LOT 107

1881 - 1969

Northern Lights, BC
oil on board, circa 1936 - 1940
signed and on verso titled on the Edmonton Art Gallery exhibition label and partially titled on the Canadian Society of Graphic Arts label, inscribed "#14721" / "Varnish" / "1" (circled) and stamped James Wood & Co., Vancouver, B.C. Plywood
12 x 15 in, 30.5 x 38.1 cm

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

Sold for: $169,250

Preview at:

A gift from the Artist to his son, Jim, and daughter-in-law, Marjory, on the occasion of their marriage, circa 1940
By descent within the Varley family to the present Private Collection, British Columbia

Christopher Varley, F.H. Varley: A Centennial Exhibition, Edmonton Art Gallery, 1981, reproduced page 135
Peter Varley, Frederick H. Varley, 1983, page 114, the circa 1933 canvas The Open Window, Hart House Permanent Collection, University of Toronto, reproduced page 115

Canadian Society of Graphic Arts, circa 1940, partial label on verso
Spring Exhibition, Art Association of Montreal, 1940
Edmonton Art Gallery, F.H. Varley: A Centennial Exhibition, traveling in 1981 – 1982 to the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; and Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, catalogue #145

Frederick Varley’s relationship with the British Columbia landscape began in 1926, when he traveled to Vancouver from Toronto to take a teaching position at the Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts. The Varley family moved into “The Bungalow” at 3857 Point Grey Road, overlooking Jericho Beach, the Strait of Georgia, Bowen Island and the North Shore mountains. It is hard to imagine an artist being able to live in this splendid neighbourhood now, given the high property value of houses on Point Grey Road. The house had a big deck looking out over the water, and Varley even painted out of his window there, such was the ease with which he could depict the stunning views from the comfort of his studio at all times of the day and night. He took day trips to the North Shore mountains to paint and longer trips during the summer to Garibaldi Park, where he hiked and camped. He found a far different landscape from Ontario—thick forests with cedar, hemlock and Douglas fir, moody skies and coasts—and it changed his work, both in feeling and style. Varley eloquently expressed the impact of the BC landscape on his soul:

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…The sea is here, and the sky is vast…I often feel that only the Chinese of the eleventh and twelfth century ever interpreted the spirit of such a country. We have not yet awakened to its nature.

Wonder is certainly the feeling experienced on first sight of this awe-inspiring night view of the North Shore mountains backed by radiant northern lights. The aurora borealis occurs as a result of disturbances in the Earth’s magnetosphere caused by the solar wind from coronal mass ejections, and it is rarely seen as far south as Vancouver, unless these disturbances are very strong. And rarer still are these very colourful waves—the northern lights usually manifest as an eerie green hue in southern BC.

Varley’s mastery of colour and atmosphere is magnificent here. The rays of electrically charged light shoot heavenward from behind the mountains, which loom darkly. The sea is a darker version of the action in the sky, marked by colourful reflections from the North Shore and clusters of buildings in the city, their warm hues on the right a fine contrast to the spectral blue, green and mauve pulsing in the sky.

The catalogue for the 1981 centennial exhibition at the Edmonton Art Gallery lists a circa date of 1936 to 1940 for this work. Varley went back to Ottawa in 1936, but he returned to Vancouver for several weeks in late summer of that year, as well as in the summer of 1937. But the painting recalls the style and composition of the circa 1933 canvas The Open Window (Hart House Permanent Collection) with its rippling water in the foreground and view of the mountains, as well as the 1932 oil From Kitsilano (sold by Heffel May 22, 2008, lot 114). This view, which included the aforementioned house Varley lived in until 1934, looked north over Jericho Beach towards Hollyburn Ridge in West Vancouver.

Varley was a superb colourist. He taught colour theory and was aware of Buddhist attributions of psychological meanings to colour. In his paintings he generally used a palette of closely related hues, while making small changes in value or chroma. He used prismatic colours—including iridescent blue-greens and violets—and believed that objects emanated colour vibrations. Varley associated green with the spiritual and pale violet with aesthetics, entirely appropriate for this painting with its pulsating cosmic rays.

This extraordinarily beautiful painting has been in the collection of the Varley family until its consignment to Heffel this spring.

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

All prices are in Canadian Dollars

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