Roger Fry (British, 1866-1934)
Winifred Gill by the Pool at Durbins, 1912
Oil on board, 32 x 25 inches
The name Bloomsbury conjures up an image of early twentieth-century bohemia among a group of literary friends that included Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster, Vita Sackville-West, Bertrand Russell, and T. S. Eliot, among many others. But Bloomsbury was much more richly patterned and complex than even this eminent list suggests. A group of fine artists, including Virginia Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell, critic and painter Roger Fry, Lytton Strachey’s talented cousin Duncan Grant, and Strachey’s longtime companion Dora Carrington, formed the nucleus of visual Bloomsbury.
The father figure of the Bloomsbury group was the multitalented Roger Fry, the artist, critic, entrepreneur, and connoisseur who, at Cambridge in the 1880s, had trained for a scientific career. While putting aside science for art, Fry never rejected his university training. Clive Bell qualified him as “the most open-minded man I ever met. . . . This made him willing to hear what anyone had to say even about questions on which he was a recognized authority, even though ‘anyone’ might be a schoolboy or a housemaid.”
Following university, having persuaded his father to let him try his hand at being an artist, he studied at the Académie Julian in Paris and traveled extensively in Italy. He met and married his wife, the Arts and Crafts designer Helen Coombe, and wrote his first important book of art criticism, on Giovanni Bellini, during Victoria’s reign. He was thirty-five when Edward ascended the throne, and he could easily have remained tied to the era of his youth. But his scientific training kept him restlessly inquisitive.
Fry was in many senses a visionary, unafraid of risks or of reexamining his position on many issues, publicly admitting changes in his attitudes. It was perhaps in his lectures, though, that the agility of his intellect could be most appreciated and certain themes recurred in these public talks throughout his life: the relationships of art to religion, of representation to design, and of art to life.
After their father’s death in 1904, Vanessa and Virginia moved to the unfashionable section of London called Bloomsbury. There they met and entertained many of their brother Thoby’s Cambridge friends who visited frequently. After Thoby’s sudden death from tuberculosis in 1906, Vanessa married his friend, the art critic, Clive Bell and had two children, but she continued to paint and exhibit at the New English Art Club, despite disappointing reviews.
It was the critic and artist Roger Fry who changed everything for her. He taught her to see differently and to paint in a freer manner, introducing her to the work of the Post-Impressionists. With Duncan Grant, the three formed a tight group of intimates, interested in the promotion of the modern in all the arts.
In 1916 Vanessa and Duncan moved to Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex, which continued to be home to various family members until 1980. Here she established a quiet haven for their friends and gave birth to a third child, Angelica, Duncan’s daughter. Vanessa often painted together with Grant, and several of their paintings depict variations on the same subject. In addition to her artistic talent, Vanessa was a good writer, who frequently wrote letters to her sister and other members of Bloomsbury. Even Virginia once admitted to Vanessa, “You have a touch in letter writing that is beyond me.”
Lytton Strachey’s young cousin, Duncan Grant, learned an important lesson from the artist Simon Bussy, who was married to Lytton’s sister Dorothy: “‘A painter had to paint every day no matter what he felt like. Every picture should have in it un clou,’ he used to say: ‘a point which pins the whole design together.’”
The advent of Post-Impressionism in England appealed to the Bloomsbury artists almost immediately—though some, like Lytton, who thought Matisse and Picasso were silly, were not so easily won over. Clive Bell recalled one conversation with Lytton in which he asked, “Cannot you or Vanessa persuade Duncan to make beautiful pictures instead of these coagulations of distressing oddments?” But it was already too late, as Clive and Vanessa were also committed to the modernist style.
Vanessa’s and Duncan’s work were going in similar directions. With the opening of the Omega Workshops in 1913, they began to design printed fabrics, tiled vases, and furniture, developing a cohesive aesthetic vision. During the war, Duncan, a conscientious objector, worked for a local farmer though he continued to paint as much as time would allow, particularly at Charleston after Vanessa’s move there in 1916.
Like his cousin Strachey, Grant was homosexual, with relationships with several of the Bloomsbury friends, including Maynard Keynes and David “Bunny” Garnett. But it was with Vanessa that he had his most enduring love, and they lived together at Charleston until her death in 1961.
Duncan’s output was prolific and included everything from painting to soup bowls to furnishing designs, including some for the Queen Mary. Over the years he had many exhibitions and, as the last of the Bloomsbury artists, lived long enough to see the resurging reputation and appreciation of their work in the 1970s.
Younger than Vanessa, Roger, and Duncan, Carrington came to know them through her relationship with Lytton Strachey, for whom she had a lifelong devotion, despite his homosexuality and her own complex relationships with both men and women.
Carrington probably met Roger Fry during his tenure giving lectures at the Slade School of Art, between 1909 and 1913. Her artistic talent seems to have stood out during her time at the Slade, but after she left art school, her success seemed to dim. After an initial exhibiting experience, and the humiliation of having to pick up all her pictures, unsold, Carrington turned her artistic energies to a more personal approach, painting almost exclusively for herself and friends.
Fry, however, employed her at the Omega Workshops, and the Woolfs approached her to provide illustrations for their Hogarth Press publications. Her artistic experimentation seemed insatiable; she worked in many media, painting on canvas and on glass, furniture, tiles, and tea sets. She also made patchwork quilts, marbled papers for book binding, discovered a new technique for patterning on leather, and printed bookplates and illustrations from woodblocks. She did some commercial work that remained idiosyncratic of her distinctive style, like the bookplates for friends and signs for local hostelries, and the woodcuts for the Woolfs. She also experimented with a variety of materials, among which her silver foil paintings are some of the most enchanting. And her letters were often filled with delightful, childlike drawings, which told more about her doings than the words penned to accompany them.
Though she was welcomed by the Woolfs and by Vanessa and Duncan at their homes, she chose to remain outside of their sphere, retaining her autonomy away from the Bloomsbury coterie.