Posted by: Bob Fisher | October 22, 2012

The Iconoclastic Mind of Frederick Varley

How landscape shapes culture

The Frederick Varley Art Gallery on the historic Main Street of Unionville is a one-of-a-kind gallery with a very Canadian sense of place.The artist to whom it is dedicated, Frederick Varley, was a member of the celebrated Group of Seven. And as a gallery dedicated to perpetuating an awareness of one of Canada’s greatest artists, it is also one of Markham’s most important social institutions.

But the many admirers of the work of Frederick Varley, may not be aware of a darker side of his work.

It was the press baron, Max Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook) who first commissioned Varley as an “official war artist” in the early years of the 20th century. What Beaverbrook, a prominent figure in the “British Empire,” saw in the paintings of Varley obviously had a profound effect on him.

In the First World War, 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 an intense and enduring metaphysical effect on him.

Varley was 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.”

What he saw during his war experiences also influenced his later art. Some art critics see a subsequent reflection of Varley’s war experience in the works that depict the often harsh cruelty of nature in the Canadian wilderness.

Varley’s first-hand experiences in the First World War are echoed in his World War II painting “Liberation” (below) which he completed in 1943. It too is an allegory.

Varley the iconoclast

Like many artists, Varley also saw beyond the usual perceptual borders. Early in life, he also unconsciously transcended conventional “borders” and behaviour patterns.

His life and relationships with others were complicated; and he suffered from depression and alcoholism for many years. As an iconoclast, Varley had no choice but to go where angels fear to tread.

This is often the fate of visionaries like Varley.

His need to express his vision of an indeterminate worldview was a constant challenge to him; and his art often suggests the mystical with innate metaphysical qualities.

As an artist, Frederick Varley’s sense of place was especially 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.

Other images of the art of Frederick Varley

Images courtesy of and copyright of the Varley Art Gallery

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