Fred Varley

Frederick Horsman Varley

When I first met Fred and we quickly became fast friends. Upon reflection, I attribute our early friendship due to similarity of character and experience.

Fred was a craggy-looking sort of chap. You’d never think he was an artist but a journeymen or farm labourer. In England, before he came to Canada, he was a stevedore after his job as a newspaper illustrator ran out.

I met Fred during the summer of 1912. He started at Grip, having borrowed money from Lismer to make the passage to Canada. A constant smoker with a drink never far from his reach,  I could get along with him well. We got along so well, that he started to act as matchmaker. He wanted to find a woman for me, his sister-in-law to be exact. Dora, the half-sister of his wife, Maude. I told Fred that I wasn’t fit for a girl, that I was too much of a wild man. Truth be told,  I was terrified of a commitment. I had barely any money to my name and seeing how Lismer struggled to feed his family, I didn’t dare to put myself in the same situation.

On weekends, Fred and I would go painting on Centre Island, the Harbour, and the outskirts, High Park and north up to Thornhill. I learned from Fred, but he learned from me. Painting the outside meant you had to be part of the outside. Before we put our brushes to boards, I’d tell Fred the different species of trees, the birds, even the different grasses. I’d tell him that a scene might have  a thousand details but you needed to find the one thing that gave life to your sketch.

Alex Jackson tolerated Fred, but wasn’t fond of him. The feeling was mutual. In an odd sort of way, and in a way I never expected, I was the common bond between them. I don’t want to take credit, but if it weren’t for me, Alex and Fred would parted to their own ways. I never cared much for their differences, I was too intent on learning from them and it was my intense love for the northern scenes that kept them together.

From the Summer of 1914

Written in late summer of 1916 when I was fire-ranging near Achray.

It’s impractical to sketch, I’ll write a few words instead.

Where to begin…

I’ll start in the Summer of 1914. Even though I liked to have a chum with me, I liked being alone better. After my canoe trip with Arthur Lismer in May, he returned to Toronto. I stayed for the rest of the summer. I no longer had to worry about work, money or domestic obligations becasue of the stipend I was receiving from Dr. MacCallum. A canoe adventure was in my cards.

I took the train west from Algonquin to Depot Harbour This was the westernmost reach of the J.R. Booth realm. Depot Harbor is the terminus of the Ottawa-Arnprior-Algonquin rail line and as many tourists would descend from Ottawa as there would be from Toronto. Depot Harbour is a busy little town; I tried to avoid all of the hubbub but it was difficult. I would try to get as far away from the bustle and sit on the rocks that would jut into Georgian Bay. I was fascinated by the raw power that could be unleashed by a storm. One day the Bay would be a serene blue-green sheet of calm and the next day it would be a wrathful cauldron of grey. I recall the poems of Wilfred Campbell, Lake Lyrics.

My winter months with Jackson had begun to pay off. I started to see the world in a different way and boards began to paint themselves, my hands being the medium. It was apparent in the expression of Dr. MacCallum’s eyes when I showed him the sketches I just did. After Depot Habour, I traveled north by steamship and camped with the Dr. at the mouth of the French River. I showed him my sketches and his remark was, “Tom, these are good! They do capture the same feeling when I’m around here.”

Jackson warned me that the Dr. knew very little about art and to be careful and how I should receive his criticism. “Just remember, the Dr. is paying the bills.”

My inclination was to disagree with Jackson. The Dr. might not know about techniques and mechanics or art but he seemed to know what was good to express the northlands. He had the eye of an artist, not necessarily the hands of one.

I accepted the invitation to stay at the Dr.’s cottage on West Wind Island. I stayed for June and July and spent time canoeing and painting with leisure. I had no duties or obligations, only that I would provide the occasional painting lesson to the Dr.’s daughter, Helen.

I enjoyed the time on the island, but the company began to wear on me after awhile. The nature was great, the company wasn’t. Many of the folks vacationing on the island were a plain annoyance. I just wanted to escape from the cake and ice-water socials and find a place to paint in isolation. Despite wanting to be alone, I missed the company of Jackson, Lismer and Harris. Unlike the present company, we could all shut up and paint when the time came. I wrote a letter to Varley asking him to come for a canoe and camping trip but his domestic obligations kept him at home.

Then it hit. The declaration of War, on August 5th, 1914. It was on the same day I was about to depart to Algonquin. It was the day before by 37th birthday. Everyone greeted the declaration of war with great enthusiasm. No one needed reminding that it was actually Great Britain that declared war and the Canada’s decision simply followed suit. I decided I need to get out alone and fast.

I took the steamer from Go Home Bay to the mouth of the French River and purchased cheap an old used canoe. I travelled east on the French River to Lake Nipissing. At time the river and rapids and treacherous. At one rapids I counted thirteen white wooden crosses – thirteen deaths and probably many more.

There’s some commotion going on with the men. Whistle just blew  – I’ve got to attend to.

Aug 11, 1917 Winnifred Trainor Letter to T. J. Harkness

Huntsville, Ont.


Aug 11, 1917

Dear Mr. Harkness,

Yours received yesterday and contents carefully noted. This is Saturday my very busy day, so thought I better answer. Five weeks ago to-day I wrote to Tom – but he did not receive it. He also wrote to me – & our letters crossed & to-night a sad note to his brother-in-law. It seems to me almost unbeleivable. And I’m so sorry and words are so thin.

I called to see the undertaker Mr. Churchill and he wished is name not to be used. So I know these remarks will be treated strictly confidential. I know nearly everyone for miles around and I’m not refused anything I try. So I asked him plain questions

I acted on the strength of the telegram of instructions which was found waiting at the train time 6.p-m. I had quite a hard struggle to even see it and got straight replys. He is a very consientious man. I cant write all to-night but he said the bill was steep. Flavelle is only a furniture dealer and undertaker not an embalmer so took an embalmer along from Sprucedale near Parry Sound. So that was double expense instead of acting a man and pass the order on. That is from the money side. even if had no heart. I’m sorry I did not go up the day before – I suggested things at Canoe Lake, but was refused. If I see you I can tell you all. However Mr. Churchill said to act as per your letter. They include here everything with the price of the casket. The one from Kearney was not any better. & Rough box was not painted & I don’t think it had handles on. Mr. Churchill always pays his own keep when out. He says it is not right as he would have to pay for it while home. A copper lining costs more than the casket itself. So you see he is billing a good rate. I would suggest to use your own judgement as you know the contents of the first telegram. Thought [illegible] composed – and you know the tangle now that has to be unravelled – owing to the thoughtlessness of not having a sealed casket – which anyone knows is needed in a case of that kind and also required by law. If you knew Mr. Fraser I think you would use your own judgement. This is strictly confidential as the Frasers are alright in their way. I certainly would love to visit the grave at some future date. So perhaps may see you then, if I should not write again.

Please excuse pencil as my time is limited this eve, so I thought I could make better time with my scribbling. After I got ans. to what was going on at Canoe Lake – I did all in my power to get things righted. I was told there it could not be done, but I thought I’d have a try and I knew that time was precious. When I got to Scotia arriving at 730p.m. the wires were down between Hville and Scotia. So then I looked up the agent & sent out message after message to Hville all free of charge, & perfectly lovely about it all. I had to wait there till nearly 3. am.

We are friends with the Frasers, as we have a swell House at Canoe Lake, where each summer it has been our custom to Holiday there. But I could explain better if you knew them.

Yours truly
Winnifred Trainor

August 2, 1917 Margaret Thomson, Letter to Dr James MacCallum,

Dear Sir,

I am sending you dear Tom’s letter. It was very kind indeed of you to send it to us and we thank you for your thoughtfulness. Tom wrote very few letters. It is one of my regrets now, that I hadn’t written to him more often. I had intended writing to him quite often this summer, and I was going to send him magarine and boxes of homemade cooking, but it seems I have been denied this pleasure. I am sure many a time he must have been lonely when out in the wilds.

Our hearts are still almost broken and I don’t know whether our sorrow will ever wear away or not. His death was the first break in our large grown up family. Tom seemed to have a place in each of our hearts, that could not be filled by any one else. He was so good and so kind and he seemed almost perfect in every way. He was so much alone that we seemed to think more about him than any of the others of the family. Poor boy, he worked so hard, denied himself so much and now to think he is gone.

We all think the Memorial Exhibition of pictures you mentioned having a very good idea. You will know better than we what to do. We wouldn’t like to see any of his work sold at a sacrifice and we trust everything will turn out rightly.

In speaking of the Memorial Cairn, we think what you suggested a very fine idea. Any tribute paid to Tom’s memory by Tom’s friends, we appreciate more than words can express.

My sister and I were very sorry to leave the shack in such condition but we would like to have it cleaned thoroughly and have the bill sent to us.

Yours sincerely,
Margaret Thomson.

August 6, 1917 JS Fraser, Letter to T J Harkness

Mowat P. O.

Aug 6, 1917

Dear Sir

Your letter just came to hand Mr Flavelle sent me the bill i am sending it to you i was just going to pay it he had pretty hard work up here with tom body so I thought it would of been more we got so excited we diden know what to do so we did the best we could do. the Body was in a offel state so we had to hurry and it rained all day all the other man had to do was change boxes so sute yours self about the bill but i to him i would stan good before he came i would do any thing for tom he was like one of the family i seen the Rangers and they said the canoes was worth $10.00 dollars a peace they leak pretty bad they are Pretty old canoes and full of holes so they said that was all they are worth.

i hope Mr. & Mrs Thomson are well i give George row $5.00 and L Dickson $3.50 for looking for tom Mr rowe and Dickson found him i if that Price is all right for the canoes please let me know and i will send the money down right away

hope this litter finds you all well

Yours truly
J S Fraser