The Group of Seven didn’t do heaps of paintings of this part of the world, so Fred Varley’s 1937 painting Night Ferry, Vancouver depicting a ferry crossing Burrard Inlet from Vancouver to the North Shore, is fairly well-known locally, and a number of people have written about it. But the accounts I’ve come across tend to be fairly cursory, usually something about how Varley painted it in a post-breakup funk after Vera Weatherbie ditched him, and how the turbulent colours probably have something to do with his emotional state at the time.
Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it seems to me there’s a bit more to it. There’s actually some pretty well-constructed symbolism here.
First up, let’s note the obvious: clearly the ferry is going away from Vancouver, since the turbulent waters are its wake. That being the case, the solitary figure to the left of the spar is looking backward, not forward. That’s significant. He’s looking back at a place he’s already been, not forward to where he’s going.
And what’s with that spar, anyhow? It’s an unusual compositional device, pretty near slicing the picture in half. I can’t think of another picture where that happens. And you know, I don’t think Varley is just showing off, being original for the sake of originality. I think that spar is central to the painting in more ways than one. Specifically, the spar makes a clear division between the solitary, backward-looking man on the one side, and the two lovers, and the city, on the other.
This does a couple of things: it associates the lovers with the city, and it asserts a separation between those things and the solitary man.
So at this point you can probably see where I’m going with this. Or maybe not. I’m not going to say the solitary man is Varley, looking backward at a part of his life that has now passed. I think you could do a biographical interpretation if you wanted to and it probably wouldn’t be wrong, but it’s not really necessary to know the details of Varley’s life to “get” the painting.
What I am going to suggest is that the solitary man is looking backward both in space and in time, and he is looking back at the city and thinking about his past, about what he’s leaving behind. And the lovers on the other side of the spar give us a pretty big clue as to what he’s thinking about. Because the ferry is in some sense an extension of the man, the lovers on the deck are part of him as well, carried with him in memory as the city is now for him a memory. And so the city is an image of his love, this great thing that he is leaving behind, separated by a great churning sea of emotion (literally, troubled waters). At this point I could say something about the Freudian symbolism of a boat pulling out of a dock, but that’s probably unnecessary and perhaps a bit reductionist to boot.
Robert Linsley has written about this painting, not so much to offer an interpretation but to talk about how the skyline is all wrong; a lot more like Vancouver’s contemporary skyline that how it would have looked at the time. He kind of riffs on that in ways that aren’t directly related to the painting. But I’ll speculate here that the reason Varley beefed up the skyline is that he wanted to convey the impression that the solitary man was leaving behind something really grand and important to him, and a few clapboard shacks huddled along the shoreline next to the Marine Building probably wouldn’t have got that across so well.
Finally, allow me to draw your attention to this great, somewhat overwrought gem from the NFB, in which Night Ferry makes a fleeting appearance. Enjoy …