He lives like the fabled and unfettered Gulley Jimson and paints like an angel; he has given away sketches that are now worth many hundreds of dollars; collectors believe he has a surer insight for women’s faces, bodies and souls than any other Canadian artist living or dead
FREDERICK HORSMAN VARLEY, of Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver and Montreal, is looked upon by many connoisseurs not only as Canada’s greatest painter but as one of the world’s leading portrayers of women’s bodies and souls. Some art experts who know Varley socially suspect that he is also the model on which the late Joyce Cary based the character of Gulley Jimson in a best-selling novel entitled The Horse’s Mouth.
Although Varley scoffs when his own life of poverty, fecklessness and brilliance is compared with the fictitious tragedies and triumphs of Gulley Jimson’s dedication to art, it is possibly because he cannot see himself as others see him. This theory is strengthened by a glance at Varlcy’s two self-portraits, which are probably the poorest likenesses he ever achieved.
His strongest resemblance to Gulley Jimson lies in the fact that he is an unmistakable leftover from the classical Bohemian traditions of nineteenth century painting. At seventy-eight Varley still dresses in colorful corduroys and shaggy shirts; still indulges in bouts of wine, women and song; still doesn’t care where his next nickel is coming from; and still draws and paints with the touch of a master.
Penury has stalked Varley all his life yet, like Gulley Jimson, he has never allowed cash considerations to influence his art. When in the Twenties he was commissioned to execute a portrait of Alice, the late wife of the former Governor General Vincent Massey, Varley painted what he saw, “delivering up his subject,” in the words of a contemporary, “to her enemies.” Mrs. Massey insisted that Varley should change the expression he had given her, and when she persisted in face of his demur, the artist suddenly forgot his much needed fee and slashed the canvas to ribbons with a palette knife.
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From palette to canvas Varley transports oils and water colors in a virile bravura style, imparting spirit to his sitters’ faces with unexpected daubs of green and blue.
With the pencil or charcoal Varley’s economy of line is celebrated. His women’s heads convey the most fleeting subtleties of mood and his nudes push out so much life from their contours that they appear to be three dimensional.
Franklin Arbuckle, the Toronto painter, says: “Varley’s draftsmanship is his outstanding quality. All his paintings are hung on the skeleton of a drawing. As a colorist he is in one sense unique. Most of his pictures, either figures or landscapes, are characterized by a daring use of a breathtaking rose pink, a rose pink that simply sings out at you.”
Arbuckle believes that Varley is “only a minor master,” but many other painters and collectors contend that Varley has immortalized his name. Frances-Anne Johnston. Arbuckle’s wife, and a talented painter herself, differs from her husband in her view that Varley’s women's heads arc “better” than Augustus John’s. “Varley’s observation is superb,” she says, “and his power is immense.”
Arthur Lismer, the Montreal artist, thinks that “Varley’s female nudes knock Renoir's into a cocked hat.” R. York Wilson, the Toronto painter, says: “Varley is no longer identified as a Canadian painter. His canvases now sell all over the world. He belongs to international art and his work is compared favorably with that of Gauguin.” Charles S. Band, a wealthy Toronto collector believes that Varley is undoubtedly the greatest painter we have ever had in Canada. “Many of his paintings today,” says Band, “sell for five to ten thousand dollars. Charcoal sketches he sold a few years ago for twenty-five and fifty dollars are now changing hands at five hundred to a thousand dollars. Some of his works, especially those in the National Gallery at Ottawa and the Toronto Art Gallery, will become priceless the moment he dies.”
Varley’s survival to the age of nearly eighty is a source of amazement to a doctor at Unionville, Ontario. In this old-fashioned village, fifteen miles northeast of Toronto, Varley now lives in a gracious nineteenth-century house with his latest patrons, a retired chemist and his wife named Donald and Kathie McKay. A few months ago. during one of his periodic drinking bouts, Varley fell downstairs and remained unconscious for two days. Then suddenly he recovered, with his customary resilience, and in a state of glee telephoned friends to describe the accident as a great joke. The doctor said: “Varley is a walking miracle. No other man of his age could live so hard and get
away with it.” Eric Aldwinckle, the Toronto painter, is no less astonished at Valley's resistance to the effects of liquor. "A few years ago.” says Aldwinckle, “Varley and 1 shared a room in Moscow. His capacity for vodka was awesome. Yet when he arose one morning, naked, and went to the bathroom, 1 was astonished to see that his body had none of the marbling, seining and sagging that normally accompanies age and excesses. Varley has the body of a boy of twelve."
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Varley carries that slight, lithe body with a springy step, and holds high above it the head of a battered old lion. His thick mane is mostly the color of ashes now but at the roots there are flickers of the tiery red hair that blazed in his youth.
One of Varley’s many women admirers says, "He's got a sort of beautiful ugly face.”
Varley has always attracted women and in many of them has found inspiration for the heads and nudes which are regarded by most critics as his greatest works. Among his subjects are gypsies, prostitutes, landladies, cabaret girls, art students and wealthy socialites. He admits frankly that with some of his sitters he has been emotionally entangled. One of his best women's heads was done at two o'clock in the morning in a shabby Toronto studio on the back of a piece of wallpaper. This he tore from the plaster because he hadn't any drawing paper to hand.
Varley rarely uses professional models. preferring sitters he knows and likes. “Professional models,” he says, “take the throne with a little watch in their hands and when the time is up they get down. Bah!"
Often Varley has difficulty in finding women who stir his talent. A few years ago the painter R. York Wilson met Varley on Yonge Street, Toronto, and noticed that the older man was looking “desperate.” Almost wringing his hands Varley said: “1 can't find any women to paint. People keep bringing me women they think are beautiful. But as soon as I get these women into the studio I see in their faces nothing but emptiness . . . emptiness . . . emptiness.”
Varley's ability to enchant women, even as an old man, has occasioned some critical comment. In his late sixties he was teaching at a summer school of art. An eighteen-year-old girl student fell in love with him. News of this May and December romance reached the girl's parents. They sent two menservants in the family limousine to fetch her home. She wept. And behind her she left a six-foot head of her idol modeled in the sand.
Peter Varley, the artist’s photographer son. says: “But in many ways my father is a puritan. He is deeply religious. His work reveals his feeling for God.”
Varley’s sense of Godliness was manifest in his teens when he reacted violently against the ugliness, mundanity and materialism of his native city of Sheffield, Yorkshire, the centre of Britain's steel, cutlery and silverware industries.
As a young student at the Sheffield School of Art Varley constantly joined and quit smaller religious sects in his search for a faith. “One winter midnight.” he says, “I went up with three devout friends to Stannage Edge, a high bleak moor ten miles from Sheffield. I he top was covered with snow and the view of industrial lights below was beautiful. All of a sudden the four of us knelt to pray. We emptied ourselves. We knew then that God does not belong to this church or that. And afterwards we felt so exhilarated and exultant that wc laughed and wrestled and snowballed each other for half an hour before walking down to Sheffield.”
Arthur Lismer, the Montreal painter, who is also a native of Sheffield, explains how the steel city came to produce Varley, an artist he acknowledges as his superior. “Sheffield is bossed, Lismer says, “by a bunch of vulgar, bombastic industrial overlords and some of the people are cowed and dull. But others have a deep rooted lyricism that derives from the majestic moorlands around and expresses itself in brass bands, garden contests, literary societies, drama groups, art clubs and many other cultural activities. Varley certainly inherited his share of that lyricism.”
Varley’s father certainly had artistic tendencies since he was boss of thirty or forty lithographers in a Sheffield printing plant. The boy Varley soon revealed his talent. When he was ten he received ten shillings from a Sheffield newspaper for a pen sketch of a horse’s head, and later won a scholarship to the Sheffield School of Art.
The school specialized in turning out designers for the cutlery and silverware trades. When Varley graduated at the age of nineteen his father wanted him to become a cutlery designer. Varley refused and his father threw him out.
“That night,” says Lismer. "Varley arrived drenched to the skin at my brother-in-law’s home at Nctheredge. a suburb of Sheffield, and slept on a rug in front of the living-room fire.”
Fired with ambitions to become a professional painter, but lacking a grubstake. Varley dug up the information that tuition was free at the Royal Academy of Fine Art in Antwerp. Belgium. His father relented a little and lent him the cross-channel fare. Varley studied at the Academy for two years and kept himself by working at night as a dock laborer.
“In this period,” says Arthur Lismer, "Varley became a wayward lad. He hit it up so much that when I followed him to Antwerp he was spoken of at the Academy in hushed tones. But how he could paint! He won two gold medals for life drawings and paintings from the figure.”
Varley remembers well the Academy’s methods: “I started by painting as 1 had been taught to paint in Sheffield,” he says. “Then one day the teacher crept up behind me, snorted, seized my palette knife, and scraped my paper clean. He took my brush and made a few clean, free, audacious strokes. ‘Like this,’ he said, ‘like this!’ I soon found out that all I had learned at Sheffield had been finicky, niggling and petty.”
“His series of battlefield scenes in the National Gallery reek with anger at the futility of war”
After two years in Antwerp Varley headed for London and took a room for three shillings and sixpence—about fifty cents—a week in Battersea, just across the Thames from Chelsea. There he painted but rarely sold a canvas. He kept himself in kippers, bread, jam and tea by doing the odd pen sketch for the London Illustrated News. Assignments were few and often Varley went for three days without food.
In 1908, after four years of semistarvation in London, Varley returned to Yorkshire and took a tiny granite cottage on the moors in Netheredge, a suburb of Sheffield. About the same time he married a boyhood sweetheart, a schoolteacher from nearby Doncaster, named Maud Pinder. She accepted their impecunious life without complaint.
One morning the Varleys had nine pennies. Varley left Maud six pennies ror bread and spent the remainder on bus fare up to Sheffield where he tried to get some newspaper illustration work. He failed. As he walked home he despaired. "Then,” he says, “I had a mystic sense that everything was going to be all right. As I neared my home I began to run. I saw my wife running down the street toward me. 'Hurry,’ she said. 'We have a visitor.' The visitor turned out to be a Sheffield lady, a Miss E. S. Nutt. She bought a water color for five guineas. I thought she was a golden goddess.”
Varley sold a few other pictures too but life was dour. Occasionally friends and relatives helped him with small loans and gifts. Whenever he had money he spent much of it in the moorland pubs with Lismer and other old pals from the Sheffield School of Art. “The Sheffield Art Society members knew that Varley was a coming lad,” says Lismer, "but other people, because he wouldn’t take a job. called him a sponger and a cadger. They said he thought the world owed him a living. In fact he has always been convinced that the world owes him a small fortune and I’m not sure he is wrong.”
Lismer emigrated to Toronto in 1910 and returned to Netheredge in 1912 to marry his English fiancée. He encountered Varley again, found him still in grave financial difficulties, and still wracked by alternating bouts of gloom and beery exultation. There were now two Varley children. Lismer began talking of the new colors he had found in Canada and Varley was fascinated. Varley said: “I’ll go." Lismer’s brother-in-law lent Varley the fare and Varley left for Canada alone in 1912.
He landed with thirty shillings
Varley’s first impression of Canada was “of the colorful calèches on the dock at Quebec City, the hot sun and the sharp showers and the finest rainbows I had ever seen.”
Rambling around Montreal’s Mount Royal at night Varley saw what he thought were hundreds of cigarette ends glowing in a bosky dell. “Goodness," he said to himself, "what a lot of lovers there are down there.” Later he discovered that he had had his first glimpse of fireflies.
He pushed on to Toronto, landed with thirty shillings in his pocket and took a cheap room. Lismer, who was working for Grip Ltd., the engravers, got Varley a job in the same studio. Varley refused an offer to start work the next morning, preferring to wander almost penniless around Toronto for a week. When he did start at Grip he stayed only three weeks because they “didn't give me the right kind of work.” He then joined the staff of Rous and Mann Ltd., another engraving company, and remained there for five years.
Supported by a steady wage, Varley brought out his wife and children, painted at week-ends, and before 1917 had exhibited at the Ontario Society of Artists and the Royal Canadian Academy. In 1918 he went to France with the rank of Captain as a Canadian war artist. There he painted the series of battlefield scenes that now hang in the National Gallery at Ottawa. In Lismer’s opinion these stark, powerful canvases, reeking of anger at the futility of war, “rank with those of Paul Nash.”
On his return in 1919, Varley began painting portraits for a living. His most patient patrons were the Massey family who then lived on Jarvis Street. Toronto. In his dealing with them Varley revealed a most unbusinesslike independence.
Once, when Vincent Massey, the former Governor-General, turned up for a sitting at Hart House. University of Toronto, an hour late. Varley let him take the sitter’s throne. Then Varley put down his brush and said: "You wait there. Now I'm going out for an hour.” The next time Vincent Massey was due for a silfing he reached Hart House at the same time as Varley. For a joke, he ran down the corridor ahead of Varley and was ready with his pose when the artist entered.
One of the sittings was on a Sunday and when Chester Massey, Vincent’s father, heard of this he summoned Varley, saying: “Mr. Varley, you are in need of God's help. Would you care to join me on your knees?” "Hell’s hells,” said Varley, "I worship God on my toes.” Varley speaks with a grin of how Chester Massey, in praying for him, "spoke to God as if he were addressing an intimate friend.”
When Chester Massey decided to be painted himself Varley asked him for twelve hundred and fifty dollars. “But that is five hundred dollars more,” said Massey, "than even Sir Wyly Grier gets.” Varley said: “Grier paints portraits
twenty-four by thirty-six inches. I paint them thirty-six by forty-eight inches. Inch for inch I’m giving you a better buy.” Massey agreed.
To Varley’s consternation, Mrs. Chester Massey sat on the sitter’s throne at her husband's feet doing crochet work. "And they never even offered me so much as a glass of sherry,” he says. "Oh dear me, I’ve never been so thirsty.” Toward the end of one sitting a servant brought in two glasses and handed one to each of the Masseys. "Would you care to join us?” asked Mrs. Massey. "I certainly would.” said Varley. A glass was broughf. It was hot water. "We always have a glass of hot water before meals,” said Mrs. Massey. Varley tossed his shot away.
When the Chester Massey sittings were ended Varley borrowed a dust sheet to wrap up the portrait for transport to his studio for the finishing touches. Three days later the Massey housekeeper called to say: “Mr. Massey asks me to remind you that you haven’t returned the dust sheet.” Varley bought some gaudy gift wrappings, and in them returned the sheet personally to Massey with a courtly bow.
To some sitters Varley was even more offhand. The late Dean James Cappon of Queen’s University irritated Varley by saying: "What? What? You never worked in the Quartier Latin in Paris? But surely all good artists must get some experience in the Quartier.” Varley remained silent for a moment and then said: "Yoü know what I’m thinking. I’m thinking of Sidney Cooper the artist who painted sheep. Cooper always used to "wash and fluff up his sheep before he painted them. And when you talk like that you look like one of Cooper's sheep.”
Once, in England, Varley refused to paint a portrait of Lord Beaverbrook’s daughter because during his service as a World War I artist he had had a tiff with the newspaper peer. “Beaverbrook,” says Varley, “is one of the most ridiculous little men I’ve ever come up against.”
Despite his success as a portrait painter of social and academic personalities in the Twenties, Varley hated the work "because it limits self-expression.” Nor did the money he made stay long in his pocket. Frances-Anne Johnston, whose painter father, the late Franz Johnston, was a friend of Varley’s, remembers how poorly furnished was the Varleys’ Toronto home. “It seemed to always have something tacked up at the windows because there were no curtains,” she says, “and the children (of whom there were now four) ran about like wild things.”
Lismer says: “Varley loved his family dearly and his wife Maude never uttered a word of complaint. She knew it was not easy for him to keep the pot boiling without ever painting a pot boiler.”
During this period of domestic bleakness and artistic frustration Varley identified himself loosely with the Group of Seven, the Canadian impressionists who made a break from European traditions and produced pictures of rocks, lakes, forests and mountains that were sensationally progressive for the times, but are now, in Varley’s opinion, “commonplace.”
Varley’s association with the Group was never close for he preferred the female head and figure to the landscape. His two outstanding works in this field were executed in Vancouver, whither he went in 1926 to head the department of drawing and painting at the Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Art. One, a painted head entitled “Vera,” was inspired by an art student named Vera Weatherbie.
Varley says: "Vera was the greatest single influence in my life. Without knowing it she made me see color in new lights.”
Varley used Vera as a model for many of his most highly prized paintings and sketches. When he speaks of her today his eyes fill with tears. Varley left Vancouver in a state of deep depression. About the same time he parted from his wife and took a teaching job at the Ottawa Art Association. This only deepened his misery. "Ottawa drove me crazy." he says. "Those civil servants, politicians and diplomats are the daftest people I know of. The only people who kept me sane in Ottawa were Group Captain C. J. Duncan and his wife, a very lovely lady. They looked after me.”
In 1938 Varley escaped from Ottawa aboard the government-owned Arctic patrol ship Nascopie, in a berth secured by influential friends. His job was to make sketches of Arctic scenes and humanity for the National Gallery. When the trip was over the captain complained in a letter to his superiors that Varley had spent more time at the rum pot than the easel. Whereupon Varley, who often had worked quietly when the captain was about his own business, produced two hundred sketches and watercolors of Eskimo life. According to Dr. Edmund Carpenter, of the University of Toronto, these “will remain as an imperishable record of a doomed civilization."
At the outbreak of World War II, Varley was so bitter that he tore up and burned all the World War 1 sketches and paintings he had not sold. His Ottawa art classes melted away. "Those silly women." he said, “will go and knit socks now. And I shall starve.”
He headed for Montreal. Throughout World War 11 Varley was a shabby, shadowy figure moving from one Montreal lodging house to another because he could not pay his rent. Nobody wanted to buy paintings. Some of his best were seized by a landlady in lieu of back rent. She rolled them up and left them to rot in a damp basement. Varley gave away, often in taverns, dozens of sketches which today would fetch between two hundred and a thousand dollars. “I saw him once shambling along the street,” says Lismer, “and even when I spoke to him he did not know me.” A Montreal Star clipping for 1942 speaks of Varley falling in the street and fracturing several bones in his face.
Franklin Arbuckle recalls: “One day I went into a Montreal commercial artist’s studio. The boss said: ‘Look, I’ve got the big boy working for me.’ He pointed to Varley. Varley was sitting at a little old business desk with a few pencils and bottles of art gum about him. The light was very poor and he was gazing at the work before him in a daze. He couldn't do commercial art even to save himself from starvation.” One of the few pictures rescued from this era is a sombre, moving study of a male figure emerging from a tomb. “It is really my Christ,” Varley says. “I can’t remember painting it. I don't know yet whether I believe in the Divinity of Christ, so instead of The Resurrection I call it The Liberation.”
Toward the end of the war Varley returned to Toronto and rented a cluttered old studio on Grenville Street, in the arty section of the city. Between drinks at Malloney's bar, just across the road, and occasional feasts of ravioli and Chianti at the old Elm Street restaurant of Angelo’s, he drew the heads »erf drunks, bums and whores, w'ent off on landscape-painting trips in Northern Ontario, and took occasional teaching jobs at summer art schools.
He lived mostly on raisins, bacon, bread and cheese, and spilled much of the food on the discarded sketches that littered the floor.
About this time his old school friend Arthur Lismer visited Mrs. Varley, who is still living in Vancouver. She spoke of her husband without a trace of rancor. “How is Fred getting along?" she asked. “1 hope somebody is looking after the poor lad.”
Somebody eventually did. Some eight years ago Donald McKay, a retired chemist, and his wife Kathie, were living in a fine old home on Lowther Avenue, Toronto. Mrs. McKay, an amateur painter, and disappointed singer, had always admired Varley’s work. At a cocktail party Mrs. McKay told a friend: “I’d like to do something really practical for art.” The friend said: “Well, why don’t you look after Fred Varley. You could do nothing more practical than that.”
Mrs. McKay began carrying occasional meals to Varley’s studio. One morning she took him a hot breakfast and found his studio full of cronies with whom he'd been drinking, smoking and talking all night. As she entered Varley looked at her and cried “Stop!" She stood by the door and Varley seized his sketch pad. The outcome of this incident was “The Studio Entrance.” one of Varley’s finest post-war paintings.
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When the McKay’s moved from Toronto to Unionville. two years ago. Varley accompanied them. They provided him with a studio overlooking a large (lower garden. Apart from a visit to Russia in 1954, and a recent visit to England. Varley has remained there ever since.
On the Russian trip, with a party of artists and writers who’d been invited to make a cultural tour of the USSR, Varley chummed up with the painter Eric Aldwinckle, who says: “Varley’s artistic integrity and sincerity were evident to me as soon as the aircraft took off. He had never been up before and the world at twenty-five thousand feet enraptured him. He stared out of the window all the way over the Atlantic, turning to me occasionally to talk about the beautiful colors and shapes in the cloud formations. Everybody else in the party slept.”
Today Varley does most of his talking over a shot of whisky or gin on a terrace at the McKay’s. In his Yorkshire accented words attractive women are “bonnie lasses." and agreeable men are “lovely lads.” He refers to himself as “a bit of a blighter,” and interlards his stories with such expressions as “ByJove!" "Heavens Above!" and “Oh dear me.” His talk is youthful in spirit. Many art students in their twenties sit around and listen enraptured to his reminiscences.
Every January 2. these days, thirty or forty old friends and sitters visit the McKay’s to celebrate Varley’s birthday. T hey include Charles S. Band, a Toronto financier who owns the biggest private collection of Varley’s drawings and paintings. The gifts usually consist of liquor and the party is gay. During the evening Varley sits at the grand piano and plays Beethoven with an amateur's hand but a poet's flair. Then talk goes on until the early hours.
Here arc samples from a recent Varley conversation:
“I believe in God and in love between men and women, but there is something wrong with the Christian concept of marriage.”
"That Cézanne. He married a dull housekeeper and that was good enough for him. He was never in love in his life. There is not an ounce of love in his work. He is overestimated.”
"Oh dear, oh dear, Toronto Art Gallery is trying to raise one hundred thousand dollars for that enormous Tintoretto, "Christ Washing The Disciples' Feet.' The thing is pure trash.”
"The Russian realist school of painting believes in bringing art dowm to the level of the people. 1 believe in raising the people to the level of art.”
“The further north you travel in Canada the greater is the quality of nobility you see in the peoples' faces.”
“You see this sketch of a woman? You'll notice she has no pupils in her eyes. She looks more like a sculptured head. She's a Syrian woman 1 picked up in a Montreal cabaret when I was out for a bit of a frolic. She turned her head slightly away from me and something happened between the light and her eyes. Her pupils just seemed to disappear. That's how I saw her. Ghostly, isn't it?” “When you paint a person well you are not yourself. You empty yourself of all preconceived ideas about the subject. As you look at the sitter you see the truth emerging in the face. All people are beautiful in one w;ay or another.” "Trouble is good for mankind. When you are in trouble you get an understanding of life and you find the answers to many questions.”
“One human being never solved the problems of another. You can be cruel if you try to solve other peoples' problems for them. It is kinder to let people solve their own problems.”
When a party is over Varley often sits up alone in his studio and goes on drinking and musing. "Sometimes,” says Don McKay, "he’ll sit up over a crock until seven o'clock in the morning and then go to bed until early afternoon. No matter how late a night he's had you'll always hear him singing in the tub when he gets up.”
During his stay with the McKay’s, Varley has been busy. When I saw him recently he was putting the finish to eight landscapes. On the walls of the McKay home are several fine heads of Mrs. McKay. To the casual observer Mrs. McKay is a middle-aged housewife of average looks and temperament. When you see her in Varley’s paintings you realize that she is a blithe understanding generous and exceptional woman.
Varley has only one complaint. “Em too well looked after,” he says. “I need to bang around and suffer to paint well. You can see it in my latest work. Em getting too smoothed down. There are no jagged pieces about me any more.” ★