Frederick Horsman Varley’s Lynn Valley (1881-1969)

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One of the best things about messing with history is finding connections, and it’s always exciting when they’re right under your nose. When I found out that Group of Seven artist Fred Varley once lived in an old brown house on Rice Lake road, just minutes from my own, I started poking about in his life and how the few years that he spent teaching and working in Vancouver helped shape art and architecture.

Fred Varley, Lynn Valley by Philip Surrey
Fred Varley, Lynn Valley by Philip Surrey

This is an excerpt from Sensational Vancouver’s West Coast Modern chapter:

Fred Varley ca1932
Fred Varley ca1932

In 1932 Fred Varley was sketching in North Vancouver when he noticed a small house high up on the bank of Lynn Creek. He walked around the place, peered in the windows and saw that it was deserted. The boxy little house was in rough condition. It had porches tacked on to the front and back and an unfinished room on the main floor. He climbed up on the verandah and looked out over the valley and saw Mt. Seymour and Lynn Peak. When he looked down he saw a deep narrow canyon below.

To his delight the house came with a piano and was available for $8 a month. He could commute to Vancouver by street car and ferry.

“That was the happiest time,” Varley told a reporter 20 years later. “The only place in the world that I truly felt was mine.”

Frederick Varley
Group of Seven, Varley at far left

Varley was a talented artist, he was more than a decent teacher, and as a founder of the Group of Seven, he was a Canadian icon. He was also an irresponsible alcoholic who loved women, and with his handsome face, clear blue eyes and shock of copper-red hair—women loved him back.

None of this was much consolation to his wife Maud and their four children Dorothy, John, Jim and Peter. The family were evicted from two rented Kitsilano homes in the short time they’d lived in Vancouver, and were about to be abandoned for 19-year-old Vera Weatherbie.

Lynn Valley ca.1930s
Lynn Valley ca.1930s

Varley had moved out to B.C. in 1926 to teach at the Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts—the forerunner to Emily Carr University of Art + Design. For a while he taught at his own school, but his school failed in the Depression, and leaving his family to fend for themselves, Varley moved to Lynn Valley.

The next three years were supposedly his spiritual high. Varley painted Dharana, Birth of Clouds, Lynn Creek, the Trail to Rice Lake and Weather-Lynn Valley—many from the second story window of his house.

 

When Varley moved to Ottawa, Maud bought the house from a small heritance. The house stayed in the family until 1974.

Maud Varley, Rice Lake Road ca.1960s
Maud Varley, Rice Lake Road ca.1960s

Varley’s grandson, Chris spent time there in the ‘60s. “It was a magical spot, although in seriously dilapidated condition,” he says. “At that time it was still stuffed with Varley’s paintings and drawings. Church at Yale, now in the B.C. Archives, hung in the stairwell.”

Chris remembers an unframed portrait of his Aunt Dorothy wrapped in a green garbage bag and stored under the kitchen sink.

“There was an old bureau with a drawer full of scattered, unmatted drawings,” he says. “An early Tom Thomson sketch was reputedly used to patch a leak in the ceiling of the attic.”

Frederick Varley, Group of Seven
Varley’s house. Eve Lazarus photo, 2013

© All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content copyright Eve Lazarus.

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15 comments

  1. Great story about F.H.Varley!…. Glad to see the Rice Lake Rd. house has been maintained and still standing……I assume the original builder put it up just after 1900, by the look of it.

  2. Fascinating information! I walk and cycle by that house all the time but had no idea of its connection to Varley. Thanks for sharing!

    1. I designed and built the house down the road on Marion Rd. We no longer live there. I was a teacher of the arts for 30 years in Burnaby and lived on the North Shore. The history of Varley was brought to light when we established the Varley Trail outside our front door. He certainly had a colourful history. We had a wonderful life with our family of two girls growing up in the shadow of the artists in our midst of the Lynn Valley Forest. My Wife Joanne was an active Fibre Artist who was one of the pioneers of Circle Craft Christmas Market. I was a Ceramic artist as well as a well know Artist of the beloved Lynn Valley Trails, Forests and Lynn Canyon Creek and Rocky Pools and Flowing Streams. After a car accident my life has grown silent but I have written many stories of my life and adverntures growning up in East Vancouver, and the last 40 years of living in North Vancouver.

      Neil and Joanne MacDonald

  3. From our home in Victoria, we are just beginning a trip across Canada, stopping at some of the inspirational sites of the Group of Seven artists. Today we’ll visit Lyn Canyon. Enjoyed your informative post!

  4. I’v lived beside Lynn Canyon and have frequented the Varley Trail and areas for the past 20 years. Having recently viewed one of Varley’s Bridge Across Lynn Creek painting s at the Audain museum in Whistler I’m intrigued by where this view point is. The current Pipeline Bridge at the end of Rice Lake Road? His viewpoint show a more open valley like one sees up the Seymour. Any ideas?

    1. Another reason to visit the Audain Museum! He painted at least five of Lynn Canyon, and told a reporter years later that some were from the second room window of his house. He said his time in Lynn Valley was the “spiritual high point” of his career. I have some photos that his grandchildren sent me (one is in Sensational Vancouver of his house with his wife Maude in the doorway). There’s nothing around the house, everything was clear cut, so he would have had quite the view.
      Eve Lazarus recently posted..The Grinch who Stole Lynn ValleyMy Profile

  5. In 1976, I was in Lionsgate Hospital, North Vancouver, having an operation! In the same ward as myself there was an old, very depressed lady! One of the student nurses had to chose someone from the ward to find out about, and write a life history on! She chose the old lady! Well this certainly sparked her up, and she told us all about her life, being married to Fred Varley, who was in the Group of Seven! What a terrible womanizer he was and how she had to raise her children, practically single handed!
    I always remembered her, and her story! I find it amazing that it seems she did not die until 1988 – having lived 102 years! Did you find out anything else about Maud Varley, other than what is known, and where and when she died!? I would be very interested to know about her!! It was great seeing the photos of her house!

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