Friday, September 18, 2015

Played on Squares 2: Fry

This is the second episode of a series exploring chess and the Bloomsbury Group, the idea for the which was provoked by the absence of any chess in the BBC2 docudrama Life in Squares. These blogs aim to repair this omission: an inspection of the Bloomsbury literature shows that the Bloomsberries played chess. A lot. Perhaps none more so than Roger Eliot Fry, the subject of this episode (which, with the others, has been written with non-chess players in mind).

 Self-portrait of 1928
From here
Fry (1866-1934) was one of the original Bloomsberries, and the oldest. He spent his life immersed in all aspects of art; and so committed to it was he that it's a wonder he had any time at all for chess. However, an examination of the record suggests that his chessic inclinations were only visited on him later in life, when he gives the appearance of a convinced chessoholic enjoining in a game anyone not quick enough with an excuse to do otherwise. We'll make the case for this assertion below, based on numerous accounts from the Bloomsberries themselves.

But first, a little more about Roger Fry, the man. Bloomsburyphiles may wish to skip the next three paragraphs, as may anyone else not in for the long haul.


Fry left Cambridge in 1889 as a scientist, but went off to the continent to become an artist. He painted, he exhibited, and he married in 1896. He and his wife Helen had two children, but in 1910 she was committed to an asylum until her death in 1937. He designed the family home near Guildford, and he began to formulate his theories on aesthetics. In 1904 he was in the States as an old-master connoisseur advising on authenticity and restoration - until he fell out with his sponsors.

Back in England he fell in with the nascent Bloomsberries by way of friendship with Clive Bell, who he had known at Cambridge, and Vanessa. Together with Desmond MacCarthy and Maynard Keynes, Fry put together a ground-breaking "Post-Impressionist" exhibition in London in 1910 – and another in 1912. They met, in the main, with hostility. Yet, for progressive artists, Cezanne and Matisse now became touchstones, influencing Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant (now also under the Bloomsbury umbrella), and Fry himself. His experimental Omega workshop, a marriage of contemporary design and craft manufacture (work for impecunious artists), was initially successful in 1913 but, with the doldrums of WW1, folded in 1919.  

Fry had liaisons with Vanessa Bell (around 1913) and a number of other women - Helen Anrep for the last decade of his life (he died in 1934). He was a Quaker pacifist and anyway too old to fight in WW1 when Vanessa, as matriarch, rented Charleston in Sussex as a base for Clive Bell, Grant, and his lover David “Bunny” Garnett to find war-work as farm labourers. It was the country retreat, then permanent home, of Bloomsbury until the death of Duncan Grant in 1978. Famously charming and open-minded, Fry lectured on art, and published many highly regarded books on its history and theory. He is credited with theorising the notion that "form" in a work of art is crucial aesthetically - but there is no need to go into that just now. He was fluent in French, translating both ways, and lived in France for a period in the 30s.

It is when he was in his late 40s that we get the first (as far as I can see) Fry chess reference in the literature: in the second volume of David Garnett's biography "The Flowers of the Forest" which covers the years 1914 to 1923 (see Appendix 1 for more on him). It goes as follows: "Roger greatly enjoyed a game of chess and was a much better player than I". Although Garnett doesn't give a precise date, the context suggests it would be in the war years. He continues: "We often played together and he usually beat me fairly easily" (FF p.158). He also refers to Julian Bell (1908-1937), the eldest son of Vanessa and Clive, later telling Garnett that he, Julian, had also played frequently with Fry. Julian died driving an ambulance for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War.

King's College Cambridge has a painting by Vanessa Bell of Julian Bell and Roger Fry playing chess, dated around 1930/33. It may be seen here. There is also a study (in pencil, I would guess) for the picture, also by Vanessa Bell, at King's. It is shown in Quentin Bell's Bloomsbury Recalled of 1995.

So that's two chess references (and probably a lot of games), and now they come thick and fast. The next one implies Fry's fascination with the game, even if others were playing: it is his fine pen and ink drawing of his close friend from his Cambridge days, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, with the French author André Gide on his visit to Britain in 1918. Gide stayed with Fry in Guildford (RFal p.200-202).              
Goldsworth Lowes Dickinson Playing Chess with André Gide August 1918.
King's College Library, Cambridge JMK/RV/1, with thanks.
in Art Made Modern ed Christopher Green (1999) 
Merrel Holberton. London     
In 1919 Vanessa's sister Virginia, now married to Leonard Woolf, was living in Rodmell a few miles west of Charleston. She wrote to Roger Fry on 29 August 1921, "My Dear Roger, Kt-Kt 3. That is Leonard's cryptic message. Nor have I anything remotely resembling intellectual to add...". (LVW vII p477) Fry would have known what it meant, of course. It gives a clue, by the way, to another reasonably serious Bloomsbury chess player, and Leonard will feature in his own episode of this series.

In Autumn 1923 Fry joined friends in Provence where, in the course of merry pique-niques, much drink was taken and Tristam Shandy shared. Amidst this mayhem Fry somehow "played chess" (RFal p. 227). Virginia Woolf also adds more clues in a diary entry for 20 May 1926 where she records another Fry v Leonard Woolf encounter over the board, and then yet more of their chess engagements later in April and May 1932, the latter instance corroborated by a letter (4 May 1932 to Helen Anrep) from Fry himself. When in Athens, with his sister and the Woolfs, he wrote that "Leonard and I play chess o'nights" (LRFII p.670). Fry played with friends, perhaps only with his friends, and accordingly would play, as with Leonard Woolf, the same opponent for years.

Now, another witness: Frances Partridge, a second-wave Bloomsberry, who was to be involved in another triangular tangle, that of Lytton Strachey, Dora Carrington, and Ralph Partridge - who Frances, née Marshall, eventually married (make that "quadrangular"). She wrote, in a chapter in her Memories (1981 p.81), that Fry "was a keen chess player, and sometimes got me to play with him." That "got me to play" is telling (she couldn't think of an excuse quickly enough); as is the next comment: "He liked to win." Well, don't we all, and we'll find out how Fry did it in the next episode.

It is difficult to pin down the date of Frances's free-floating reminiscence, but let's surmise it is the same one as described in graphic detail by Clive Bell in Old Friends (1956). Irritatingly Bell doesn't date it either except to note it was "a cold and drizzling Sunday at Charleston in August" for which, given our English climate, there must be any number of candidates. However we have been spared a trawl through a few decades-worth of meteorological records as Frances Spalding seems to confirm it as 1927 (RFal p.245-6).

Fry was feeling poorly, suffering from a hidden agenda. Frances (then still a Marshall) intimates to Bell that "the minute lunch was over" she will retire "with the curse of Eve..." (RFa p18) - rendered as "with a headache" in Old Friends -"...above all she was not going to play chess with Roger." Except that Fry was too quick for her. He jumped up "for he could spring, all invalid that he was, when the occasion seemed to demand it - exclaiming, 'Now, Frances, for a game.' " He won: or rather, she was "allowed to lose in a way of which he could approve", as Bell puts it. There will be further analysis of Bell's account, including his own chess encounters with Fry, in the next episode. They reveal a lot about Fry's chess.

Frances Marshall/Partridge herself seems, like Fry, to have been another serial chesser, and lover/husband Ralph indulged, too. On December 5th 1927 she could relax in "a quiet evening alone with Ralph, playing chess" (M p.137); and again in March 1928 alone with him for the weekend in a borrowed hide-away cottage (M  p.138). But, at the merest mention of the game (a few days later, on December 21st 1927, chez Keynes) up pops Fry "wanting to discuss chess" as friends gather for Christmas (M p138). Opportunistically Roger saw Frances as a soft touch as witness this, on February 20th 1930 at Lytton Strachey's, when she admits: "My jolly evening with the [Augustus] John girls turned into a game of chess with Roger Fry..."

Ralph could be inveigled into a game as well: there is a photo of him and Fry playing in Frances Partridge's Memories, but as it doesn't reveal anything much about Roger Fry's chess here instead is a nice snap of Ralph and Frances not playing chess.

From here
And now here's Virginia Woolf (RF p. 253) again, introducing another Fry victim: Charles Mauron, a French psycho-analyst with whom Fry discussed such matters as aesthetics, Mallarmé (the French poet) and the translation of E.M.Forster's Passage to India. Mauron sat for Fry (a) to have his portrait done and, more importantly, (b) to play chess - as they did many times in the course of their ten-year friendship. Thus, Woolf notes (RF p 283), when Fry visited the Maurons in St. Remy (sharing a house) they "play[ed] chess and continue[d] the argument about aesthetics" - which could have been around 1931. Note that chess and aesthetics are mentioned in the same breath - another foretaste of the next episode.

Yet one more display of Fry's affection for the game was at Angelica Bell's twelfth birthday party in January 1930. Alice in Wonderland was the theme, and Fry turned up as the White Knight. Virginia Woolf described him to Clive Bell (LVW vol IV p. 128): "a masterpiece...Candles, mousetraps, tweezers, frying pans, scales...legs bound in cricket pads...cheeks flowered in green whiskers...covered in white [Jaeger] tights." Fry "took the place by storm".
Any resemblance to Fry is accidental.
 Alice and the White Knight
 by John Tenniel.
Wood-engraving by the Dalziels.
Now, to complete the case for the prosecution (that Fry was a compulsive chesser) we have Goldworthy Lowes Dickinson (we saw him playing chess with Gide in 1918 above) Fry's perennial friend since his Cambridge days. Fry seems to adopt a less predatory attitude towards him, and indulges him even to the extent of contemplating the deliberate loss of a game so as to entice him to carry on playing. Thus, in letters to Helen Anrep from Montrésor in September 1930, Fry writes:
“Whenever it’s dull and Goldie loses a game of chess (I really must arrange for him to win) he finds life intolerable and threatens to rush back to Cambridge, but when it’s fine or he wins all seems well”
...followed by this about his lugubrious companion:
"He talks of discomfort but we’ve very good beds and good food. He has chess twice a day and talk whenever he wants it, but the fact is that rain wipes all that out." (LRFII 12 and 15/9/1930). 
Finally, to put things beyond the last shadow of doubt, and still in foreign parts: Fry visited another sometime Bloomsbury, Gerard Brenan (1894-1987), in Spain. Brenan had been romantically involved with Dora Carrington, and had decamped in 1920 to a Spanish hill-top with two thousand books. Fry visited him in 1933 and - as mentioned by Francis Spalding (RFal p. 255) - they played chess together in a Casino: the locals, moved by friendship, begged Fry to stay.  

So, I think that all makes a compelling case for Fry as an inveterate player, visiting his obsession on David Garnett, Leonard Woolf, Julian Bell, Clive Bell, Charles Mauron, Frances and Ralph Partridge, Goldie Dickinson, and Gerald Brenan. With no other Bloomsberry do we find this consistent thread of references to chess. He played repeatedly, habitually, and compulsively, grabbing his opportunities in among all that art he was also driven to do. But he didn't play in tournaments, nor in congresses, nor for a club: he played, as Virginia Woolf put it in her biography of Fry, in "the crannies of time" (RF p. 244).

So, how well did he play, then, this interstitial chesser? We will attempt to assess that next time in Fry, part 2. Will it be for Fry and chess, as it was for the White Knight and the great art of riding: "Plenty of practice!" (AAWTLG p.210) - but not making perfect? We will also document the shocking truth, revealed by several of his long-suffering opponents, that when he played he often cheated.

There is also a rather more agreeable suggestion that Fry enlisted chess as a didactic aid to his aesthetical theorising. We will explore that fascinating perspective as well - in a fortnight's time. 

Appendix 1
David "Bunny" Garnett
"Bunny" Garnett (1892-1981) was Duncan Grant's lover, living-in at Charleston from 1916 to 1918. Grant was bedded by Vanessa Bell; he going temporarily straight to expedite matters. Grant remained her friend/companion until her death in 1961. It was, she said a "left-handed marriage" - her proper marriage of 1907 to Clive Bell had become merely formal (though they remained on good terms, and more or less in the same house). Later, in 1942, Garnett married Angelica Bell (1918-2012), 26 years his junior, the daughter of Vanessa by Grant. Angelica had been brought up believing Clive Bell was her biological father. The Bells disclosed the truth when she was 18; a little later came the revelation that her father (Grant) and her husband (Garnett) had had an affair back in 1916-18. This complicated web, which severely tested the Bloomsbury laissez-faire ethos, provided the main on-screen drama in the third episode of the TV series Life in Squares. 

References etc.

BR Quentin Bell (1995) Bloomsbury Recalled  Columbia U.P. New York
AAWTLG Lewis Carroll (1998) Alice's Adventures in Wonderland etc Penguin London (First pub 1865)

FF David Garnett  (1955) The Flowers of the Forest Chatto and Windus, London.  
LRF Letters of Roger Fry Volume II 1913-1934 2 vols edited by Denys Sutton (1972)
LVW (1977-8) Letters of Virginia Woolf  (Six Volumes) Harcourt, NY and London   
M Frances Partridge (1981) Memories Guernsey Press, Guernsey
OF Clive Bell (1956) Old Friends Chatto and Windus, London.
RFa Clive Bell (1997) Roger Fry, Anecdotes Cecil Woolf
RF Virginia Woolf (2003) Roger Fry: a Biography  Vintage (First pub 1940)
RFal  Frances Spalding (1999) Roger Fry: Art and Life  Black Dog, Norwich (First pub 1980)

For a pile of Bloomsbury photographs and art works see here

Played on Squares 1: Keynes 3: Fry, part 2; 4.Woolf; 5.Strachey; 6. Empire Days  7. Miss Strachey's Feeling For Snow.

History Index  

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