Roger Fry (1866-1934)
Newington House was a known gathering-place for the brightest and most forward-looking minds of the early twentieth century...
This bucolic scene painted by the artist and taste-maker, Roger Fry, was previously thought to represent a group at Garsington Manor, but new research has recently revealed it to be Newington House, Oxfordshire...
Newington House was a known gathering-place for the brightest and most forward-looking minds of the early twentieth century. Owned by Ethel Sands – the daughter of an American who had made his money in pharmaceuticals –it played host to a veritable who’s-who of cultural figures. Brought together by Sands were painters such as Walter Sickert and Augustus John; figures from Bloomsbury including Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf, her sister Vanessa Bell and Bell’s husband Clive; writers, Henry James and Arnold Bennett; and critics such as Lady Ottoline Morell and, in another guise, Fry himself. It is not at all unlikely that the as-of-yet unidentified figures in the foreground of the present work might have hailed from this illustrious group.
Sands’s predilection for the artistic avant-garde was in many ways the result of her five years of artistic training in Paris. Having already made excellent connections by mixing with the Malborough House Set that surrounded King Edward VII, she was soon spotted by Sickert who undertook to introduce her to the work of his friend Edgar Degas, whom he saw as being the greatest of the moderns (and who continued to be excluded from the curricula of the formal ateliers).
Sickert exerted a similarly profound influence over the taste of Roger Fry. Born into a Quaker family, Fry had been given little artistic exposure as a child. Training initially as a scientist, he became increasingly engaged in the arts through his membership of the élite and exclusive Conversazione (or ‘Apostles’) Society. Tired of the quiet parochialism of university life, he eventually left Cambridge for the rush and excitement of Paris. As he was later to do with Sands, it was Sickert who realised Fry’s potential and made it his mission to introduce the young and enthusiastic scholar to the work of the Post-Impressionists.
It would be no overstatement to say that Fry’s appreciation for these artists was to be of profound significance for the future of British art. Writing in 1939, Kenneth Clark stated that Fry – through his first and second Post-Impressionist exhibitionist exhibitions of 1910 and 1912 respectively – had changed British taste. A gifted public speaker who was known to sell out lecture halls with a capacity of 2,000 people, it was in large part through Fry that Britain first came into sympathetic contact with European Modernism.With his foundation of the Burlington Magazine in 1903 and editorship of it in 1909-18, moreover, Fry can make claim to having been one of the most significant forces in British art history of the twentieth century. His 1927 monograph on Cézanne – the artist whom Fry upheld above all others for his ability to combine modern eye with classical spirit – remains today a benchmark tome.
But, for all his academic influence, Fry saw himself primarily as an artist. His friendship of members of what would become known as the Bloomsbury Group, Duncan Grant and Clive and Vanessa Bell (Fry had an affair with the latter following his wife’s incarceration in an asylum), helped with the development of his painterly style that in turn allowed him better to appreciate the modernism emanating from Paris.
Yet, for all the sun-lit charm of this work, storm clouds gather on the horizon. In 1919, the same year in which the work was executed, Fry’s Omega Workshops closed. They had been his utopian answer to the Arts and Crafts movement, in which he had hoped to marry the applied and fine arts to create decorative works of abstract design. The enterprise had been hit by financial difficulties following the First World War. The next year, Sands left Newington. Disliking the quiet village life that Newington represented, she longed for the hubbub of the city to which she returned following the sale of the house in 1920. This year also marked a break for Fry. It saw the publication of arguably his magnum opus, Vision and Design in which he announced his decision to champion both modernism and its herald Cézanne. Thus, with Cézannian detachment, Fry marks in this painting the end of an era.