Friday, October 02, 2015

Played on Squares 3: Fry, part 2

This series on Bloomsbury and chess (sparked by the BBC docudrama Life in Squares) began with Keynes, and we are now in the middle of an investigation of the most well-documented Bloomsberry chesser: Roger Fry. When we have finished with him we'll look at some others in later posts; some surprises are in store. Chess readers are asked to indulge the series in so far as it has been written with a non-chess audience also in mind.

Roger Fry Self Portrait (1930)
From here
As for Roger Fry, a revered and much loved Bloomsberry, we went to some lengths in the last episode to establish just how much he played, especially from his late forties when we get the first reference in the Bloomsbury literature to his chess. Strictly speaking there is an earlier mention by Virginia Woolf of the game in her tactful biography Roger Fry published in 1940 just a few years after his death in 1934. Writing about his childhood she refers to a chess club in Highgate, and chess books on the shelves of a learned visitor to their house (RF p.18) - but I don't think they prove that he played as a child, let alone reveal any precocious talent for the game.

Concerning his adult life, though, there are accounts, as we saw in the last episode, from Virginia Woolf, Clive Bell and Frances Partridge that add up to a picture of a chess enthusiast ready and willing to spring a game of chess on his hapless friends. But was he able? Just how good at the game was he; and what are we to make of those accounts of him cheating?

That is what this episode will concern itself with; that and the suggestion that he used chess as a vehicle for demonstrating his theories of aesthetics - i.e. what it is in a work of art that we respond to. Given your blogger's particular fascination with chess in art this sounds just too good to be true. Accordingly, we feel obliged to investigate.

Fry was a man on a mission, and was kept busy doing it. He painted; he also thought about, wrote about, talked about, and lectured on art - by all accounts in an open and undogmatic way. That didn't leave so much room for chess which, as Virginia Woolf put it, filled the "crannies" of his time. He was apt to ambush his friends for a game - out of necessity perhaps (how could he get a game otherwise?) as in the example given in episode 2 where he imposed on Francis Partridge for a game after lunch one wet Sunday at Charleston - at the very moment when all sensible folk, among whom we can count many chess players, are settling into their armchairs for a doze.

As the record shows, Fry almost exclusively played his friends, albeit on the off-chance, and that puts him, I would say, firmly in the category of a "Home Player" as described by the veteran O.C. Müller writing in the British Chess Magazine in 1932. "Home Players" he defined as "persons who for some reason or another will or only can play with their closest friends or relatives, and only in strict privacy - at home." There must be lots of them, he reckoned, "possibly... "several millions the civilised world." Roger Fry is obviously one of them - his opponents too.

"Generally a shade better...owing to more varied practice" wrote Müller, are the "Coffee-House Players" of whom there are maybe "several hundred thousand by now". Then, "considerably better in quality" again, there are the Club Players of whom there are "surely not less than several thousand...all over the world". John Neville Keynes, President of the Cambridge University Chess Club from episode 1 was obviously one - and we may turn up another in Bloomsbury circles before this series is done.

What then is the nature of the chess in this "home" environment? Quite obviously informality, and a casual approach to the formal rules for the conduct of the game - not bothering so much with "touch and move" or "no retraction", and where "taking the king" with a flourish to claim the game is thought to be mandatory. Friends are tolerant of such an attitude, so long as it is consensual. Compare this with the more formalised context of coffee-house chess where reasonable standards of chess etiquette and propriety would be expected (you were playing strangers, and money may be at stake), and the strict standards of club competition chess, where infractions could cost you the game, and actually "taking the king" is infra dig - and technically illegal (you should simply announce "Mate" in matter of fact tones, while endeavouring to suppress all outward gloating of triumph).

But as for Roger Fry, in spite of the convivial informality of domestic chess, he seemed to regard winning as more important than sharing quality time at the board in the mutual indulgence of close friends. In 1927 (if we have the date right) Clive Bell, bearing the scars, gave an account of Fry's style.
"For my part I never cared about playing chess with Roger; if, by any chance, one succeeded in some little plot for surprising his queen or rook - and setting traps is what amuses all thoroughly bad players such as I - he would dismiss the strategem as "uninteresting", retract a series of moves - generally to his own advantage - and so continue till on scientific and avowable principles he had beaten one to his satisfaction." (OF p. 85-6)             
Clive Bell by Roger Fry c 1924
From here
"Bunny" Garnett was likewise roughed up, as he recounted in his memoir of 1955 The Flowers of the Forest (p 158)
"He usually beat me fairly easily. But if I made an unexpectedly good move which put him in difficulties, Roger would always find a way of altering the course of the game. He would pick up one of my pieces, start an exposition of what I might have done, and put the piece back on the wrong square."       
Garnett muses: "I was never quite sure how far he was aware that he cheated at chess", but adds, as if to strangle any sympathy at birth: "...Julian [Bell] told me, some years later that Roger frequently did the same thing with him so as to avoid being beaten."

If further proof were needed, Frances Partridge tells of Fry employing yet a third device, in Memories (p. 81): "He liked to win, and generally did, but if the issue was in doubt he would say, 'Oh, I don't think it was wise to move your bishop. Better go there with your knight', and that would do the trick."

Published in 1977
(There is no mention of Roger Fry) 
When Fry lost he could be possessed in a manner that would put to shame Gary Kasparov in his pomp; thus Clive Bell gives a rueful account (RFa p.19-20) of Fry's all-consuming determination to get his own back. He tells how he managed to beat Fry once - in a café in Limoges. Bell himself obviously savoured the moment, dining out on it for three years, ducking and diving as Fry doggedly sought a revenge match. Eventually Fry "cornered" him, "literally", in another café. Fry won, said Bell, "and never bothered me again."

All this gives a compelling impression of Fry's chess: he was a social "home" player, and no more than that, who could usually beat his put-upon friends, but was also capable of losing his way against them. So determined was he to win that he would cheat to avoid defeat - with a battery of ruses at his disposal.

But not only was his grasp of chess etiquette shaky - and perhaps his disregard for it wilful - so was his knowledge of chess culture. Without trying to make too much of it, the evidence comes from the continuation of the anecdote given in the last episode by Frances Partridge in Memories (p174). She comes over as one of the more willing of Fry's victims, ready to put up a fight, even if not in an equal struggle. She wrote: "My jolly evening... turned into a game of chess with Roger Fry - and the only consolation being that I won, but even then I was given a bishop before I managed it."

I take this to mean that Fry removed one of his bishops at the start of the game, so that he played with a handicap. That's "giving odds of a bishop" in the jargon. Odds play was popular in the Victorian period, used even in formal matches, and perhaps still lingered on in more informal "coffee-house" chess in Fry's time. However, giving up a bishop as the handicap is not one of the conventional ways of doing it. Without going into technical details it adds further to the suspicion that he wasn't really that familiar with the practices of the regular chess world.    

Francis Partridge also seemed unaware of this minor chess faux pas, though, by apparent contrast with Fry, the world of serious competitive chess did impinge on her a little: she was friendly with Lionel Penrose (1898-1972) who, when invited to dinner in October 1927 (M p.128), "expounded on a chess match between Capablanca and Halekin (sic) for our benefit."

Capa v Alekhine in Buenos Aires in 1927. Won by Alekhine : +6 -3 =25
(Pic From an Argentinian newpaper via here)
Professor (as he was to become) Lionel Penrose played for Cambridge in the Oxbridge matches 1919 through to 1922; twice on board 1 (he was the father of Jonathan, born 1933, who was British Champion ten times - Lionel was still playing county chess for Essex into the 1950s at least). Here is a cracking demolition job Lionel visited on R.H.V.Scott, who was to be the British Champion in 1920, though admittedly it was a simultaneous display, and Scott would have his hands full with other games. Penrose goes for it with his very first move: a combative From Gambit.

And now: Roger Fry, chess, and aesthetics. We shouldn't build too high on the foundation of just one ambiguous quote, but if we stretch things a bit we might get a tantalising view from the top - before the ramshackle structure crumbles.

This is the key passage from Virginia Woolf's biography of Fry (RF p.279), and it seems to be about Julian Bell's (Virginia and Clive Bell's older son) days at Cambridge, in 1932. Talking of Julian and his undergraduate friends, Virginia writes affectionately:
"They were well aware of [Fry's] presence - of his humours, of his eccentricities; of his 'immense seriousness', and of his equally immense powers of enjoyment. He would plunge at once into his own interests and his own problems. He would make them translate Mallarmé, he would argue for hours on end with 'terrific Quaker scrupulosity and intellectual honesty'; and he would play chess, and through playing chess bring them to understand his views on aesthetics."    
How should we interpret that last clause? Does it mean, for example, that it was by playing chess with his students that he won their confidence (Bell testifies as to how "extraordinarily good" Fry was in winning them over) as a prelude to persuading them of his views on aesthetics? This is more obviously the case in another Mallarmé/chess juxtaposition a few pages further on when Virginia conjures up a mad professor image of Fry preparing a lecture "playing chess with one hand, correcting Mallarmé with the other" (and with steam coming out of his ears?). Chess here is one of two (maybe more) independent multi-tasks.

But, in the quote above, look at Woolf's precise choice of preposition: "through playing chess", not "while playing chess" or even "after playing chess". Somehow, it seems, as Woolf interprets it, chess was engaged by Fry as a tool, or a pedagogic aid, in the elucidation of Mallarmé's poetry and, consequentially, his own aesthetic theories.

Proceeding to put another storey on this speculative build, let's consider one way this might have worked by following an observation of Francis Spalding's (RFal p. 257) where she draws on Fry's Some Poems by Mallarmé (1936):
"Fry explained Mallarmé's poems by reference to Cubism: in both the subject or theme is broken into pieces, analysed and reconstructed 'not according to relations of experience but of pure logic.' "
What better model for logical analysis could there be than bashing out a sequence of moves on a chess board and by that means graphically demonstrating how to break down a chain of ideas into its component parts. Yet, that's hardly rocket science (as we'd say these days) and so we could try and add one more tier to this tottering tower of interpretation, something a little more sophisticated, before Health and Safety calls a halt.

Consider, then, "Significant Form", a concept forever associated with Fry, though he himself wasn't so comfortable with it: he preferred the term "Design". Maybe Fry saw a parallel between the formal aspects of a work of art, that is to say the "design" in it (for which it is pretty much irrelevant what the work portrays, or represents), and the formal aesthetics of a master game of chess (which, after all, is about nothing outside itself). Could we say that the chess aesthetic (geometry, flow, depth, paradox) is constructed by the moves in the "chess-space" of the sixty-four squares (with the additional dimension of time) by analogy with the way in which the potent aspects of design are constructed by shapes, forms, lines etc., in the picture-space of a master work of art? Was this the point Fry was making "through playing chess"?

To dodge the probable collapse of this shaky edifice of exegesis - all of our own making - we escape to Rodmell in Sussex for the next episode (in two weeks' time).

References etc
FF David Garnett  (1955) The Flowers of the Forest Chatto and Windus, London.
LRF Letters of Roger Fry 1913-1934 (2 vols edited by Denys Sutton (1972)
Frances Partridge (1981) Memories Guernsey Press, Guernsey
OF Clive Bell (1956) Old Friends Chatto and Windus, London.
RF Virginia Woolf (2003) Roger Fry: a Biography  Vintage (First pub 1940)
RFa Clive Bell (1997) Roger Fry, Anecdotes Cecil Woolf.
RFal  Fancis Spalding (1999) Roger Fry: Art and Life  Blag Dog, Norwich (First pub 1980)
SPM Roger Fry Some Poems by Mallarmé (1936):

Other episodes: 1. Keynes; 2. Fry; 4. Woolf; 5.Strachey; 6. Empire Days 
 7. Miss Strachey's Feeling For Snow.
History Index                    


No comments: