Roger Fry: A Biography

Finally read Virginia Woolf’s carefully balanced biography of her friend Roger Fry. She was hampered somewhat by the restrictions of having to please his sisters and friends and not include any scandalous material (like her sister’s love affair with him) which has illuminated Frances Spalding‘s more recent bio.

Fry sounds like rather an interesting old chap, pushing forward into Post Impressionism but still wrangling with a more traditional painting style of his own. He marries another artist, Helen, to the dismay of his Quaker parents who want nothing more than him to be hard-working and successful in the more common business aspects; Helen “goes mad” and is shut up in an asylum for nearly 30 years before kicking the bucket.

Fry gets more and more confident as a critic, and is tapped by JP Morgan to be the director of the Metropolitan Museum in NYC, but Fry initially resists because he doesn’t want to leave England and he sees that Morgan had no real appreciation for art. On Morgan: “I don’t think he wants anything but flattery. He is quite indifferent as to the real value of things. All he wants experts for is to give him a sense of his own wonderful sagacity… The man is so swollen with pride and a sense of his own power that it never occurs to him that other people have any rights.” Fry signs on with an amended contract that allows him to spend most of the year in London, only traveling to NYC for three months of the year, but then acting as their buyer in Europe for the remaining months. Apparently there was quite a struggle with Morgan about whether pieces would be purchased for his private collection or for the museum.

Fry didn’t quite like America, “the contrasts are amazing… I sometimes wonder whether this society isn’t drifting back to sheer barbarism…. the trouble is that no one really knows anything or has any true standard. they are as credulous as they are suspicious and are wanting in any intellectual ballast so that fashion and passing emotions drift them anywhither.” He did meet Mark Twain at a dinner and liked him tremendously, though.

Back in London, he becomes estranged from the position and either quits or is let go after a battle with Morgan over a painting. He then takes up his previous life of lectures and writing, traveling all over Europe to look at pictures, to study them so he can go back to London and talk about them all winter.

I’m petering out my enthusiasm here, but could probably do a re-read at some point if investigating VW’s notes on writing biography.