Well-known as a Bloomsbury art critic, lively public tastemaker and artist, Roger Fry rose from inauspicious beginnings to become a radicalising force on British art and all those who encountered him.
Fry was born to Quaker parents in Highgate, London, in 1866. Edward Fry, a judge, enforced strict discipline whilst encouraging his son’s interest in botany, in the hopes that he would go on to distinguish himself in a scientific career. However, after a spell at Cambridge, having become acquainted with the socialist and gay rights activist Edward Carpenter and aesthetically-minded peers in the Apostles society, Fry decided to become an artist, much to the disappointment of his parents.
A decade of travelling, further training and relatively unsuccessful attempts at a painting career followed – it was only through needing to financially support his wife and growing family in the 1890s that Fry stumbled upon his true vocation – art criticism. Indeed, as Kenneth Clark noted, the essays he was to write did more than any other English critic to alter public opinion in the era of Modernism – the greatest influence on taste since Ruskin.
The initial reaction that greeted Fry’s curation of the exhibition of the so-called Post-Impressionists in 1910 – including Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse and Manet – was one of outrage, contempt, and moral disgust. Only a few of the paintings exhibited are known today. Robert Morley called the exhibition nothing but the base negation of all that was great in the past. Ebenezer Wake Cook described the work as the output of a lunatic asylum and Wilfred Scawen Blunt wrote that
the method [is] that of a schoolboy who wipes his fingers on a slate after spitting on them… They are works of idleness and impotent stupidity, a pornographic show
Fry, anticipating the outbreak of militant Philistinism which occurred in reaction to the exhibition, wrote several essays before and after its opening, explicating the artists’ possible motives behind blocks of colour, simple lines, curves, bright colours and generally more ‘primitive’ handling than had been seen in Western art for centuries. He paraphrased the aim of the Post-Impressionists thus:
exploring and expressing that emotional significance which lies in things… though by our simplification of nature we shock and disconcert our contemporaries
Fry advocated the independence of art from representation, which he saw as limiting the viewer’s consciousness, as it resonated only with the sentimental, personal and literal experiences of everyday life. Fry’s brand of Formalism, in contrast, encouraged everyone to view art with an absolutely open and empty mind in order to experience the emotions aroused by form – a method which he himself followed to the end of his life, wandering around the Louvre
forgetting all my theories and all I’ve ever written and thought and trying to be absolutely passive to my impression.
1910 was a particularly difficult year for Fry, as he had to have his wife Helen committed to an asylum after she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. However, Fry’s personal life was subsequently enlivened by his acquaintance with Vanessa and Clive Bell, and through them the whole Bloomsbury circle, which he joined as an influential and entertaining presence. As Virginia Woolf, who wrote his biography, recalled of their first meeting,
he had canvases under his arms; his hair flew; his eyes glowed. He had more knowledge and experience than the rest of us put together.
Fry fell in love with Vanessa, and they remained close friends even after Vanessa transferred her affections to fellow painter Duncan Grant. In fact it was with Grant in mind that Fry began the Omega workshops in 1913, providing young artists with three days of work per week designing and making household items and furniture – in exchange for thirty shillings. Despite initial success, business was jeopardised by the fallout from the Great War and in 1919 the workshops closed.
Undaunted, Fry continued to write, lecture and inspire all around him to expand their aesthetic horizons. He also continued to have a series of love affairs with Bloomsbury ladies such as Ottoline Morrell, Nina Hamnett and finally Helen Anrep, who remained his companion to the end of his life. He died in 1934, after complications from a fall. This early demise belied the speed, energy and vigour with which he approached life, and his warm personality was much missed by all who knew him. Fry successfully imparted his contagious enthusiasm for expression to a world in which a century later, Van Gogh, Matisse and Cézanne are widely accepted as masters of modern art.
Edouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère and Paul Cézanne’s An Old Woman with a Rosary are two of the paintings known to have been exhibited in Fry’s first Post-Impressionist exhibition. A Bar at the Folies-Bergère is on display at the Courtald Gallery in London and An Old Woman with a Rosary can be viewed at the National Gallery in London. The portraits of Roger Fry used in this article are all housed at the National Portrait Gallery in London.
A.C. Cooper, Roger Fry, © National Portrait Gallery, London
Edouard Manet (1832-83), A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1881-2, Oil on canvas, 96 x 130 cm, © Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London
Paul Cézanne, An Old Woman with a Rosary, about 1895-6, Oil on canvas, 80.6 x 65.5 cm, © The National Gallery, London
Jean Marchand, Roger Fry, © National Portrait Gallery, London
Vanessa Bell (née Stephen), Roger Fry, © estate of Vanessa Bell courtesy of Henrietta Garnett; National Portrait Gallery, London