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Stormy Weather: F. H. Varley, a Biography

by Maria Tippett

Fred Varley, acclaimed Canadian artist and member of the Group of Seven, is an ideal subject for a biography. His complexity of character warrants illumination, his travels across Canada and elsewhere provide a richly textured background, and the three decades that have elapsed since his death allow perspective on his art and life.

Born in Sheffield, England, to a father who hoped to fulfill his own artistic ambitions through his son, Varley was riven by conflicts. These played themselves out in heavy drinking, disastrous relationships, and an inability to keep jobs.

Varley’s move to Canada in 1912 when he was 31 gave his art a tremendous impetus. With the other six members of the celebrated group, he found inspiration in the northern Ontario wilderness and painted his distinctive landscapes, including his signature piece, “Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay.” Then his career received another boost in the form of a summons to Europe as a war artist.

Varley had a “good war,” thriving in the anarchic atmosphere and the freedom it permitted. He could leave his wife and children behind, enjoy his officer status, and finally appear before his father as a success. In depicting this period his biographer also reaches her peak. Tippett deftly narrates Varley’s personal adventures and traces the artistic growth made possible by his experiences on the battlefield.

Back in Canada, Varley rarely replicated the satisfactions of the war years. For a decade he lived in Vancouver, teaching and painting. Then relationships soured, money dried up and the place lost its charm. He returned to eastern Canada and, despite the best efforts of patrons and friends, barely managed to eke out a living.

Tippett shows how Varley’s great portraits, such as “Vera,” draw their power from his dynamic relationship with the model. His success as a portrait painter provided him with a good means of supporting himself but he was unable to paint people who failed to excite his imagination.

Portrait painting is a perennial metaphor for biography and it is tempting to apply it to Tippett’s life of Varley. This book is a sound accomplishment but not quite an inspired portrait. Did her subject fail to engage completely the biographer’s imagination?