The Varley Story
Group of Seven
The Group of Seven is famously known to have established a distinct aesthetic to the Canadian landscape, its members are historically recognized for the impact they have made on the Canadian art movement. Frederick Varley, Tom Thomson, J.E.H MacDonald, Arthur Lismer, Frank Johnston, and Franklin Carmichael would first meet as employees at the design firm Grip Ltd in Toronto. These six men would come together during and after work discussing bold new directions for Canadian Art, they were joined by A.Y Jackson and Lawren Harris in 1913. With the support of Dr. James MacCallum, an artist and university professor, the group raised money to build the Studio Building for Canadian Art in Toronto. It was there that they would create masterpieces as they discovered the distinct light of the Canadian atmosphere and capture it in bold new ways. The production the group was interrupted as they suffered tragedy when Tom Thomson, one of the founding members died in mysterious circumstances; shortly after, some of the members left to serve in the First World War.
It was not until 1920 that the Group of Seven officially formed with their first exhibition in Toronto. Once their popularity grew, the artists began to travel Canada capturing what inspired them. The group shared a like vision concerning art in Canada. They were imbued with the idea that an art must grow and flower in the land before the country would be a real home for its people. The group was not limited to its seven founding members; they eventually changed their name to the Canadian Group of Painters. In total, the group included eleven members: Tom Thomson, Lawren Harris, J.E.H MacDonald, A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley, Franklin Carmichael, Frank Johnston, A.J. Casson, Edwin Holgate, and LeMoine FitzGerald. The Group of Seven’s determination and belief in Canadian culture prevails to this day. They have become the most famous artists in Canadian history and are great contributors to Canadian culture symbolizing for many a concept of a distinctly Canadian Identity.
Frederick Horsman Varley or Fred as he is more commonly known, is often recognized as Canada’s greatest portrait artist and lyrically expressive landscape painters. Varley was born in Sheffield, England in 1881 where he studied fine art. In 1909 he married and later immigrated to Canada where he got a job in the design firm Grip Ltd in Toronto. It was there that he met a group of artists that would later form the Group of Seven. Renowned for their contribution to Canadian art, the artists were joined by their frustration of the lack of Canadian art that was being created at the time.
Originally a portrait artist, Varley sought to introduce a new note of candid portrayal of the human form. Ironically, he is best known for his landscapes. He later integrated the human figure into landscape in a manner that spoke of happiness and laughter.
Varley’s reputation landed him success in various art exhibitions and a position as the head of the department of painting and drawing at the Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts. He would be the first to acknowledge British Columbia’s unfamiliar landscapes which had opened him to fresh modes of expression. However his prosperity was short-lived after drastic pay cuts to his job, failing business and art ventures, and a break up with his wife. His efforts to capitalize on his paintings failed, he stopped painting, and was left penniless.
Varley eventually picked up the paint brush again, his desire to follow his passion lead him to various places but it was not until much later in his life he was recognized for his contribution to Canadian art. Fred Varley received many honours such as an Honourary Doctorate of Law from the University of Manitoba, his name in the Unionville suburb Varley Village, and the city of Toronto’s highest honour, the Civic Merit Award. Much of his later success came from the help of a friend named Kathleen McKay.