Artists F.H. Varley and T.M. Shortt spend a summer in the Arctic.
Frederick H. Varley was in a terrible mood when he boarded the R.M.S. Nascopie. In his rush to get to Montreal in time for the icebreaker’s annual trek to the eastern Arctic, Varley had accidentally broken his supply of whiskey. The artist’s mood brightened immediately, however, when he met his 27-year-old cabin mate, Terence Michael Shortt, an ornithologist at the Royal Ontario Museum. Immediately cementing a fast friendship (which would last beyond their three-month voyage to the eastern Arctic) the 58-year-old artist hailed the steward: “Two doubles for two gents, please.”
Departing Montreal on July 9, the Nascopie—a 2,500 tonne, 285.5-foot-long icebreaker built in Scotland in 1911—was to cover 12,246 miles on her summer journey in 1938, with calls at 24 ports to deliver a year’s worth of mail, supplies, and personnel destined for HBC trading posts and RCMP detachments. Along for the ride, Varley and Shortt both sketched and painted the Arctic landscape, its wildlife, and the Inuit inhabitants they encountered, while Shortt also collected bird specimens for the museum.
The 1930s had been unhappy for Varley. The English-born co-founder of the Group of Seven had established himself in Toronto as one of the country’s preeminent portraitists, then moved to Vancouver in 1926 to accept a teaching appointment. There, his marriage broke down. An art school he opened with colleagues failed in the early years of the Great Depression. Near poverty, Varley took refuge in alcohol, as he had done on and off throughout his adult life.
(Right: Frederick Varley in Vancouver, 1927, from WikiMedia Commons.)
He drifted from Vancouver to Ottawa and in between, following whatever work was on offer. “[I]ncreasingly melancholic and unsettled,” Katerina Atanassova writes in Canadian Art: The Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario (Skylet Publishing/The Art Gallery of Ontario, 2008), Varley “was looking for a fresh start.”
For years Varley had hoped to travel north, having been inspired by the works of fellow Group of Seven alumni A.Y. Jackson and Lawren Harris after their own earlier Arctic journeys. Varley’s opportunity arrived on July 4, 1938, when he received an invitation from Charles Camsell, the Deputy Minister for Mines and Resources, requesting that the artist hastily join the Nascopie before its departure later that week. Camsell’s invitation came at the urging of the National Gallery of Canada’s Assistant Director Harry McCurry, who felt Varley would “be of great value in bringing the North West Territories to the attention of a wider public.”
If Varley had been treading water, cabin mate Shortt’s career was on the rise. He’d become interested in birds early in life, and dreamed of travelling the world to paint each species. When the Winnipeg-born naturalist was appointed an assistant in the zoology department of the Royal Ontario Museum in 1930, he quickly discovered his duties involved “taxidermy, sign writing, moulding and casting, carpentry, wall painting and even sweeping floors,” as he put it in his autobiography. He’d already been on several expeditions to Northern Ontario, collecting species for bird-themed exhibits, when selected to join the Nascopie on its 1938 voyage.
The artist and ornithologist were joined aboard the Nascopie by an assortment of passengers that included: Governor General Lord Tweedsmuir’s eldest son, headed for a northern post as an employee of the HBC; Dr. Keith F. Rogers as medical officer; historian and journalist Marion Grange; D.A. Nichols, a physiographer for the Geological Survey; Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran clergymen; three Inuit gratefully returning to their home after a sojourn in Quebec; and a handful of brides en route to marry men stationed in the north.
(Above left: Inuit on the foredeck of the Nascopie near Arctic Bay, September 1936, from the Library and Archives Canada [PA-102193].)
On her three-month voyage, the Nascopie steamed around Killinek (Killiniq) Island, near the northernmost tip of Labrador, across Hudson Bay to Churchill, Manitoba (Cape Dorset), then north via Davis Strait and Baffin Bay to Thule, Greenland, back south to Fort Ross on Somerset Island, and to the communities along the eastern coast of Baffin Island—Pond Inlet, River Clyde, and Pangnirtung—before terminating at Halifax in late September. Along the way, her passengers braved blizzard conditions, sleet storms, and rough seas through waters dotted with immense icebergs.
“Nobody knows. Nobody ever knows about the Arctic. It’s as uncertain as life,” the Nascopie‘s captain, Thomas Smellie, once explained when asked about typical conditions on the ship’s annual summer voyage. He added: “But the Nascopie will come back. She’s a grand boat, and she’s been up there so many times she could find her way back alone.”
(Right: Nascopie in Pangnirtung Fiord, August 1946, from the Library and Archives Canada [e010692594].)
The Nascopie‘s arrival at isolated trading posts and settlements was frequently a cause for excitement, as locals rushed to the shore to greet the vessel carrying long-awaited mail, plus provisions and supplies as diverse as anchovies, cream puffs, anthracite, rubber nipples and baby’s bottles, carriages, radio broadcasting sets, movie magazines, and Christmas and birthday gifts. The steamer’s annual visit was often the only connection these communities had with the outside world, before air travel and telecommunications became widespread.
While the ship’s crew unloaded cargo, Shortt would hike miles from port, carrying binoculars and a rifle, exploring the surrounding terrain to find interesting species of birds to shoot and collect—once nearly drifting out to sea on a block of ice while retrieving one of his kills. (This propensity for wandering off soon came to annoy Major D.L. McKeand of the Northwest Territories branch of the Department of the Interior, who supervised the Nascopie‘s trip and worried that Shortt might get lost and put the ship behind schedule.)
Returning to the Nascopie with bagfuls of specimens, Shortt would retreat to his cabin to dissect, dry, and preserve the specimens. It did not take long for his shared quarters to descend into chaos. “My cabin mate is a bird-man,” Varley wrote to one correspondent, “hikes a great deal with a gun, dissects them in the cabin—looks at their stomachs—places in spirits the odd tape worm, recognizes sex, change in feathers—nurses his birds like one with a doll….The cabin smells like Chinatown in the chicken section, combined with oil paint. We get on excellently despite the hampered quarters.”
Varley, in turn, had his own collection of painter’s materials. “For the rest of the voyage,” Shortt recalled in his memoirs, Not As the Crow Flies (McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1975), “I put up with drying paintings, sketches propped up on my bunk, brushes soaking in the wash basin, tubes of paint on everything (including the floor), and smears of the same on most of my possessions. Varley, in turn, put up with racks of drying bird skins, sawdust, cotton batting, and stray feathers.”
Varley had brought oil paints but discovered, as the ship travelled north, that his paintings wouldn’t dry in the cold, humid air. The artist, therefore, had to borrow watercolours, supplies, and paper from Shortt. By the end of the voyage, Varley and Shortt were sketching and painting on every scrap of paper they could lay their hands on.
Varley offered lessons on Shortt’s progress as an artist. On the back of one painting of a bird, Varley offered the following comment: “Cease trying to be a flippin’ scientist, lad; world’s full of them. Needs artists. With a lot of hard work and a heaping measure of good luck, you might just make one.” In another instance, Varley added: “You can’t see a bird unless light hits it and light, depending on its colour and angle of attack, has to affect, modify and influence local colour of the bloody bird’s feathers. Try getting some purples, ochres, and complementaries into your shadows.” From Shortt, Varley learned to paint with a woolen sock on his hand and the paintbrush pushed through the weave of the fibres.
The voyage aboard the Nascopie reinvigorated Varley. In one letter quoted in Maria Tippett’s biography of the painter, Varley declared that he’d discovered “a new world.” The immense glaciers, barren, rocky landscapes, and towering icebergs inspired him and the nearly unceasing sunlight of the Arctic summer, Peter Varley wrote in Frederick H. Varley (Key Porter Books, 1983), prompted the artist “to use colours and colour juxtapositioning he had never before dreamed of.”
“As light passing through a prism gives us the magic of spectrum colours, so can be an Arctic sky at dawn, at sun down and occasionally through the night,” Varley explained in a later CBC radio lecture quoted in Tippett’s Stormy Weather (McClelland & Stewart, 1998). “On drier days, colour became precious, ice-floes splinter light into colour, and green of all greens, the translucent glacial green of ice beneath water, the pure violet light edging hollow caves, the sea-washed surfaces of mauve with powdering of pale rose and the palest of yellow-green, put the surrounding grey water to shame and tinged it with a dull smoulder of red like an old Chinese print.”
Varley also took an artistic interest in the Inuit they encountered in the Canadian Arctic and Greenland. Unlike most of his fellow passengers, the artist heartily shook hands to greet any Inuit who came aboard the Nascopie, sharing tea and stories with them. He eagerly sketched their portraits, as well as studies of Inuit tools, kayaks, and sled dogs.
“He was troubled by the subtle signs of change that threatened the old way of life in the North,” Atanassova suggests of Varley in Canadian Art. Tippett, however, argues that despite his interest in the locals as subjects for his art, Varley never treated them as individuals. In describing the Inuit to one correspondent as “the little brown people…beautiful they are—refined—quiet speaking—cleanly, exquisitely dressed—a people possessing pride of well being,” Varley perpetuated a romanticized view of the Inuit people.
Varley and Shortt’s days were spent working at a feverish pace, soaking in the landscape and wildlife. Nights were spent in the “bull pen,” where the rotating assortment of HBC and RCMP personnel—some disembarking to assume a northern post, others embarking for home on furlough—bunked. This was the Nascopie‘s social centre. “Here one heard tales from conversation-starved men who had been having adventures and experiences to pale any fiction,” the ornithologist later recalled, “tales of long dog-sled journeys, of hair-raising pursuits of ruffians under the six-month night, of Eskimo heroism.” He added: “Just visualize a room full of R.C.M.P. personnel, H.B.C. factors, whalers, explorers, visitors from the posts where we anchored for the night. One cannot buy that sort of entertainment. One cannot help but be broadened by such an experience.”
After departing Thule, Greenland—the northernmost point of the journey—the Nascopie steered southwesterly, through Lancaster Sound off the northern tip of Baffin Island, and into Prince Regent Inlet. Along this course, the sturdy icebreaker encountered the heaviest ice of the 1938 voyage. “It was choked with bergs and pack ice,” Shortt recalled. “Some of the bergs were half a mile long and several hundred feet high. The whole spectacle was white, sky blue, and turquoise with dark cobalt water showing through in small irregularly-shaped patches between the masses of ice. It was a magnificent sight.”
“The ship would charge full-steam at the pack, split it, and open up a lead of perhaps fifty yards,” wrote Shortt, explaining the icebreaker’s procedure. “It then shuddered to a halt. The engines were reversed, the ship backed off, and then it lunged forward again.” On such occasions, Varley and Shortt did their best to safely stow their fragile cargo of artwork and taxidermied birds in suitcases or tucked under the covers of their bunks, to keep them from being thrown to the ground as the Nascopie rocked and rattled violently. But on the occasions when the ship struck an ice floe without warning, Varley’s paintings became peppered with feathers and Shortt’s birds got battered.
Between the movement of the ship, its shuddering engines, and the loud crack of ice-splitting, almost all activity was rendered impossible. So passengers aboard the Nascopie, Ralph and Frederica Knight reminisce in the magazine Inuktitut 91 (2002), often crowded the bow, watching over the sides as the Nascopie broke through the ice. The sharp prow frequently rode up onto the edge of the ice—”climbing up as if to stand on its stern,” Shortt remembered—then returned to even keel as the weight of the ship forced an opening in the ice. Bit by bit, the Nascopie slowly traversed ice floes 20 miles or more wide. “We all realized that the Nascopie was the mightiest ice-breaker in existence,” said Shortt, as quoted in Jeremy Brown’s article on the 1938 trip in The Beaver (Autumn 1978), “and that should we become ice-bound, which sometimes seemed imminent, no other ship in the world could come to her rescue.”
In early September, after a particularly difficult push through ice, Varley and Shortt staged an exhibition of their artistic labours to lift the spirits of the ship’s crew and fellow passengers. The Nascopie‘s wood-paneled saloon was transformed into a floating gallery, with watercolour and pencil sketches of landscapes, birds and other wildlife, and Inuit inhabitants, each hung by paperclips from clotheslines stretched the length of the room. Shortt gave a brief lecture on Arctic wildlife, highlighted by samples of his bird specimens.
Upon the Nascopie‘s return, Varley’s art continued to be influenced by his Arctic journey, even as he once again became despondent over the state of his career. The artist scattered many of his sketches of northern life with seeming indifference, according to anthropologist Edmund Carpenter, who eventually assembled as many Varley sketches as could be located into a set of illustrations for his own book, Eskimo (University of Toronto Press, 1959).
Varley adapted some of his field sketches into canvas paintings, and for years subtly included elements of the northern scenery into the backgrounds of his portrait commissions and other works. But when an art show of Varley’s works was held in Ottawa shortly after his return, Peter Varley writes, few of the paintings sold. Once again, the now-elderly artist struggled against poverty as he bounced between Ottawa, Montreal, and Toronto, until he finally achieved financial success in his 70s.
From the Nascopie trip Shortt brought home specimens representing an impressive range of bird species including the Yellow-billed Loon, Glaucous Gull, Thayer’s Gull, Peregrine Falcon, Long-tailed Jaeger, Lapland Longspur, Horned Lark, Snow Bunting, among dozens of others. Eventually integrated into the Royal Ontario Museum, Shortt’s collection was called, by one expert, “the finest so far brought out of the Arctic by one man in one year.” By the time of his retirement as chief display biologist in 1976, Shortt’s numerous field research expeditions had taken him around the world to paint more than 1,600 bird portraits, and to collect specimens for display in the museum.
The Nascopie sank in 1947, near Cape Dorset, when its new captain refused the assistance of a local Inuit to guide the icebreaker into the harbour. Striking a reef, the ship was stranded for several months before sinking during a storm. Peter Pitseolak, a local guide, observed the signifance of the event: “Northerners sometimes date the end of the old way of life in the North by the wreck of the Nascopie.”
Other sources consulted: Katerina Atanassova, F.H. Varley: Portraits into the Light (Dundurn Press, 2007); Edmund Carpenter in Canadian Art (Spring 1959); Denise Heaps in Canadian Literature (Autumn 2002); and articles from the Globe and Mail (July 11 & August 8, 1938 and July 8, 1939) and the Toronto Star (July 7, 8, 26 & 29, 1938).