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How Canadian is this story? It took a scholar from Bulgaria to appreciate overlooked portraits by a major Canadian painter, a national treasure whose landscapes the rest of us had been looking at for years.

Katerina Atanassova, collections curator and program co-ordinator at the Frederick Horsman Varley Art Gallery in Markham, Ont., was born in Sofia 40 years ago. In 1990, with little English, she arrived in Canada to study art at the University of Toronto's Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies. Now she knows enough about Canadian art to propose a radical thesis: Fred Varley, a co-founder of the Group of Seven best known for works such as Stormy Weather - Georgian Bay, was more committed to the human face than the stormy, weathered landscape.

She nails her thesis in F.H. Varley: Portraits into The Light, the show she has curated at the Markham gallery (where it runs until Sept. 3, before moving on to the Beaverbrook Gallery in Fredericton, the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton, the Kelowna Art Gallery in B.C. and finally to Ottawa, where it will be mounted under the auspices of the Portrait Gallery of Canada).

Perhaps Canadians have overlooked Varley's portraiture for the same reasons that we have yet to secure a proper home for the Portrait Gallery of Canada, which has curators and a collection, but no building of its own: We think of ourselves as a people obsessed by the land. Pundits such as Northrop Frye ( The Bush Garden) and Margaret Atwood ( Survival) have confirmed us in this view, as have galleries such as the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont., which by its very charter is devoted to Canadian art, the landscapes by the Group of Seven and others. When galleries such as the Varley in Markham try to build more portraiture into their collections and exhibitions, they challenge our very identity.

"There is an extraordinary gap in Canada's art history ... that gap is portraiture," Lilly Koltun, director of the Portrait Gallery of Canada, says in the foreword of Atanassova's book, which has the same title as the exhibition. If a national history of portraiture were more developed, Koltun argues, there would have been more research done, for example, on Varley's connections to portrait photographers of his day.

The official involvement of the Portrait Gallery of Canada in the Varley portraits show has been both a boon and a curse. When Atanassova and John Ryerson, director of the Varley Gallery, started to assemble a Fred Varley portraits exhibition 2½ years ago, the lustre of the national institution's involvement helped to persuade more than 24 donors to lend their treasured paintings. These donors imagined, as did Ryerson and Atanassova, that their Varleys would hang in Ottawa at the proposed 2008 opening of the Portrait Gallery's new home on Wellington Street across from the Parliament Buildings. The prospect delighted them.

However, after the Conservatives were elected in January, 2006, the new government distanced itself from projects inaugurated by Liberals. It allowed the Portrait Gallery's building contracts to expire, as it explored, and then abandoned, the notion of moving the public gallery to a private Calgary development. Canada's Portrait Gallery remains homeless.

Fearing that the Varley show would be homeless too, Ryerson and Atanassova went to Ottawa in August of 2006 to help find a different venue. "We wanted to maintain the Portrait Gallery exposure for their sakes and ours," Ryerson says. With space offered by Ottawa's newly renovated Museum of Nature, there's now a place for the exhibition from May to June, 2008.

On a Tuesday summer morning, Atanassova guides a group of visiting teachers through the Markham installation of Into the Light. The first image is a sketch of a scowling but vibrant Samuel Varley, a commercial artist living in Sheffield, England. Samuel used to take his boy, Fred, on sketching trips into the English countryside, and sent him to the Sheffield School of Art and then art schools in London and Antwerp, where the young artist was exposed to the bold brush technique and simplified forms of portraits by John Singer Sargent and Augustus John.

In 1912, Fred Varley, now married, ran into Arthur Lismer, a classmate from Sheffield who had emigrated to Ontario. Lismer told Varley how good life was in the New World, so Varley and his wife packed up their two small children and sailed for Canada.

In Toronto, Varley found work at a commercial graphics company alongside Lismer, Tom Thomson and senior designer J.E.H. MacDonald. These men would repair to the Arts and Letters Club for lunch, and were often joined by Lawren Harris and A.Y. Jackson. They went north to paint the land, and were hailed as national icon-makers.

Atanassova stops her group in front of an early painting titled Indian Summer: "In fact, the only trip Varley took with the Group of Seven into Algonquin Park was in 1914," Atanassova tells them, "and on that occasion he put a human figure in the landscape." Varley's wife, Maud, is shown looking slightly out of place as she stands awkwardly among birches.

Even during the height of Varley's Group of Seven involvement, Atanassova says, he was producing so many portraits, Jackson chided him for being the non-producer of the group.

He produced two styles of portraits, painting meticulously when portraying folk such as Capt. C.P.J. O'Kelly, upright recipient of the Victoria Cross, or the bracingly conservative Janet P. Gordon.

With its pearly coloration and its expression of thin lips clamped in disapproval, this deftly crafted image of a society lady must be the finest depiction of a Scots-Presbyterian-Canadian looking down her narrow pink nose that has ever been produced.

Varley had a lusty style as well, one familiar to those who know his roiling landscapes. He used meaty, bold brushstrokes for subjects who stirred his blood and heart. An early example is his portrait Lt. G.B. McKean, a wounded soldier who grips his cane with a red-knuckled hand. Bold is also the style Varley employed in his Self Portrait (1919) - ginger hair tousled, face shining with sweat, blue gaze intense.

Near the end of the show, Atanassova stops to talk about portraits of a sexy, impish woman whom Varley met in 1952. Though each remained married to their respective spouses, Kathleen Gormley McKay became Varley's landlady, muse and social convener until his death in 1969.

On her death in 1997, she left the Varley Gallery $1.5-million. As Atanassova's tour ends, a schoolteacher tells her: "You could have gone on for hours and taken us with you. Your passion comes through."

Of course: Atanassova identifies with Varley as a fellow immigrant. She felt the same empathetic pull when she organized a show in 2004 about another artist associated with this gallery, William Berczy, who left Germany in 1792 and built a career as a portrait artist in Montreal and Upper Canada, where he lived near present-day Markham.

"The immigrant theme is important to this gallery," Ryerson says. "It helps us build connections with our community."

Almost 60 per cent of the 270,000 inhabitants of Markham were born outside Canada.

He adds, "Katerina cried when she first read the Berczy story. That's when I knew we had the right curator."