Roger Eliot Fry (14 December 1866 – 9 September 1934) was an English painter and critic, and a member of the Bloomsbury Group. Establishing his reputation as a scholar of the Old Masters, he became an advocate of more recent developments in French painting, to which he gave the name Post-Impressionism. He was the first figure to raise public awareness of modern art in Britain, and emphasised the formal properties of paintings over the “associated ideas” conjured in the viewer by their representational content. He was described by the art historian Kenneth Clark as “incomparably the greatest influence on taste since Ruskin … In so far as taste can be changed by one man, it was changed by Roger Fry”.
Born in London, the son of the judge Edward Fry, he grew up in a wealthy Quaker family in Highgate. Fry was educated at Clifton College and King’s College, Cambridge, where he was a member of the Cambridge Apostles. After taking a first in the Natural Science tripos, he went to Paris and then Italy to study art. Eventually he specialised in landscape painting.
In 1896, he married the artist Helen Coombe and they subsequently had two children, Pamela and Julian. Helen soon became seriously mentally ill, and in 1910 was committed to a mental institution, where she remained for the rest of her life. Fry took over the care of their children with the help of his sister, Joan Fry. That same year, Fry met the artists Vanessa Bell and her husband Clive Bell, and it was through them that he was introduced to the Bloomsbury Group. Vanessa’s sister, the author Virginia Woolf later wrote in her biography of Fry that “He had more knowledge and experience than the rest of us put together”. The artist William Rothenstein, however, observed around the same time that he considered Fry “a bit crazy”.
In 1911, Fry began an affair with Vanessa Bell, who was recovering from a miscarriage. Fry offered her the tenderness and care she felt was lacking from her husband. They remained lifelong close friends, even though Fry’s heart was broken in 1913 when Vanessa fell in love with Duncan Grant and decided to live permanently with him.
After short affairs with such artists as Nina Hamnett and Josette Coatmellec, Fry too found happiness with Helen Maitland Anrep. She became his emotional anchor for the rest of his life, although they never married (she too had had an unhappy first marriage, to the mosaicist Boris Anrep).
Fry died very unexpectedly after a fall at his home in London. His death caused great sorrow among the members of the Bloomsbury Group, who loved him for his generosity and warmth. Vanessa Bell decorated his casket before his ashes were placed in the vault of Kings College Chapel in Cambridge. Virginia Woolf, Vanessa’s sister, novelist and a close friend of his as well, was entrusted with writing his biography, published in 1940.
In the 1900s, Fry started to teach art history at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London.
In 1903 Fry was involved in the foundation of The Burlington Magazine, the first scholarly periodical dedicated to art history in Britain. Fry was its co-editor between 1909 and 1919 (first with Lionel Cust, then with Cust and More Adey) but his influence on The Burlington Magazine continued until his death: Fry was in the Consultative Committee of The Burlington since its beginnings and when he left the editorship, following a dispute with Cust and Adey regarding the editorial policy on modern art, he was able to use his influence on the Committee to choose the successor he considered appropriate, Robert Rattray Tatlock. Fry wrote for The Burlington from 1903 until his death: he published over two hundred pieces of eclectic subjects – from children’s drawings to bushman art. From the pages of The Burlington it is also possible to follow Fry’s growing interests for Post-Impressionism.
In 1906 Fry was appointed Curator of Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This was also the year in which he “discovered” the art of Paul Cézanne, also the year the artist died, beginning the shift in his scholarly interests away from the Italian Old Masters and towards modern French art.
In November 1910, Fry organised the exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists (a term which he coined) at the Grafton Galleries, London. This exhibition was the first to prominently feature Gauguin, Manet, Matisse, and Van Gogh in England and brought their art to the public. Virginia Woolf later said, “On or about December 1910 human character changed,” referring to the effect this exhibit had on the world. Fry followed it up with the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition in 1912. It was patronised by Lady Ottoline Morrell, with whom Fry had a fleeting romantic attachment.
In 1913 he founded the Omega Workshops, a design workshop based in London’s Fitzroy Square, whose members included Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. In 1933, he was appointed the Slade Professor at Cambridge, a position that Fry had much desired.
A Blue plaque was unveiled in Fitzroy Square on 20 May 2010.
- Vision and Design (1920), see: formal analysis
- Heresies of an Artist (1921)
- Transformations (1926)
- Cézanne. A Study of His Development (1927)
- Henri Matisse (1930)
- French Art (1932)
- Reflections on British Painting (1934)
- Giovanni Bellini (1899)