Spellbinder

Letters of Roger Fry

edited by Denys Sutton
Random House, 1,153 (2 vols.) pp., $30.00

The first thing to say about Roger Fry, the English art critic and painter, is that he was one of the most beguiling human beings I have ever known. His quick intelligence and responsiveness to all forms of art made him an enchanting talker, but he was never a monologuist. He never squashed or snubbed, and would listen to the most preposterous suggestions with grave attention, “Oh, do you really think so?”, and he would then proceed to give these aberrations a little more plausibility than they had before. In consequence he would make the people who talked to him feel much cleverer than they really were. I have never felt clever again since Roger died.

One of his most endearing traits was his credulity. He believed himself to be an inflexible rationalist with a scientific outlook; but he would take seriously the most bizarre propositions, especially if they were presented to him in some kind of scientific fancy dress. This made him the ideal companion for Gerald Heard, and conversations between them reached a high point of hilarious absurdity, which left me helpless with laugher. Add to this that all Roger’s most fantastic speculations were made in a grave, low, sonorous voice—a voice with which a numskull could have become a bishop—and the reader may form some impression of the pleasure of his company.

Alas, the letters give only a very faint echo of that pleasure. The great letter writers, and these include men as different from one another as Horace Walpole, Keats, and Carlyle, can get the sound of their living voices into their letters. Roger could not. His letters lack the wit, the sharpness of impression, and the sudden flashes of insight that delighted one in his conversation. Many of them show signs of haste, and make it clear, by their style no less than their content, that poor Roger always had more to do than he could manage. The rivalries and bankruptcies of the Burlington Magazine, the complications of the Metropolitan Museum, the painful misunderstandings that bedeviled the conduct of the Omega Workshops, show him always in trouble, always acting honorably, but sometimes with too much confidence that others would recognize his honorable intentions. These letters about public enterprises are, to me, the least interesting part of the book. The best are those written under the pressure of emotion: the letters describing his first visit to Italy, the letters to his wife, the letters to Vanessa Bell.

In addition to the frustrations and disappointments that afflict us all, Roger Fry’s life was marred by two major tragedies. The first was the madness of his wife, the second was his failure as a painter. (I do not include the suicide of a French lady who was in love with him, as she was obviously a hopeless neurotic and would have made his later life a misery to him.) Helen Fry was a talented artist and, by all accounts, an exceptional human being. Mr …

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