Roger Fry - Biography and Legacy
British Art Critic, Artist, and Designer
Biography of Roger Fry
Childhood and Education
Roger Eliot Fry was the son of the Judge, Edward Fry. He and his two sisters (Joan and Margery) were raised in a wealthy Quaker family in the Highgate area of North London. He was educated at Clifton College and King's College Cambridge where he joined the so-called "Cambridge Apostles". The Apostles were (are) a secret society (founded in 1820 by George Tomlinson, the future First Bishop of Gibraltar) that met on Friday evenings to discuss topics such as truth, religion, art and ethics. The Apostles have included some of the most influential men in British public life including (John) Maynard Keynes, Leonard Woolf, Lytton and James Strachey, GE Moore and Rupert Brooke. It was as an Apostle that Fry fostered his interest in art and several members of the Bloomsbury Group were former Apostles including Fry, Keynes, Woolf, Lytton Strachey and Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson.
Graduating from Cambridge with a First in Natural Science, Fry trained as a painter under the tutorship of Francis Bate and by 1891 he was exhibiting his work at New English Art Club. Soon thereafter he headed for Paris and Rome to study art where he carved a niche for himself as a capable landscapist and portraitist.
In 1896, Fry married the artist Helen Coombe with whom he parented two children, Pamela and Julian. He also took up a teaching post at the Slade School of Fine Art in London where he specialized in pre and early Renaissance painting. In 1899 he published his first book, Giovanni Bellini and, in 1903, he became, with Bernard Berenson and Herbert Horne, one of the founders of The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, promoted at the time as the first scholarly art history publication in Britain (Fry would publish more than 200 articles in the magazine over his lifetime). As his reputation grew, Fry wrote the introduction to an edition of Sir Joshua Reynolds's Discourses series, delivered to students of the Royal Academy, in 1905.
In 1906, having recently been turned down for the post of Slade Professor of Art at Oxford, Fry accepted an invitation from the banker, philanthropist and art collector John Pierpont (J.P.) Morgan to become Curator of European Painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Pierpont was the Museum's president). Fry accompanied Morgan on several buying trips to Europe and on a 1907 visit to Paris the two men attended a Paul Cézanne retrospective at the Salon d'Automne. Fry was overwhelmed by Cezanne's paintings and it marked the moment when he shifted his focus away from the Old Masters onto the Modernists. A year later he was settled back in London where he continued his association with the Museum as its "European Advisor" until a disagreement with Morgan led to his dismissal in 1910.
Between 1907 and 1910 Fry published several articles on the work of Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse and Vincent van Gogh arguing that they had collectively brought about a fusion of the structural sophistication of the classical artists and the explorations of color as advanced by the French Impressionists. Arguably his most influential work, "An Essay on Aesthetics", was published in New Quarterly, London, in 1909. In it Fry proposed that painting was duty-bound to express the human emotions rather than simply copy from the natural world. It was a view on art that went against the ideas of John Ruskin (hitherto England's most important critic) who's judgements on artworks were based on moral and aesthetic concerns. Drawing on the example of children, Fry argued that "if left to themselves [children never] copy what they see, never, as we say, 'draw from nature', but express, with a delightful freedom and sincerity, the mental images which make up their own imaginative lives". For Fry, therefore, art's very function was to stimulate the "imaginative life" of the artist and to do this the artist must be liberated from any kind of moral responsibility - as he put it, "[art] presents a life freed from the binding necessities of our actual existence".
Having by now "discovered" the Post-Impressionists, and helped promote the Neo-Impressionists (including the likes of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac), Fry organized an exhibition at the Grafton Galleries, London, in 1910 entitled Manet and the Post-Impressionists. It was, for most of the estimated 25,000 who attended, their first exposure to the works by Cézanne, Gauguin, Matisse, and van Gogh (and possibly even Claude Monet who was better established by this time). The exhibition, which was followed by a second two years later, and the much more comprehensive Armory Show (the International Exhibition of Modern Art organized by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors) of New York in 1913, went a long way to build the reputations of Cézanne and the other Post-Impressionists. There were, however, repercussions for Fry whose support for this "unrefined" movement saw him effectively "demoted" from the rank of serious academic to the status of critic. Some of those billed in the catalogue as patrons of the exhibition even sought to disavow themselves of their initial support following the outcry over the exhibition.
The attack on Fry's critical judgement was merely compounded by his ongoing criticism of John Singer Sargent - he criticized the American's landscapes for lacking "the spirit, atmosphere, or poetry of place" (amongst other things) - who remained hugely popular with the public and generally respected amongst Academy members. Fry tried in vain to calm the backlash by publishing a piece in the influential New York weekly The Nation where he provided a list of people who supported the Post-Impressionists - one of which was Sargent. Sargent was so incensed at the inclusion of his name he published Too Much Money two open letters in The Nation through which he derided Fry and his support for the Post-Impressionists. The two men became sworn enemies (with Fry carrying his grudge even beyond Sargent's death by delivering a scathing account, in which he even denied Sargent the right to "be called an artist", of a retrospective of Sargent's work at the Royal Academy in 1926).
In 1910, Fry's wife, Helen, succumbed to serious mental illness and was sectioned, leading to a life spent in mental institutions. Fry took on parental responsibilities for their two children with the help of his sister, Joan. At the same time, he made the important acquaintance of Vanessa and Clive Bell (artist and art critic respectively) and through whom he was introduced to the Bloomsbury Group. Vanessa's sister was the author Virginia Woolf (who would write Fry's biography and in which said of him that "He had more knowledge and experience than the rest of [The Bloomsbury Group] put together"). In 1911 Fry began a short-lived affair with Vanessa whom he provided with warm care and support following a miscarriage. He was left heartbroken, however, when, in 1913, she set up home with the painter and designer Duncan Grant. Despite this personal set back, Fry founded the Omega Workshops with Vanessa and Grant as his co-directors. Coinciding with the birth of the Omega Workshops, Fry's paintings become more daring in their experimentation and he came to be regarded, if only for a few short years, as one of the most avant-garde artists working in Britain.
Bringing together artists including Grant, Bell, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Dora Carrington and Wyndham Lewis, the Omega Workshops Ltd. opened in July 1913 at 33 Fitzroy Square in Bloomsbury, central London. The premises functioned as a workshop, a gallery and, on Thursday nights, as a club (whose guests included the likes of George Bernard Shaw and W. B. Yeats). The public was invited to browse the furniture, fabrics, textiles, painted murals, stained glass and upholstery items in the signature Omega design. Fry personally produced an illustrated catalogue that ranged from individual products to a whole household decorative design scheme and the workshops were professionally run, employing a business manager, a caretaker and artist assistants. The links between the Arts and Crafts movement were obvious but Fry was not interested in social reform or railing against mass production (as William Morris had). Fry's goal was to blur the distinction between fine and decorative arts and was intent on bringing the bold colors and simplified forms of Post-Impressionism, Cubism and/or Fauvism to Omega designs. His vision was that artists could create utilitarian design objects but that they should do so anonymously; producing objects valued for their inherent beauty rather than for any idea of artistic reputation. Designs were thus marked only with the Workshop's symbol Ω (the Greek letter symbol Omega).
From 1915, The Omega Workshop extended its activities into fashion design and dressmaking. Its artists designed objects and engaged in some decorative work including the painting of some furniture items but the manufacture of products was generally undertaken outside of the workshop by professional craftsmen. J. Kallenborn & Sons of Stanhope Street, London made Marquetry furniture; Dryad Ltd of Leicester made tall cane seat chairs to Roger Fry's design; and printed linens were produced by a French company. Vanessa Bell began using Omega fabrics to produce dresses and the group even branched out into book design, publishing and theatre design. Indeed, in January 1918 the Omega Workshop was commissioned to produce sets and costumes for Israwl Zangwill's play Too Much Money and the director of the Russian Ballet, Sergei Diaghilev, approached Fry about a commission for stage designs and costumes. Though its influence on domestic design has proved lasting, and its objects highly prized by collectors, The Omega project was never a commercial success and closed in 1919.
Following a fleeting affair with the Welsh artist Nina Hamnet (aka: the "Queen of Bohemia") Fry entered a tragic relationship with a French woman called Josette Coatmellec. Fry met Josette in 1922 at a hypnosis clinic in Nancy where it is thought she was being treated for consumption. Fry returned to London but the two formed a close bond through an exchange of letters. The pair met again while Fry was on a visit to Paris in 1923 but by this time the Englishman was much in demand in the French capital and he could not devote as much time and attention as he would have liked towards Josette. She was left feeling neglected by Fry just as his feelings towards her were changing from fond affection to love. In the spring of 1924 the couple met in Paris once more with Fry showing off an African mask he had just acquired. Having again returned to London, Fry received a letter from Josette in which she accused him of baiting her with the mask and of directing all his loving attentions towards his art. He replied immediately, passionately refuting her accusations, but before the letter had reached its destination, Josette shot herself on a cliff at Le Havre facing England. Fry took her suicide very badly and attended the funeral, for which he designed the headstone. He also produced a long manuscript (written in French) which detailed their relationship.
Woolf recorded in her diary that Fry felt that with Josette his "last chance of happiness had gone" and that he felt "fated and cursed" never to find lasting love. In 1926, however, Fry met his soulmate in Helen Maitland Anrep (the former wife of the Russian mosaicist Boris Anrep). According to the art historian Virginia Nicholson, Anrep was "warm hearted and argumentative" and as such "she fitted the romantic stereotype of the bohemian her clothes and easy going generosity". Indeed, Anrep became Fry's emotional anchor and they remained a couple for what remained of his life (though they never married). His new relationship would also see his art take on a more naturalistic tone.
In 1926, Fry wrote what some considered to be the definitive essay on Seurat. In the years between 1929 and 1934, he wrote and presented a series of twelve broadcasts on art and culture for BBC radio - he was a renowned public speaker with a mellifluous voice that George Bernard Shaw describes as one of only two he knew that were worth listening to for their own sake (the other the actor Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson) - arguing at length that African sculpture and Chinese ceramics were just as deserving of serious study as a Greek sculpture. In these later years he showed the reach of his cultural interests by translating the poems of, among others, Stéphane Mallarmé. In 1933, he achieved a lifetime ambition when he was appointed Slade Professor at Cambridge University.
Fry died suddenly in 1934 following complications after a fall at his London home. His passing left a deep scar on the Bloomsbury Group. Vanessa Bell took charge of decorating his casket before his ashes were laid to rest in the vault of the Kings College Chapel, Cambridge. Virginia Woolf took it upon herself write Fry's biography which was published in 1940.
The Legacy of Roger Fry
In May 2010 English Heritage commemorated Fry's contribution to the Country's cultural history by placing its iconic "Blue Plaque" at 33 Fitzroy Square, Bloomsbury, London, W1., site of the influential Omega Workshops. According to the English Heritage committee, "Fry may be said to have brought the avant-garde into British living rooms". Indeed, the art historian Kenneth Clark hailed him as "incomparably the greatest influence on taste since [John] Ruskin ... in so far as taste can be changed by one man, it was changed by Roger Fry". Meanwhile, the well-known English writer and Broadcaster, and member of the Blue Plaques Panel, Stephen Fry (no relation), added the following:
"Roger Fry was the most influential British art critic of the twentieth century. Without elitism, preciosity or pretension he helped open the British public's eyes to the new world of post-Impressionist art that heralded modernism in all its complexity and difficulty, but with all its rewards in energy, dynamism, impact and excitement. If only I could find a thread which might prove a familial connection between us: until then I'll just have to be content to share his great and glorious surname".
The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs marked his passing by commenting on "the man who in the past did most to establish [the magazine] and mould its character" which it attributed, amongst other things, to his attention to Chinese art which he shared with his Bloomsbury colleagues and which he helped locate within "a longer-term Western historiography of China and its culture(s), as well as within late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century discourses such as aestheticism, scientism and orientalism". But it is on the foundations of his promotion of the Post-Impressionists in Britain that Fry's legacy stands. Indeed, Fry did for Post-Impressionism what Felix Feneon did for Neo-Impressionism; what Guillaume Apollinaire did for the Cubists and other French avant-gardes; what Clement Greenberg did for Abstract Expressionism; and what Charles Saatchi did for the Young British Artists. His name joins thus a select list of the modern art world's most important influencers of taste.