Frederick Horsman Varley

January 1, 2000 by Jennifer Morse

Frederick Horsman Varley produced a number of painitings that depict simple, disturbing truths about war. From top to bottom: The Sunken Road, For What? and Gas Chamber at Seaford.

The war art of F.H. Varley is economical. It pulls no punches; neither does it glamorize. The thick oil sculpts bodies and land into one compelling image of colour and texture; we can’t really see where the land begins or the death ends. He presents simple, disturbing truths.

Frederick Horsman Varley was born in Sheffield, England, in 1881. He studied art in Sheffield, then in Antwerp, Belgium, at the Académie royale des beaux arts, and immigrated to Toronto in 1912. In January 1918, he was appointed an official war artist, given an honorary commission and sent to France to paint.

He was present during the Allied advance to Cambrai, France. In a letter to his wife he wrote, “You in Canada… cannot realize at all what war is like. You must see it and live it. You must see the barren deserts war has made of once-fertile country…see the turned-up graves, see the dead on the field, freakishly mutilated—headless, legless, stomachless, a perfect body and a passive face and a broken empty skull—see your own countrymen, unidentified, thrown in a cart, their coats over them, boys digging a grave in a land of yellow slimy mud and green pools of water under a weeping sky. You must have heard the screeching shells and have the shrapnel fall around you, whistling by you—Seen the results of it, seen…bits of horses laying around, in the open—in the street, and soldiers marching by these scenes as if they never knew of their presence—until you’ve lived this, little woman—you cannot know.” Varley returned exhausted to England in October, and began to work up canvasses in his London studio. He went back to France early in 1919, then left for home on Aug. 1—the last Canadian war artist to leave England.

He was a founding member of the Group of Seven in 1920, and after much persuasion joined his colleagues on wilderness painting excursions. He is known for the hundreds of lyrical landscapes, both in watercolour and oil, done in the late 1920s and early ‘30s while living in British Columbia.

Varley’s real love was portraiture. Some say he may be the greatest portraitist this country has ever produced. In his war art and portraits, he was able to brush aside layers of convention and expectation—and lay our souls before us. Varley died in 1969 in Unionville, Ont.

The Canadian War Museum holds 24 of Varley’s works. Two of his pieces will be included in a major war museum exhibit, titled Canvas of War, that will be shown at the Canadian Museum of Civilization from Feb. 11, 2000, to Jan. 10, 2001. The exhibition in Hull, Que., just across the Ottawa River from the nation’s capital, will present 72 of the war museum’s best works of art, including many paintings that have not been displayed for 80 years. From 2001 to 2003, the exhibit will travel to Toronto, Calgary, Fredericton, Winnipeg and two venues in the United States.

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Many of the Canadian War Museum’s ­holdings are ­available in reproduction at affordable prices. For more information, contact Image Reproduction Services, Canadian War Museum, 1 Vimy Place, Ottawa, ON K1R 0C2; tel: 1-819-776-8686; fax: 1-819-776-8623; e-mail:

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