Whilst working from my kitchen table, with the Djanogly Gallery closed for the foreseeable future, I thought what better time to bring to light some of the art works in the University’s collection. Normally, these can be difficult for the general public to see because of where they’re displayed or because they are kept in store for their protection. Each week we’ll fetch one of those works ‘out of store’. – Neil Walker, Head of Visual Arts Programming
LA FONTAINE NOIRE (1928)
By Roger Eliot Fry (1866-1934)
I remember that when I first came to work at the Djanogly Gallery this landscape hung in the office of one of the art history lecturers. It didn’t have a particular impact on me then and I’ve chosen it now not so much for the painting itself - which is a competent but fairly unexceptional view of a scene in the Dordogne – but because of who it was painted by.
The artist Roger Fry is perhaps better remembered today as a critic and for his writings on art rather than for his talents with the brush, and for the incredible influence he had on the reception of modern art in this country at the beginning of the last century. He has been described as the most important arbiter of artistic taste since John Ruskin.
Born into a prominent Quaker family (descendants of the founder of Bristol’s famous chocolate brand), Fry’s interests in matters artistic began while he was still an undergraduate at Cambridge. He went on to become a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In 1910, he met the art critic Clive Bell and his artist wife Vanessa (sister of Virginia Woolf) and entered the inner sanctum of the Bloomsbury set with its tangled web of friendships and love affairs. For two years he was Vanessa’s lover before she finally took up with Duncan Grant.
Fry’s most important contribution to the cause of modern art in this country was his organisation, in 1910 and 1912, of two exhibitions devoted to the Post-Impressionists. In fact it was he who came up with the term for the titles of his exhibitions. In the first, he unleashed on a startled London public the work of Cézanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin alongside their contemporaries. Two years later he followed it up with a second show that included works by younger and even more radical artists including Picasso and Matisse. For many in the established art world his exhibitions were a dangerous heresy undermining the very tradition of European painting. Critics even saw them in moral terms as an anarchic attack on the very fabric of society. They ranked the assault alongside threats posed by striking miners, Irish Republicans and Suffragettes.
Despite the furore they provoked, Fry’s exhibitions and his active promotion of modern art began a sea change in the very conservative art scene in Britain in the years leading up to WWI.
This was demonstrated very clearly in the recent exhibition we held at the Djanogly on the work of Camden Town artist, Harold Gilman. What is more, Fry’s lectures and writing taught people to look at art afresh and to consider the formal values of a painting – factors such as line, colour, shape, composition – as of equal, if not more, interest to what was actually depicted.
Oddly, La Fontaine Noire reflects very little of Fry’s previous contact with progressive trends in French art or his very intimate knowledge of the landscape painting of Cézanne. Apart from some simplification in the treatment of the trees and the hatched brushwork of the sky, this very conventional landscape might have been painted in the previous century. By 1928 his own experimental practice was behind him and his interests had turned in the direction of more historical and classical forms of landscape. In his own modest estimation he did not consider himself to be a great artist but ‘only a serious artist with some sensibility’.
Like so many of the works in the collection we have no record of how the painting was acquired although it was included in an exhibition on Roger Fry’s work held at the University in 1966.
To find out more about Roger Fry, and to see more of his artworks, visit Art UK's website.