for those who admire the work of Varley, they may not be aware of a dark side of his art.

It was Max Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook) who commissioned Varley as an “official war artist”. Beaverbrook was a Canadian newspaper baron, tycoon, and politician. What he saw in the paintings of Varley obviously had a profound effect on him.

And Frederick Varley saw “action” beginning in January 1918 when he accompanied Canadian troops from Amiens, France to Mons, Belgium. The effect of “the war to end all wars” also had a profound effect on him. He is quoted as saying, “We’d be healthier to forget [the war], and that we never can. We are forever tainted with its abortiveness and its cruel drama.”

Some art critics also see a subequent reflection of Varley’s war experience in the works that depict the harsh cruelty of nature in the Canadian wilderness.

In terms of what he experienced directly in the First World War, the painting “For What?” is probably the best known; a literal and allegorical view of the “war to end all wars.”

Varley the iconoclast

Frederick Varley, like many artists, also saw beyond the perceptual borders to which many of us are confined. In this respect he was an Iconoclast.

Being a breaker of icons, however, his life and relationships with others were complicated, in part because of his iconoclastic nature and the fact that, as an artist, early in his life he had transcended “borders” and the behavioural patterns that social institutions, rightly or wrongly, inculcate in our species.

Like many artists, the compulsion to express an indeterminate worldview was a constant challenge to Varley. His art often suggests the mystical; and has innate metaphysical qualities in it such as the painting Liberation below.

In terms of interpersonal relationships, this too could be a challenge for Varley.

His relationship with Vera Weatherbie Lamb, for example, a Vancouver artist who studied at the Vancouver School of Art and the Royal Academy in London, England was indeed complex; and that is probably an understatement.

Her portrait of Varley (see the above link) suggests a man constantly preoccupied with the concept and the ideals of art. This portrait obviously has considerable historical importance in terms of the artist Frederick Varley; but it also illustrates the intricacy of the artistic mind.

The arts community

There is no single entity called an arts community; it is instead an interconnected and interdependent relationship of artists, governments that support and foster art, and ordinary citizens.

And that is also why the local art gallery, like the Varley, is often the point of departure for discovering the diversity of a community and its heritage and social history.

Resources and other archival material about Frederick Varley

1. The Frederick Horsman Varley Art Gallery

2. The F.H Varley collection at the National Gallery of Canada

3. “Sense of place: writers and artists explore how geography shapes their work,” Canadian Geographic magazine

4. Frederick H. Varley: The Art History Archive

5. The National Film Board of Canada’s portrait of Frederick Varley, 1953

6. From the archives of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation: “A Visit to Frederick Varley”, 1965

7. This link from the Archive and Library of Canada, contains more information about Frederick Varley, including a letter written by the artist.

8. As an artist, Frederick Varley’s sense of place was intensified when he visited the High Arctic on R.M.S Nascopie, a celebrated and historic ship with close connections to the Hudson’s Bay Company. One can only imagine how his sensory awareness was heightened and deepened by this journey; especially given his childhood roots in the industrial city of Sheffield, England.

9. In the world of architecture, designing an art gallery is a specialty in itself. And this formidable task was awarded to the architect Jerome Markson. A “modernist,” Markson was faced with the challenge of creating an art gallery that blended successfully with the historic town of Unionville, which has preserved many of its 19th-century buildings.

10. When Varley, one of the founding members of the Group of Seven, immigrated to Canada he continued to experience the life of the quintessential “starving artist”; and like many of his contemporaries he found work in design firms. One of these was the firm Rous and Mann. As an article from the Toronto Public Library’s archives explains, “The Group of Seven style of painting captured the rhythm and mood of the nation’s landscape… Armed with canoes, boards and paints, they interpreted the chaotic mass of nature in a bold, modern approach that differed from the Academic convention… Group members strove both to express their love of nature and to develop nationwide support for the arts as a key to the country’s emerging cultural independence.”

A bookplate designed by Frederick Varley

A letter from Fred

8. The video clip “Becoming an Artist,” presented by Dr. Lilly Koltun, Director General of the Portrait Gallery of Canada, gives some wonderful additional information about Frederick Varley as a portraitist and his emphasis on the interpretive, expressionistic, and spiritual aspects of his portraits.

9. The Kathleen Gormley McKay Art Centre, also known as the Salem Eckardt House, was also the home of Frederick Varley for the last 12 years of his life. Located on Main Street Unionville, a few steps from the Frederick Horsman Varley Art Gallery, this Gothic Revival cottage was built between 1845 and 1851 by Andrew and Salem Eckardt. Designated as an Historic Place in Canada, the house is an important part of the social history of F.H. Varley.

F.H. Varley: Portraits Into the Light / Mise en lumière des portraits

The above book can be purchased from the Frederick Horsman Varley Art Gallery shop or from

The book, an obvious labour of love by Katerina Atanssova, a former curator of The Varley, gives full biographical details on Varley while exploring why he has become one of the most important painters in Canadian history. The book also contains some extraordinarily well-reproduced plates of Varley’s work. The book is also produced as a bilingual edition (English and French). For art lovers, and for those who may be relatively new to the works of Frederick Horsman Varley, the book is a prime resource.

From the Introduction to the book:

“Men like Varley are rarely simple. The more closely we scrutinize him, the less he resembles an ordinary person and the more we see a man composed of conflicting elements.”

This excellent booklet was produced for the inaugural exhibition of the Frederick Horsman Varley Art Gallery of Markham in 1997. A limited number of copies may still be available from the Gallery.

I am especially fond of Varley’s comment in the booklet:

“Art is not merely recording surface life—incidents, emotions. The Artist [sic] divines the causes beneath which create the outward result.”

This important document (of the inaugural exhibition of the new Frederick Horsman Varley Art Gallery of Markham) also contains an article by Robert Stacey, the exhibition’s curator at the time.

Stacey was one of the most talented and admired art historians in Canada. In his tribute to Stacey on his death in 2008, Robert Fulford (a Toronto author, journalist, broadcaster, and editor) quotes Dennis Reid, chief curator of the Art Gallery of Ontario praising Stacey’s “sense of art’s context”; calling him “a cultural geographer.”

According to Reid, “Stacey loved to write about places where artists found inspiration… He believed we should ignore broad schemes for nationhood and focus instead on regions that provided the seedbeds of culture: ‘We need to rediscover the power of place.'”

And the power of art and the sense of place inherent in The Varley Art Gallery is timeless.

The commemorative Canada Post Varley postage stamp

The images of the artwork included in this story

All images are courtesy of and copyright of © The Varley Art Gallery, Town of Markham .

In order, from top to bottom, they are the following:

  • F.H. Varley Portraits Into the Light — Exhibition — Varley Art Gallery 2007
  • F.H. Varley, Devil’s Leap, Oil on Board
  • F.H. Varley, Tree (Ferdinand the Bull), c.1940, Oil on Panel
  • F.H. Varley, Portrait of Kathy, Charcoal and Pencil on Paper
  • F.H. Varley, Laughing Kathy, c.1952-53, Oil on Board
  • F.H. Varley, Liberation, 1943, Oil on Canvas
  • F.H. Varley, Arctic Scene, 1938, Oil on Panel
  • F.H. Varley, Portrait of Alice Massey, c. 1924-25, Oil on Canvas
  • F.H. Varley, View from Studio, Oil on Canvas

Additional images below

  • The grave of Frederick Varley (McMichael Canadian Art Collection)
  • The Frederick Horsman Varley Art Gallery of Markham (Bob Fisher)

The grave of Frederic Varley can be visited at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.

The Frederick Horsman Varley Gallery of Markham

Other arts stories from The Philosophical Traveller

“The Hands of Juan Quezada”

“Art Meets Innocence in Madrid”

“For the Love of Travel and the Arts”

“The Artistic Journey of Richard Boswell”

“Climate Change and the Art of Jeroen Bechtold”

“The Spatial Sense and Sensibility of Mexican Architect Ricardo Legorreta”

“The Commerce of Art — and Maastricht’s European Fine Art Fair”

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