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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. Berenson adored her, and contrasted her favorably with her husband. This is how Roger proposes to her, with that humble self-knowledge that occurs so frequently in the letters (letter 73).

I’m afraid you’ll have to love me after all because I want you to so very much—does that reasoning seem inadequate; perhaps it is—and the thing looks impossible. You to whom style is everything and me who can only appreciate style all the more because I haven’t got it [which is all too evident in this quotation]. You who live in appearance and care nothing for the whyness of the what, to whom the what is sufficient—I who am always grubbing in the entrails of things to find out their causes, I who believe in reality, you who don’t.

That was written in the spring of 1896, and they were married in December. They had less than two years of perfect happiness, and in June of 1898 Helen suffered her first severe attack of madness. She recovered, and had two children, but the shadow was always there, and by 1907 it had become clear that her mental health was declining. Roger was endlessly patient with her, even when she turned against him, as mad people so often turn against those they love most, and wrote her letters so touching that one can hardly bear to read them. He continued to write to her even after she was confined in an asylum. She outlived him by several years. This was not only a long-drawn-out misery for him but it deprived him of a warm, spontaneous, intuitive companion who would have been the ideal complement to his own conscientious rationalism.

As for his other tragedy, Roger believed himself to be a painter, first and last. Writing and lecturing was done on the side, as a means of raising a little money. Organizing ventures like the Omega Workshops or the London Group was done out of a pure sense of public duty. Mr. Sutton thinks that he enjoyed the exercise of his authority—he even speaks of “an appetite for power”—but that was not at all my impression. These occupations were a damned nuisance to him, got him into quarrels which (since he had no doubt about his own good intentions) he could never understand. Worst of all, kept him away from painting.

The letters are full of his descriptions of his pictures, from small sketches to huge machines. He is terribly hurt by the neglect of his work in England, grateful for a few crumbs of praise, not perhaps always disinterested, that he received from his colleagues in France, and touchingly pleased when the locals in some French village gather round his large canvas and even put it in the window of the village shop. The fact was that he had no natural talent at all. This was apparent in his early watercolors in the style of Girtin and Cozens, and much more painfully apparent in the large, labored pictures of his later years.

His letters show a vivid enjoyment of natural beauty, but his hand was incapable of expressing this pleasure in drawing or painting. Not only is his paint surface dead but, surprisingly, he was equally inept in design or composition. A watercolor of Falaise, plate 45 in these volumes, has been rightly chosen as a typical example of his work, and it is very badly composed indeed. The Blue Bowl, plate 76, is reproduced on the same sheet as a still life by Marchand. No one would claim that Marchand was a major painter, but how clear, concise, and competent his work appears beside the fumbling arrangement of Roger’s table top, where even that delightful object a pepper mill is made to look uncomfortable. If anyone thinks that I am exaggerating, let him look at the sleeve and coat in the self-portrait on plate 83. How can this be the work of a man who wrote so convincingly about volumes and design?

Roger’s pictures were an embarrassment to his friends. They loved him, and would have done almost anything to please him, but, being good Bloomsburies, they could not pretend on questions of art. He tried to comfort himself by the daydream that he was a classic painter who deliberately rejected lively handling and sharpness of accent in favor of more durable qualities. I am not quite sure how far, at the bottom of his heart, he believed in this apologia. I often heard him say to Vanessa Bell how much he lamented the fact that he couldn’t produce a rich paint surface like hers; and in fact much the best picture by Fry reproduced in these volumes is the portrait of Mrs. Bell, in which his passionate love of the sitter has given his hand a certain impetus and freedom.

So if Roger was not designed by nature to be a painter, what should he have been? The answer is made clear by some of the early letters in this collection, those addressed to G.L. Dickinson in 1891 describing his first responses to Italian art seen in situ. They show that he had an exceptional responsiveness to all works of art and a sense of their relationship to each other and to their times: in short he had the gifts that could have made him a first-class historian and critic of art; and his earliest publications were studies in art history, in 1899 a short perceptive book on Giovanni Bellini and, in 1900, some really excellent articles on Giotto which are still worth reading. Why did he not go on from there?

In the 1890s the study and criticism of art had been overshadowed, one might almost say bedeviled, by the pseudo-science of connoisseurship. This had been introduced by Giovanni Morelli as a sincere attempt to give good reasons, on internal evidence, why a picture was or was not the authentic work of a given artist. But it soon became a kind of game in which the prize went to the man who could make new and convincing “attributions” or most effectively destroy old ones. By the end of the decade there could be no doubt about who had won the prize: it was Mr. Bernard Berenson.

I cannot find out when Roger Fry first met Mr. Berenson. A friend of mine, who said to Mr. Berenson that he thought the Giovanni Bellini was Fry’s best book, received the characteristic answer, “Of course it is. I wrote it,” which seems to imply that they knew each other in 1899. But the earliest letter to Mr. Berenson in this collection is dated November, 1901. It is in a humble and grateful tone, as of a pupil to a master, and this tone continues even after Roger does not like to approach the great man directly, but communicates with him through Mrs. Berenson, and Fry says several times that he does not claim to be an expert.

But there was bound to be a crash. The art world of that date was divided into factions so bitterly opposed to each other that neither compromise nor common sense was possible. Fry had a dominating influence in the Burlington Magazine, and if it printed any article by certain hostile critics, such as Strong and Langton Douglas, Mr. Berenson would assume that he (Fry) had gone over to the enemy camp. Fry struggled hard to persuade Mrs. Berenson of his disinterestedness. “It is very important [letter 117] that it shouldn’t be said that the Burlington belongs to B.B.’s clique…. I do really regret it very much when B.B. fights the Strong set on their own terms. I’m certain he oughtn’t to.” Fine words from an English gentleman with two hundred years behind him of honest industry and the rule of law; but no good to a Jewish refugee, with two hundred years of pogroms and police informers. They quarreled and never made it up.

I cannot resist digressing to describe the contrast between these two men who played so great a part in my education. They had in common a love of art, but in every other respect were completely opposite characters. To a young man Roger Fry’s company was far more agreeable. There was a free exchange of ideas, the conversation was usually about art and, as I have said, Roger made one feel far cleverer than one was. Mr. Berenson made one feel far stupider. Luncheon at i Tatti consisted of a monologue, in which Mr. Berenson denounced, with inexhaustible eloquence, the Fascist regime, deviating only to say something disobliging about his colleagues, in particular the unfortunate Roger. Art was never mentioned, partly because Mr. Berenson was afraid that someone present would “steal” an idea or an attribution. He was deeply suspicious of everybody and everything; Roger was naïvely trustful and optimistic. He was also a man of integrity, whereas with Mr. Berenson one always felt that something mysterious was happening in the background.

The princely routine of life at i Tatti has often been described. Here is Roger’s description of his own train de vie, written to Robert Bridges in 1922, the year before I met him:

I have a little apartment here [St. Tropez]…which costs me £3 a year. I have a bed and one chair and some old cases for tables and I live entirely alone. [letter 523]

No wonder that they did not get on and that all attempts to bring them together, one of which I witnessed, were unsuccessful. And yet, when all this has been said in Roger’s favor, I must concede that Mr. Berenson had a far more subtle and powerful mind. With his phenomenal memory he could bring everything into focus. On the whole he had greater responsiveness to beauty, especially natural beauty, and he certainly had greater powers of concentration. There was something slapdash about Roger, which is evident in the style of the letters, and which was, perhaps, an aspect of his optimism.

Roger’s letters vary considerably. On the whole, the best are to Vanessa Bell; he took trouble over his letters to her sister, Virginia Woolf, but was slightly intimidated by her formidable powers of criticism. His most serious letters were addressed to a French lady called Marie Mauron, a schoolteacher in Les Beaux with whom he maintained a friendship which may, for once, be accurately described by the word “platonic.” None of her letters is printed; she does seem to have been a good deal of a prig, but this suited Roger because he could write to her about his theories of art in an earnest vein that would have given his Bloomsbury friends the giggles. Here is the summary of his beliefs, written to her in 1920 (letter 491):

I try to express the emotions that the contemplation of forms produces in me and to extract fundamental relationships from the multiple, more or less chaotic and discordant shapes of Nature…. These fundamental relationships are recognized by a kind of sensual logic. It’s exactly like music…. [How irritated Roger would have been if someone had reminded him that he was quoting almost verbatim from Walter Pater.] The perception of unity and necessity is very like the perception and comprehension of a natural law when one recognizes that many different phenomena are governed by a single principle.

Nothing in Vision and Design (published in the same year) is clearer and more satisfying than that. Madame Mauron had a husband called Charles, who also became a close friend of Roger’s, and an object of piety. Roger even persuaded Virginia Woolf to raise money for him by giving a talk in Lady Colefax’s drawing room. He was an intellectual pedant and bore of the first water, and did Roger harm by encouraging him to take himself too seriously. That Roger should have swallowed Charles Mauron’s book called Beauty in Art and Literature, which was a theory of “psychological volumes,” and forced the Hogarth Press to publish it, shows once more how generously he suspended his critical faculties where his friends were concerned.

If Roger Fry’s writings were often disappointing, his lectures were superb; he was without any question the most spellbinding lecturer of his time. Not only did lecturing reveal his beautiful voice but it allowed him to project his lovable personality. In his lectures he could be witty and fantastic, as well as rational. Moreover a sequence of slides kept him firmly anchored to the thing seen, and so exercised his unrivaled powers of pictorial analysis rather than his less successful struggles with problems of aesthetics. His lectures were always a success, and in 1932 and 1934 he achieved the extraordinary feat of filling the Queens Hall (then the London equivalent of Carnegie Hall) with two lectures (far from his best) on the French and English exhibitions at Burlington House.

This makes it all the more disgraceful that he should have been three times turned down as Slade Professor, twice in Oxford (1904 and 1927) and once in Cambridge in 1910. His first two rejections were the work of a clique of Royal Academicians led by Sir Edward Poynter, the president of the Royal Academy; his second rejection at Oxford was contrived by Poynter’s cousin, then Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, who had difficulty in finding anyone who would offer himself as an alternative to Roger Fry. To the electors he represented Fry as a firebrand and dwelled on the fact that his lectures would attract crowds of young people and give the university trouble. When, a year before his death, he was at last appointed Slade Professor at Cambridge, his health had begun to decline, and his ambitious course on the whole history of art, published after his death as Last Lectures, becomes, after a careful opening, perfunctory in the extreme.

What gave Roger Fry his enormous prestige was not his analysis of the “Old Masters,” or even his theory of aesthetics, which had been reduced to a catchpenny term (significant form) by Clive Bell, but his championship of contemporary painting. Young people looked on him as their spokesman. His organization of the first post-impressionist exhibition in 1910, and the second in 1912, were the high points in his career. He had come to Cézanne rather late, at least ten years later than Mr. Berenson, but, once converted, he became Cézanne’s most fervent supporter, and his book on his hero is, on the whole, the most carefully composed of all his writings. It was rather painful to admit that the young Cézanne, the hero of l’Oeuvre, was an admirer of Delacroix; still less could he reconcile himself to the romanticism of the late landscapes painted in the quarry of Bibemus by the unrepentant admirer of Wagner. But the classic Cézannes of 1880 to 1900 are admirably described.

He also wrote a good small book on Matisse; and it is a proof of his natural responsiveness to art that when, in 1919, he first saw the work of Rouault, he recognized the greatness of an artist whose outlook ran counter to all his prejudices (letter 471). He described the meeting to me: how a strange man had spent the evening with him in a cafe reading incomprehensible poems. Then, when Roger’s patience had reached its limits, he announced that he was also a painter, and produced a portfolio of watercolors. Roger groaned, but as the first sheets were put on the table he recognized a painter of extraordinary power and originality. He bought the whole portfolio. Some of them he later sold to John Quinn; the rest are in the Roger Fry room in the Courtauld Galleries, and are the best memorials to his powers of perception when his theories had been laid aside.

Mr. Denys Sutton has put a lot of hard work into editing the letters, has written a long introduction, and compiled chronological tables and biographical notes. He has also put a footnote to every single picture or person referred to, however casually, and this I find rather excessive, especially as many of the notes read “not identified,” e.g., letter 364: “All that valley from the Williamsons to Menton seems to me to belong to you”: note to “the Williamsons,” “unidentified.” In fact they were the popular novelists C.N. and A.M. Williamson, who lived in Roquebrune. With such a plethora of notes some of them were bound to go wrong. The Bartolommeo referred to in letter 101 was not the monk of San Marco but an Umbro-Tuscan eclectic of the fifteenth century known as Bartolommeo della Gatta, whose fascinating picture of San Roch kneeling in the empty square of Arezzo is mentioned in the letter as “a really good provincial which is a rare and delightful thing.”

As for Mr. Sutton’s painstaking introduction, I have already indicated that I do not always agree with his judgments. He speaks of Roger Fry (page 51) as “an experienced man of the world.” No less worldly a man can be imagined. He more than once refers to Fry’s business acumen. But as the affairs of the Burlington, the Omega, and the London Group make clear, Fry had none of the foresight, prudence, or ruthlessness which make a successful man of business. He was an impulsive, generous, quixotic character, and Sickert’s etching of him (figure 91), looking like a bespectacled Knight of La Mancha, is far nearer the truth. That is why we all loved him.

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