Frederick Horsman Varley was born in Sheffield, England in 1881. He studied art at the Sheffield School of Art (1892-1900), then at the Académie royale des beaux-arts in Antwerp, Belgium (1900-1902). Following Arthur Lismer's advice (another Sheffield native), Fred Varley immigrated to Canada in 1912. He was hired as a commercial illustrator at the Grip Ltd. design firm in Toronto, Ontario, where he met Tom Thomson and Frank Carmichael.|
In 1918 Varley was commissioned by the Canadian War Records to illustrate the war in Europe, where he produced some of the most moving canvases of the World War I. In 1920 he became a founding member of the Group of Seven. Frederick Varley did not share the Group's enthusiasm for the Ontario landscape and he painted mostly portraits and figure studies, many of which featured people within a landscape. In 1926 he moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, to teach at the Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts (now the Emily Carr College of Art and Design). The landscape of British Columbia had a profound effect on his life and art, and during the next 10 years he painted hundreds of landscapes in oil and watercolour. In 1933 he and J.W.G. MacDonald opened their own school, the BC College of Arts, but it closed after only 2 years.
Varley left Vancouver in 1937, closing an important chapter in his life. He moved to Ottawa and tried to resume his career as a portraitist. During the following years ye drifted between Ottawa and Montreal. In 1938 he travelled to the Arctic on the government supply ship Nascopie. In 1944 he returned to Toronto and, in 1948-49, taught at the Doon Summer School of Fine Arts near Kitchener. In 1954 he travelled to the Soviet Union with a group of other Canadian artists, writers, and musicians. In 1955 he made a sketching trip to Cape Breton, and in 1957 the first of several more painting trips to BC.
He died in Toronto in 1969 at the age of 88.