LOT 113

1881 - 1969

Crown Pass
oil on board
signed and on verso signed, titled, dated 1928, inscribed "Thorley Park, 3857 Point Grey Road, Vancouver, BC" / "15" / "doubtless painted 1930 - 32, Douglas Duncan" and stamped with the Varley Inventory #384
12 x 15 in, 30.5 x 38.1 cm

Estimate: $60,000 - $80,000 CAD

Sold for: $37,250

Preview at: Heffel Toronto – 13 Hazelton Ave

G. Blair Laing Limited, Toronto
Private Collection, Toronto
Sold sale of Important Canadian Art, Sotheby's Canada, June 16, 1998, lot 214
Private Collection

Christopher Varley, F.H. Varley: A Centennial Exhibition, Edmonton Art Gallery, 1981, page 82
Maria Tippett, Stormy Weather: F.H. Varley, A Biography, 1998, pages 149, 166 and 167

In 1924, on a trip from Toronto to Alberta to complete portrait commissions, Frederick Varley had a glimpse of the Rocky Mountains from the outskirts of Calgary, then viewed them close up on a short visit to Banff. Varley sensed “a mystery about the west,” and declared that he wanted to travel farther west and paint mountains. In 1926, he left Toronto, arriving in Vancouver to take a teaching position at the Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts. The city was a momentous change from his former environment and his Group of Seven milieu, but he was excited by it. He was immediately impressed by the North Shore mountains, and within a few days of arriving, he and his son John took the chairlift to the top of Grouse Mountain. From here he would have seen the subject of this painting, Crown Mountain, with its distinctive jagged peak, behind Grouse Mountain in the back country of Lynn Headwaters Regional Park.

Varley’s early sketches of the mountains were done from the balcony of his Jericho Beach bungalow, captured with a palette of emerald and blues that ranged from turquoise to cobalt. His feelings for nature were awakened, and soon he was taking daylong excursions to the North Shore to paint the mountains at close range. Varley did not shirk from tough climbs - he was described as having “steel springs” in his legs and as being able to “shoot up a craggy mountain just like an arrow.” He would have needed this strength to take the steep Crown Pass trail to reach Crown Mountain, a trail which now carries a warning on websites for its difficulty. Varley was galvanized by the mountains – which, as he told his friend A.D.A. Mason, were “always inviting you to climb the next peak, enticing you away, farther & farther away from the problems that were born in the valley…One returns with clearer vision & many of the fool worries have been sweated out of you.”

In discussing Varley’s handling of his mountain subjects in Vancouver, Christopher Varley wrote that “what distinguishes and unites all of these works is Varley’s new hedonism with paint, colour, and form. He seemingly feasted on his pigment.” Crown Pass, with its extraordinary dark, rich palette, proves this statement. The sky is the deepest blue, an almost supernatural tone seen over the mountains when the air is exceptionally clear. For the mountains and foreground Varley used a deep palette of closely related shades of brown, maroon and blue, which differentiate more when viewed closely. From this darkness flash strokes of red like tongues of fire, and on the peaks, streaks of brilliant white glacial fields glow brightly.

This striking composition has a classic Group of Seven feel. In 1928, Varley was still in contact with his Group colleagues, and that year he sent four new British Columbia paintings to their February exhibition in Toronto. The screen of bare trees was often a Group compositional element - it establishes the foreground and makes the eye move through spatial steps up to the peaks. Varley gave these trees an animated feel by brushing on streaks of white, red, orange and blue along their trunks. And in the context of their West Coast locale, these bare, colourful trunks take on a totemic presence against the lofty mountain backdrop.

Varley’s life in Vancouver was something he would look back on with nostalgia. His life there, though not without its difficulties, was fresh and exciting - he was a bohemian star to his students and within the local art scene, and the work he produced there was magnificent. He expressed his passion for the BC landscape eloquently: “British Columbia is heaven, it trembles within me and pains me with its wonder as when a child I first awakened to the song of the earth at home…Only the hills are bigger, the torrents are bigger, the sea is here and the sky is vast.”

This work is #384 in the Varley Inventory listing, titled as Crown Pass, BC.

Estimate: $60,000 - $80,000 CAD

All prices are in Canadian Dollars

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