The artist and art critic Roger Fry is to be commemorated today (Thursday 20 May 2010 at 11.30am) with an English Heritage blue plaque at 33 Fitzroy Square, Bloomsbury, London, W1. It was at this address that Fry set up the influential Omega Workshops (1913 – 1919), to enable young artists to make a living by making and selling items of decorative art designed for the home. Through this venture, Fry may be said to have brought the avant-garde into British living rooms; the art historian Kenneth Clark hailed him as 'incomparably the greatest influence on taste since Ruskin ... in so far as taste can be changed by one man, it was changed by Roger Fry'. The plaque will be unveiled following speeches by the historian Sir David Cannadine and Frances Spalding, Fry's biographer.
Stephen Fry, who sits on the Blue Plaques Panel, said of his namesake: "Roger Fry was the most influential British art critic of the twentieth century. Without elitism, preciosity or pretension he helped open the British public's eyes to the new world of post-Impressionist art that heralded modernism in all its complexity and difficulty, but with all its rewards in energy, dynamism, impact and excitement. If only I could find a thread which might prove a familial connection between us: until then I'll just have to be content to share his great and glorious surname."
Roger Fry, who is associated with the Bloomsbury group of artists and writers, was born in Highgate, London. He attended Clifton College, Bristol, and took a first in natural sciences at King's College, Cambridge, but decided to pursue an artistic career. Fry studied painting at the Académie Julian in Paris, and continued to paint and exhibit for the rest of his life, but it was as an art historian and critic that his reputation was made. Having published a monograph on Giovanni Bellini in 1899, he became art critic for the Athenaeum in 1901, and two years later helped to found the National Art Collections Fund and the Burlington Magazine.
In 1906 Fry was appointed Curator of Paintings at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, he later worked as its European adviser before leaving in 1910. Back in London, he staged a landmark exhibition of modern French works at the Grafton Galleries, 'Manet and the Post-Impressionists', featuring Cézanne, Gauguin, van Gogh and Matisse. A second exhibition was held in 1912, and Fry emerged as the leading apostle of modern art. The term 'post-impressionist' originated with him.
Fry's Omega Workshops were set up in 1913 at 33 Fitzroy Square, part of a terrace by the Scottish architect Robert Adam (1728-92). This ground-breaking collective venture in the production and sale of objects of 'minor art' – ceramics, furniture, carpets, textiles and murals – involved such artists as Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Dora Carrington and Wyndham Lewis, but all the work was anonymous, being signed only with the Greek letter 'Ω'. Number 33 Fitzroy Square functioned as a workshop, a gallery and – on Thursday nights – as a club, with guests including George Bernard Shaw and W. B. Yeats. Though its influence on domestic design has been lasting, and the artefacts produced at the Fitzroy Square workshops are now much prized by collectors, it was never a commercial success in its own time, and closed in 1919.
Fry was one of the first critics to acknowledge the importance of Native American and African art, and it was partly this interest which helped confirm his standing as an influential critic. Latterly, he showed his cultural range by translating the poems of, among others, Stéphane Mallarmé (1936), writing monographs on Cézanne (1927) and Matisse (1930), and broadcasting for the BBC. A retrospective exhibition of his paintings in 1931 was well received; further recognition came two years later, when he was made Slade professor at Cambridge. Fry died on 9 September 1934 as a result of complications arising from a fall at his later home in Bernard Street, Bloomsbury.
Fry's championing of modern art generated huge controversy among his contemporaries -– the art critic Robert Ross felt that Fry had 'thrown away his position' as a 'cultivated' commentator. In later years, perhaps inevitably for an associate of the Bloomsbury Group, the charge of elitism was made against him. Yet Fry was disdainful of those whose interest in art was bound up with concerns for their social status, and his promotion of art appreciation was essentially broadminded. Interest in Fry's work and the Omega Workshops continues: last year saw an exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery entitled 'Beyond Bloomsbury; the designs of the Omega Workshops 1913-19'.