Roger Fry

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Fry was the preeminent art critic, scholar, and lecturer in England in the first decades of the twentieth century.

Early Life

Roger Eliot Fry was born on December 14, 1866, in London, England. He was his parents’ second son; they also had seven daughters, with whom Roger was reared. Their home was No. 6, The Grove, in Highgate and included a beautiful garden in which the children enjoyed many hours. The family moved to a larger house next door when Roger was six, and the garden was lost.

Roger’s parents were Quakers who maintained strict discipline in their home. His father, Edward Fry, was a lawyer who had a simple, dignified lifestyle in which austerity was the key and most entertainments were discouraged. Edward Fry was successful in his career; in 1877 he became a judge and was knighted. In April of 1859, he had married Mariabella Hodgkins, also of Quaker background.

As a small boy, Fry was physically and emotionally close to his mother. He strove to please her and win her love; she demanded absolute obedience of all of her children. The household, unfortunately, held little affection or happiness for the boy and his siblings.

Fry’s strict upbringing, and his rebellion against it, had much influence on his adult life. His parents were reserved and held back their emotions; the household rules were limiting and inflexible, and created much anxiety and sometimes resentment among the children. Fry, conversely, grew to be resilient and flexible in his emotions and beliefs. Once outside his home, as a young adult, Fry pursued excitement and enjoyment in life (but never to any harmful excess). He did not, however, abandon the Quaker emphasis on hard work and the idea of judging all aspects of life for oneself (sometimes he bravely stood apart from public opinion). He retained his natural curiosity all of his life and was a constant sightseer wherever he traveled.

As a young student, Fry was encouraged to pursue the sciences, an area of study that interested his father. The youth had an early interest in botany, but he also did some watercolors, an art form in which his mother had had some success. By age eleven, Fry was ready to begin his formal education; he was sent to St. George’s School in Ascot, where physical punishment was practiced on a regular basis. Fry was frightened by this violent aspect of the school; he also suffered from frequent headaches and colds, and longed for his mother’s company.

In 1881, Roger entered Clifton College in Bristol, where Christian values and intellectual development were equally emphasized. He proved to be a good scholar at Clifton. By October of 1885, Fry had passed the entrance examinations for Cambridge, and he entered King’s College to read in the natural sciences. Then, through the friendships Fry developed among the Apostles at Cambridge, his interest turned to philosophy and art. Fry’s final choice of a career in art further alienated him from his father.

Life’s Work

After he was graduated from Cambridge, Fry trained as a painter with Francis Bate at Applegarth Studio in Hammersmith, early in 1889. Bate himself was a naturalistic painter, a style that would always be reflected in Fry’s own paintings (despite other influences in his career).

In 1891, Fry took his first extended trip to Europe; he mainly visited Italy, where he voraciously studied the art and architecture. This was the beginning of his numerous stays on the Continent to pursue art scholarship. He would also become a frequent visitor to France, where he loved to sketch and paint the beautiful, colorful landscape, especially in the Provence region. In January of 1892, he went to Paris to study at the Académie Julian for two months; the style taught there, however, was very conventional and lacked innovation, so Fry quickly tired of it. In this period, Fry himself was especially fond of the paintings of the old masters, and he tried to imitate their methods in his own works.

On December 3, 1896, Fry’s life changed when he married Helen Coombe, who had done some painting herself. They were quite poor when they met, yet they were determined to build a life together. Unfortunately, Helen was mentally unstable, and by 1910 she had to be confined to an asylum. At the time he met Helen, Fry was starting his career as a lecturer; he began by offering Cambridge extension courses in 1894. Fry was universally regarded as an outstanding lecturer; he had great enthusiasm, charisma, a beguiling voice, and a sound knowledge of art. Until the end of his life, his lectures would have full audiences, whom he fascinated.

In 1899, Fry published his first work of art criticism, a monograph on Giovanni Bellini. Shortly thereafter, he published a series of his lectures on Italian art for the Monthly Review. In 1901, he became the art critic for the Athenaeum, a leading literary periodical in Edwardian England. Throughout this period at the turn of the century, Fry deeply admired classical art; he did not have high regard for contemporary art.

Fry’s ideas on the relative worth of various eras in art would change fairly radically in the next few years. In 1905 and 1906 in France, he first saw some paintings by Paul Cézanne but was not really impressed by them. By 1910, with the assistance of Desmond MacCarthy, Fry was on the Continent collecting new paintings for a fall show at the Grafton Galleries in London. He had recently resigned from a position as a buyer of European artworks for the Metropolitan Museum in New York, a position he had held since 1905. Although Fry had a considerable influence in that job, greatly increasing the museum’s holdings in classical art, his truly great influence...

(The entire section is 2378 words.)