Roger Fry: A Biography

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by Michael Shapiro


In Roger Fry—the last book she saw to publication—Virginia Woolf experiments with the structure and style of biography. She exercises editorial control to burnish the occasionally imperfect life of her subject and, by implication, to smooth over public critiques of the Bloomsbury group.


Roger Fry, Self-Portrait, 1930-1934

Fry (1866–1934) was an English artist and art scholar, a curator for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (1906–10) and the Slade Professor of Art at Cambridge (1933). He coined the term “post-Impressionism” and introduced England to its principal artists through two London exhibitions (1910, 1912); he worked with Clive Bell to develop a new theory of art—formalism—to justify post-Impressionism (1913–14); and most lastingly he founded and ran the Omega Workshops (1913–19), whose decorative crafts helped heal England’s interior design of the “eczematous eruption” of Victorian ornament.[1]

Fry was an intimate of the Bloomsbury circle from at least 1911, when he fell in love with Vanessa Bell during a tour of Turkey. Bell—Woolf’s older sister—was already married, and Fry had just admitted his wife of fifteen years to a mental hospital, but the Bloomsbury prejudice against monogamy encouraged their romance, which was genuine and lasting even if the affair was short. In 1926, longing for the domestic comforts of married life, Fry moved in with Helen Anrep, with whom he would remain until his death eight years later.

History, Structure, and Style

Although the reference is jesting, in a May 1927 letter Woolf alludes to writing Fry’s memoirs: Fry has become so popular with the Oxford set, she writes, “they’ll be making a Christ of you within a century” and so “It[’]s time I set about the Fry memoir which I have it in my mind (as you Quakers say) to do before I die."[2]

Shortly after Fry’s death, Woolf sketched an outline for a Fry biography “written by different people to illustrate different stages”—Woolf would write about Fry’s Bloomsbury period, Clive Bell would write about Fry’s post-Impressionism, and so on.[3] But all thoughts of divvying the chapters vanished when Helen Anrep officially invited Woolf to write Fry’s life: the project suddenly seemed a “chance of trying biography: a splendid, difficult chance—better than trying to find a subject."[4] When Fry’s older sister Margery later proposed a structure closer to Woolf’s first model, a life study by Woolf “reinforced with chapters on other aspects,” Woolf replied that “those books are unreadable."[5] The compromise was for Woolf to read as many of Fry’s letters as could be secured, and to consult regularly with Margery.

The resulting Roger Fry resembles a tightly-edited collection of Fry’s letters and publications—we see only such doubts as Fry himself acknowledged, and only such criticisms as he took the time to rebut. Although Woolf acknowledges Fry’s personal life and alludes to his professional failures, she is as gentle as any biographer writing about a close friend could be. Perhaps, as Woolf was 58 at the time she wrote Fry, she thought ahead to her own biographers.

Consider, for example, her nuanced discussion of Fry’s wife’s descent into mental illness:

The illness which the doctor in London had diagnosed proved unimportant. But another anxiety, so vague at first that no reason could be found for it, took its place. Certain fears, whether reasonable or fantastic it was impossible to say, kept recurring. They moved from place to place in the attempt to escape from them. (103)

The chapter is otherwise rich with quotation, but at this moment Woolf’s prose takes over. The layered ambiguities of this description—the fears equally “reasonable or fantastic,” the ambiguous “they” who desperately flee the ambiguous “them”—suggest Woolf’s empathy for Helen Fry. Although the text praises Fry, Woolf’s empathy for him is less clear. Helen’s death is observed in a footnote at the end of one chapter (148n). The next page introduces Fry to Bloomsbury and, allusively, to his next lover.

Such interventions are rare and so subtle as to be biographical wisps, an echo of an unwilling critique. Elsewhere, the text allows Fry’s letters and writings to go unchallenged. For example, autobiographical fragments about his mother and his father fill several pages of small print in the first chapters, their facile Freudianism unquestioned.

When Fry enters the orbit of Bloomsbury exactly halfway through the biography, Woolf’s editorial voice becomes sharper. If the letters were the raw material with which Woolf had to work she had become, by 1939, a master sculptor.

Let’s take as an example the problem of formalism. In the wake of the second Post-Impressionist Exhibition in 1912, Fry and Clive Bell worked together to establish a theoretical grounding for post-Impressionist art—an important development in the philosophy of art and one the biography must cover. Woolf approaches this rather dry intellectual problem as a study of personality:

The shy and studious youth, with his faculty for sitting at other people’s feet and absorbing other people’s ideas, had become [ . . . ] the leader of rebels, the leader of modern British painting. [. . . ]. The new movement was suggesting fresh developments of the old aesthetic problems. (182–3)

Woolf could have chosen from any of a number of explanations of these “fresh developments.” Here is the 103-word description Fry published in The Nation (1914):

For this reason, that those who are sensible to form find that the kind of emotions derived from the contemplation of it, while they may not be as intense as the emotions of ordinary life, or even as the echoes of those emotions aroused in romantic[6] art, yet are of so peculiar and precious a quality that they are willing to undertake great pains and make great efforts for the enjoyment of them, so that a small number of people do continue to maintain from generation to generation and from age to age the extraordinary value of these quite vague, undifferentiated, universal emotions.[7]

But Woolf has no patience for a sentence with five wandering dependent clauses and no subject, nor one that serves to make a perfectly comprehensible idea unapproachable. Instead, she prints a description of formalism with clarity and humor that she found in a letter Fry wrote to a friend:

I want to find out what the function of content is, and am developing a theory which you will hate very much, viz. that it is merely directive of form and that all the essential aesthetic quality has to do with pure form. It’s horribly difficult to analyse out of all the complex feelings just this one particular feeling, but I think that in proportion as poetry becomes more intense the content is entirely remade by the form and has no separate value at all. (183)

Woolf's Analysis of Fry

If the reader can forgive Woolf’s elision of Fry’s personal faults, it is more difficult to forgive her elision of his paintings. Though he made his living and his reputation as a art lecturer and critic, Fry considered painting his primary vocation. Nonetheless, Fry’s paintings never achieved widespread influence and rarely moved beyond the stylistic innovations that Paul Cézanne and Georges Seurat introduced in the 1890s. His bland portrait of Woolf (1928) with its pseudo-Cubistic form exemplifies his mature style.

Roger Fry, Virginia Woolf

But from Woolf we learn more about Fry’s easels than about his paintings: he strapped them to the backs of cycles and motorcars; in Avignon he commissioned a carpenter to develop an easel that would withstand the mistral; it did not (221–2, 284). On the rare occasion when she does write about his paintings, she quotes his own observations about them—“I am coming to have quite a good conceit of myself,” for one (237).

If Woolf is nearly mum on his paintings, she is expansive about his writing. From his earliest columns in the Athenaeum, she writes, Fry imagines a visual counterpart to the Common Reader: a common seer “to whom the names of Pesellino and Matteo da Siena mean nothing whatever, to whom English painting round about 1900 is an obscure tract of country and its figures shadowy enough” (105). She observes “that Roger Fry’s criticism has for the common seer something of the enthralment of a novel, something of the excitement of a detective story while it is strictly about the art of painting” (227).

Woolf’s view of Fry’s prose style is markedly dimmer. Perhaps her frankest critique comes in her assessment of his last book, Transformations (1926):

Phrases repeat themselves; words, hideous words like “pastose”, “constatation” have to be coined and forced into service to express exactly that sensation for which there is no correct term. He never hesitated to spoil the shape of a sentence by tagging on a “namely” or a “that is to say” if he thought that by so doing he could lessen obscurity and press the argument a little further. (258)

Critical Reception

The initial reception of Roger Fry praised its accuracy as a portrait. The Times Literary Supplement observes that it is “less concerned with Fry the art critic and painter and more concerned with his life and character,” in which regard “The account of the tragedy of Fry’s life, the mental aberration of his wife, is all the more moving for its restraint.”[8] In the New York Times Book Review, Edward Alden Jewell praises the biography’s “logical pattern” and “embracive rhythms,” although he notes, somewhat mystically, that “in its carefully written pages a man’s spirit does not rise sharply clear above the sea of strangeness and enigma that surrounds it.”[9]

A burst of interest in Roger Fry erupted after a new edition was published in 1995. Its editor, Diane Gillespie, saw Woolf’s biographical method as an outgrowth of her sexual politics, arguing that “while Woolf recognized the power words gave her over the image of a man who was, like herself, multi-faceted, she exercised it warily."[10] Lorraine Janzen Kooistra (1996) offers an especially compelling reading of Roger Fry as “a thesis biography, with an identifiable, if covert purpose” of using Fry’s life to develop an apologia for the culture of Bloomsbury.[11]

Christopher Reed, editor of A Roger Fry Reader (1996), tackles the biography’s historical context. That Woolf wrote about a Quaker and a pacifist in the midst of a war, he argues, led her to think through how Fry’s socialist aesthetics and anti-war stance shaped his way of seeing the world.[12]

  1. Woolf, Roger Fry: A Biography (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), 1976, p. 188. All subsequent parenthetical citations refer to this volume.
  2. Woolf, The Letters of Virginia Woolf, 5 vols., ed. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautman (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977), 3:386.
  3. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, 5 vols., ed. Anne Olivier Bell (San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1982), 4:258.
  4. Ibid., 4:260.
  5. Ibid., 4:262.
  6. By “romantic” Fry means works that “dwell most easily and consciously on the associated ideas of images”—because there’s a term of art criticism that could use another definition (156).
  7. Roger Elliot Fry, A Roger Fry Reader, ed. Christopher Reed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), pp. 156-157.
  8. “Roger Fry, The Quaker in Art: Virginia Woolf's Biography," The Times Literary Supplement 27 Jul 1940, p. 364.
  9. Edward Alden Jewell, “Virginia Woolf's Life Of Roger Fry," The New York Times 15 Dec 1940, p. 102.
  10. Diane F. Gillespie, “The Biographer and the Self in Roger Fry," Virginia Woolf: Texts and Contexts, ed. Beth Rigel Daugherty and Eileen Barrett (New York: Pace UP, 1996), p. 315.
  11. Kooistra, Lorraine Janzen, “Virginia Woolf's Roger Fry: A Bloomsbury Memorial," Woolf Studies Annual 2 (1996), pp. 26–38.
  12. In A Roger Fry Reader, p. 186.
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