This Week in History


An Artist at War

For the week of Monday, July 27, 2015

On August 1, 1919, Frederick Varley returned to Canada after serving overseas for a year as a commissioned war artist. He then became one of the founders of the Group of Seven. Throughout his career, Varley created paintings that continue to be vital representations of both wartime devastation and Canada’s natural beauty.

Frederick Varley, 1951
© Library and Archives Canada
Varley was born in Sheffield, England, on January 2, 1881. At 11, he attended the Sheffield School of Art, and from 1900 to1902, he studied at the Royal Académie des Beaux-Arts in Antwerp, Belgium. In 1912, he immigrated to Canada seeking work as a commercial artist. His wife and children followed the next year. It was while he was employed as a commercial artist that he became friends with several future members of the Group of Seven.

At the start of the First World War, Varley painted for the Imperial Royal Flying Corps’ recruiting manual, and donated one of his works to raise money for the war effort. Between 1918 and 1920, he was commissioned to paint for the Canadian War Memorials Fund and travelled to England and France as a war artist. Varley painted portraits of officers and Victoria Cross recipients, and created many moving images of battlefront devastation. His style and use of colours captured the impact of war in ways that photographs never could. His works were shipped to Canada and were eventually displayed in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, and New York.

For What? (c. 1918-19) by F.H. Varley was displayed at the Canadian War Memorials Exhibition in 1919
Fred Varley / For What? / CWM 19710261-0770 / Beaverbrook Collection of War Art / © Canadian War Museum

Upon his return to Canada, Varley and fellow artists from Toronto’s Arts and Letters Club formed the Group of Seven. Their works famously capture the beauty and wildness of the Canadian landscape. Varley held an additional interest in portraiture, but his most iconic pieces focus on the interaction between humans and nature. He was a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts and received many honours, such as the City of Toronto’s Civic Merit Award. He continued painting until two years before his death in 1969.

For his role in founding the Group of Seven and his stature as an artist, Frederick Varley was designated a Person of National Historic Significance in 1974. The Group of Seven is a national historic event. For more on these artists, read A.Y. Jackson: Artist in the Wilderness, Arthur Lismer and Canada's Artistic Revolution, Lawren S. Harris and His Original Landscapes and Canada on Public Display in the This Week in History archives. This is the second year of the centennial of the First World War. To learn more about war artistry see Canada's War Art on The Canadian War Museum’s website.

Follow us on Twitter @ParksCanada! Also visit Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada's website.

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