Frederick Horsman Varley was born in Sheffield, England in 1881. He studied at the Sheffield School of Art from 1892-1900, followed by studies at the Académie royale des beaux-arts in Antwerp, Belgium from 1900-02.
He began his career as an illustrator and art teacher, although he was not very successful. He immigrated to Canada, settling in Toronto, Ontario, in 1912. With the help of fellow artist, and friend, Arthur Lismer he was employed as an illustrator. Through this work he met Tom Thomson and Frank Carmichael.
In 1918 he became an official war artist, the Canadian War Records sent him to document the war in Europe. While in Europe he made trips to France, and painted a number of portraits.
In 1920 Varley became a founding member of the Group of Seven. However, unsatisfied with Canadian landscapes as a subject he pursued a career as a portrait painter.
In 1926 he began to teach at the Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts. While teaching he continued to paint, using oils and watercolours he created numerous landscape scenes employing new perspectives and techniques.
In 1933, he and J.W.G. MacDonald opened their own school, the British Columbia College of Arts. Unfortunately it closed after two years due to economic hardships.
In 1936 Varley moved to Ottawa in an attemot to resume his career as a portraitist. He travelled between Ottawa and Montréal frequently.
In 1938 Varley went to the Arctic on the government supply ship Nascopie.
Shortly after he returned to Toronto and taught at the Doon Summer School of Fine Arts for a year in 1948.
In 1955 he made a sketching trip to Cape Breton, and in 1957 the first of several more painting trips to British Columbia.
He was a member of The Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. His work is part of the collection at The National Gallery of Canada, among others.
He died in 1969.