Roger Fry: Artist & Critic Extraordinaire

Hailed as the father of modern British art for his efforts in promoting post-Impressionism in the UK, Roger Fry enjoyed an illustrious career as an artist and art critic.

Jan 19, 2023By Catherine Dent, MA 20th and 21st Century Literary Studies, BA English Literature

roger fry artist and critic


Roger Fry was one of the twentieth century’s most important art critics. Through his championing of continental post-Impressionism, he laid himself open to a great deal of ridicule and hostility upon the opening of the 1910 exhibition “Manet and the Post-Impressionists,” which he had organized. Undeterred, Fry continued to champion Post-Impressionism through the Omega Workshops, through which he nurtured a new generation of artists and sought to bring this new aesthetic – and, by extension, new principles – into people’s homes. That he was ultimately successful in doing so is evidenced by Virginia Woolf’s famous pronouncement, made in relation to Fry’s 1910 exhibition, that “on or around December 1910 human character changed” (see Further Reading, Woolf, Character in Fiction, p. 38). A new aesthetic was emerging at the beginning of the twentieth century, and, within the Anglophone art scene, Roger Fry was the face of that change.


Roger Fry: The Early Years

roger fry painting
Photograph of Roger Fry, 1911, via the Tate, London


Roger Fry was born on 14 December 1866 to wealthy middle-class Quaker parents, Mariabella and Edward Fry, who worked as a judge. As Fry grew up in a house where art was not especially valued, however, it was by no means clear from his early life that he would go on to pursue the career he did.


Fry was educated at Sunninghill and Clifton before going to Cambridge University to study Natural Science. In her biography of Roger Fry, commissioned by his sisters after his death, Virginia Woolf writes that science constituted “the great bond between him and his father” (see Further Reading, Woolf, p. 87). Indeed, it could be argued that Edward Fry sought to live vicariously through his son’s higher education. Edward Fry had a keen interest in science, writing studies on British Mosses in 1892 and, later in life, alongside his daughter, Agnes, The Liverworts: British and Foreign in 1911. Edward had hoped for a scientific career for himself. As a Quaker, however, Edward could not have attended Oxford or Cambridge at the time and therefore studied law at UCL.


Nonetheless, Roger greatly enjoyed his time as a Cambridge student. While studying Natural Science, he joined a discussion group known as The Apostles and began sketching with greater seriousness than he had been able to during his school days. According to Woolf, it was at Cambridge that he took up oil painting and duly “began to add lectures upon art to his lectures upon science” (see Further Reading, Woolf, p. 52). While he remained a diligent student and would go on to graduate with a first-class degree, his growing interest in art was beginning to eclipse his interest in science.

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Striking Out: Studying Art in London, Italy, & Paris

triumph galatea raphael
The Triumph of Galatea by Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael), c. 1512, via History Today


This, inevitably, was against his parents’ wishes. Once Roger Fry had decided to pursue a career in art, the “great bond” forged by his study of science gave way to a new bone of contention between him and his parents. Nonetheless, reassured that he could resume his scientific career if necessary, they ultimately allowed their son to study art, financing his education under Francis Bate at Applegarth Studios in Hammersmith.


His parents also financed his trips abroad to learn more about art, the first of which was to Italy in 1891. Here, he first encountered works by members of the Venetian School as well as Raphael’s frescos, becoming especially enamored with The Triumph of Galatea. In Venice, he met John Addington Symonds and Horatio Brown, with whom he had long and fruitful discussions about Renaissance artworks. Upon his return to London, he was more assured that “his life’s work was to lie not in laboratories, but among pictures” such as he had seen in Italy, as Woolf writes, “and that it would need a lifetime to take its measure” (see Further Reading, Woolf, p. 76).


Landscape with Shepherd, near Villa Madama, Rome by Roger Fry, 1891, via the Tate, London


After Italy, however, Roger Fry found it even more difficult to return to life in London and his parents’ house. And so, in 1892, he set off for Europe again, traveling this time to the Académie Julian in Paris. Here, however, he was largely disappointed by the art displayed in the galleries of Paris and even found the Académie Julian to be far tamer than he had been led to believe. That “Paris and French painting […] made very little impression upon him at first sight” is, as Woolf observes, somewhat curious “considering what both were to mean to him later” (see Further Reading, Woolf, p. 80). Much to his regret in later years, he did not see a single painting by Cézanne during this trip.


If Paris failed to make much of an impression on Roger Fry, then he, in turn, did not draw much attention as an artist during his time at the Académie Julian. Despite Frances Spalding’s claim that Fry saw himself as an artist first and foremost, his early work was executed “in the manner of the early English watercolor painters,” as Sir William Rothenstein remembered (see Further Reading, Spalding, 2021, p. 63; Woolf, p. 85). At this time, Fry favored the work of the Old Masters over that of his own more Impressionistic generation. Nonetheless, he was conscious that his work did not “fit in” among the contemporary art scene. After being told by another artist that his work was “much too Old Masterish,” he worried that there was a distinct danger of him becoming “an old fogey” before his time (see Further Reading, Woolf, p. 90).


Earning a Living: Lecturing & Art Criticism

roger fry 1900 photograph
Photograph of Roger Fry, c. 1900, via Charleston


Although Sir William Rothenstein dismissed Fry as “not much of a figure draughtsman,” he also remembered Fry as being “clearly very intelligent” (see Further Reading, Woolf, p. 80). It was thanks to his clear intelligence and willingness to change his mind, however, that he showed such an aptitude for art criticism, for which he is best known today.


Upon his return to London, he began writing articles on contemporary art for such weekly newspapers as the Athenaeum, the Pilot, and the Fortnightly, in order to support himself, so he believed until his artistic career took off. He also took on lecturing roles, teaching courses on Leonardo da Vinci at Cambridge and Italian art at Eastbourne. In 1903, he founded Burlington Magazine alongside Herbert Horne, Bernard Berenson, and Charles Holmes, serving as editor from 1909 to 1919.


Eventually, he became the chief art critic for the Athenaeum, writing one or two columns per week for the publication. Here, he made his views on the state of contemporary British art clear. He frequently criticized the work produced by the Royal Academy and – though he often praised the work of such New English Art Club members as William Rothenstein, Walter Sickert, and Charles Conder – set himself in opposition to the Club’s most prominent member, John Singer Sargent. While other critics were lauding Sargent as the greatest artist of his generation, Fry dismissed him as “a précis writer of appearances” (see Further Reading, Woolf, p. 110). Never one to mince his words, much of British art at the fin de siècle left Roger Fry distinctly underwhelmed.


Encountering Cézanne & the First Post-Impressionist Exhibition

nature morte cezanne still life
Nature Morte by Paul Cézanne, 1892-1894, via the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia


In 1906, however, Roger Fry encountered the work of a French artist who would revive his faith in modern art. Funded by the International Society, the New Gallery in London held an exhibition. Here, among the Bertheim collection, he first saw Cézanne’s Nature Morte and Paysage, a still life and a landscape, respectively. Until that moment, Fry admitted, he had been skeptical of Cézanne’s genius. Ever willing to change his mind, however, he was now fully assured of Cézanne’s talents, and his conversion heralded a new direction in his own career as a critic, too.


It was also in 1906 that Fry was made Curator of Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in which role he bought European artworks to be added to the museum’s collection. While this work did help to enhance his reputation – especially in Europe during a time when it was rare for an Englishman to be receptive to continental art trends – by 1910, his connection with the Metropolitan Museum of Art was severed. After securing an artwork for the museum’s collection that John Pierpont Morgan had wanted to keep for himself, Fry was dismissed in 1910.


This dismissal aside, 1910 was to be Roger Fry’s annus mirablis. At the proposal of the directors of the Grafton Gallery in London, Fry was tasked with organizing an exhibition of modern French art at the gallery that winter. Since first seeing Cézanne’s artwork in 1906, Fry’s interest in contemporary French art had been growing and would come to shape his artistic and critical career. In later years, he would write his seminal essay on Seurat in The Dial in 1926, publish studies on Cézanne and Matisse, and spend a decade translating the symbolist poetry of Stephane Mallarmé. The Grafton Gallery exhibition of 1910, then, was something of a passion project for Fry.


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River with Poplars by Roger Fry, 1912, via the Tate, London


In November 1910, Fry’s exhibition “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” was made open to the public with somewhat mixed results. Some were outraged, while others laughed openly at what they took to be the childish simplicity of the artworks on display. Having organized the exhibition, Fry personally received letters of abuse and children’s drawings sent by their parents in order to force a comparison with the works of Cézanne, Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, and Gaugin. At the same time, however, no fewer than four hundred people visited the exhibition on any given day.


Fry, however, remained undeterred. He found that French post-Impressionism revitalized his own artistic work. Moreover, by becoming something of a figurehead for new and progressive art, he attracted a following of young artists eager to build on a European post-Impressionist aesthetic.


In January 1912, he held a solo exhibition at the Alpine Club. And in October of the same year, he organized the second post-Impressionist exhibition, aiming to showcase contemporary Russian and British artists, including Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Frederick and Jessie Etchells, Bernard Adeney, Wyndham Lewis, and Stanley Spencer. Fry had worked with certain artists the previous year to create post-Impressionist designs with which the Borough Polytechnic (now London South Bank University) dining hall was duly decorated in 1911.


The Bells & the Bloomsbury Group

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Photograph of members of the Bloomsbury Group, via the Tate, London


Among this group of young artists, it was arguably the painter Vanessa Bell who was to have the most significant impact on Fry’s life. Fry met Vanessa and her husband, the art critic Clive Bell, at Cambridge railway station in 1910. A friendship quickly developed between the two men. Clive Bell shared Fry’s passion for French art and would develop his theory of significant form not long after their first meeting. Through his friendship with the Bells, Fry became an important member of the Bloomsbury Group.


The following year, Fry and the Bells went on holiday together to what was then Constantinople. The rationale behind the trip was to learn more about Byzantine art. When Vanessa Bell suffered a miscarriage and a subsequent breakdown, however, it was Fry who took care of her, along with her sister, Virginia Woolf, who was summoned from London to nurse her sister. Finding Fry to be more attentive than her own husband, Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry fell in love during her convalescence and shortly thereafter began an affair.


The Omega Workshops

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Bathers in a Landscape by Vanessa Bell, 1913, via The Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Together, Roger Fry and Vanessa Bell, along with the artist Duncan Grant, set up the Omega Workshops in 1913 as co-directors. Fry was the main driving force behind the enterprise and used his own inheritance from his chocolatier uncle, Joseph Storrs Fry II, to partially fund it.


An artistic interiors firm, the Omega Workshops set out to bring the post-Impressionist aesthetic into domestic spaces. Though it was beset by difficulties from its inception and ultimately closed in 1919, Fry himself maintained that “it would have succeeded in any other European country but England” (see Further Reading, Reed, p. 111). Nonetheless, Fry not only considered the Omega a failure but was heartbroken when Vanessa fell in love with Duncan Grant – with whom she would live and collaborate until her death in 1961 – in 1913.


After the Omega: Roger Fry’s Later Years

roger fry beaumes
Beaumes by Roger Fry, 1930, via Art UK


Although Roger Fry ultimately came to see the Omega Workshops as something of a failure, he went on to enjoy new successes following its closure. At Fry’s instigation, Samuel Courtauld and fellow Bloomsbury Group member John Maynard Keyes established the London Artists’ Association in 1925. Modeled on Paris’ Salon des Indépendents, the LAA aimed to furnish young artists with a modest but regular salary by organizing exhibitions backed by financial guarantors. Fry’s relationship with Courtauld would stand him in good stead when Courtauld funded a chair in History of Art at London University, to which Fry was appointed.


After being unsuccessful on two previous occasions, Fry was made Slade Professor at Cambridge University in 1933, finally achieving financial stability. Sadly, however, this was not to last long, as Fry died unexpectedly following a fall at his home in London in 1934. In his will, he bequeathed many artworks and objects to the Courtauld Institute, which, to this day, retains one of the most extensive collections of works by Bloomsbury Group artists.


Although Roger Fry had perhaps not always envisaged the life of an artist and art critic for himself, during his career, he nonetheless had a profound effect on British art. While he is better known for his criticism than for his art to this day, through his passion for art, he introduced an albeit somewhat skeptical British public to continental post-Impressionism (a term Fry himself coined), supported a new generation of progressive artists, and brought British art into the twentieth century. As the art historian Kenneth Clark stated following Fry’s death: “In so far as taste can be changed by one man, it was changed by Roger Fry” (see Further Reading, Spalding, 1980, p. 273).


Further Reading:


Reed, Christopher (2004). Bloomsbury Rooms: Modernism, Subculture, and Domesticity. New Haven: Yale University Press.


Spalding, Frances (1980). Roger Fry: Art and Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Spalding, Frances (2021). The Bloomsbury Group. London: The National Portrait Gallery.


Woolf, Virginia (2003). Roger Fry. London: Vintage.

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By Catherine DentMA 20th and 21st Century Literary Studies, BA English LiteratureCatherine holds a first-class BA from Durham University and an MA with distinction, also from Durham, where she specialized in the representation of glass objects in the work of Virginia Woolf. In her spare time, she enjoys writing fiction, reading, and spending time with her rescue dog, Finn.