Frederick Varley’s Vancouver

Frederick Horsman Varley, Bridge Over Lynn Canyon, c.1932-1935 watercolour, gouache and chalk on paper, 21.8 cm x 26.3 cm. Vancouver Art Gallery Acquisition Fund VAG 96.3.

The Vancouver Sun ran a front page story last week about a man who paid $100 for two paintings at a garage sale only to discover that one was a valuable Tom Thomson, and the other, an early watercolour by Group of Seven artist Frederick Varley. The unidentified man carted off his haul to Maynard’s in a shopping bag, where auctioneers conservatively valued the Thomson at $250,000, and somewhat less, but way over the garage sale price, for the Varley. The paintings go under the hammer May 16, so with all the national attention they could go a lot higher.

I was thinking about how Varley would have enjoyed this story as I walked my dog past his former North Vancouver digs. The old green house is across from the pipeline bridge on Rice Lake Road, a few minutes walk from The End of the Line, general store. Varley, one of the Group of Seven’s most notorious painters, lived there in the 1930s.

Always broke, Varley moved to BC in 1926 to teach at a Vancouver art school and lived briefly at Jericho Beach with his wife Maud and their four kids. Soon after arriving, Varley began an affair with Vera, a former student and art model and the same age as his daughter Dorothy.

By 1933 he is out of a job, the family are kicked out of their house for non-payment of rent and they move again. Then in 1934, Varley is on one of his painting trips on the North Shore when he finds the house near Lynn Headwaters. “I’d been sketching in the hills and I’d seen this little place from above, nestled on the side of the hill, but I’d never been able to find the road to it. Then one day when I was walking someone had cut the weeds along the side of the road and revealed the hidden path leading to the cottage,” he told a reporter in 1955. “I walked around the place, peering in the windows. It was deserted. Finally I found a way of climbing up on the veranda, which looked out over the valley. I knew I’d found the place I was looking for.”

To his delight, it also had a piano and was available for $8 a month. Varley lived here from late 1934 to 1937 and the period is said to be his “spiritual” high point. Paintings from that time include Bridge over Lynn Canyon painted from his second floor studio window, Lynn Creek, The Trail to Rice Lake and Weather-Lynn Valley.

Varley returned to Ontario in 1937 and Maud and two of the boys moved into the Lynn Valley house. Maud’s mother died the following year and left her enough money to buy the house. She added a bathroom and a bedroom.

I’m not sure how long the family lived in the house, but city directories only list them until 1941.

Emily Carr apparently visited Varley in the house and I have an image of them looking out on Lynn Canyon and sipping tea, although in Varley’s case, it would likely be Chianti or something stronger.

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Eve Lazarus is a freelance writer with a passion for history and heritage houses. She is the author of At Home with History: the secrets of Greater Vancouver’s Heritage Houses, a member of the North Vancouver District Heritage Commission, and blogs obsessively about buildings and their genealogies at www.blog.evelazarus.com. Her next book with house stories of Victoria’s murders, ghosts, brothels, artists and sea captains (not necessarily in that order) will be published this fall.

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