Frances Spalding and Bloomsbury, by Howard Hodgkin and Frances Spalding

The Charleston Magazine, issue 6, Winter/Spring, 1992

Frances Spalding and Bloomsbury
Clarendon Road, 2000-2005, refers to Margery Fry's house in Holland Park which Hodgkin frequented at a young age.

Luke Howard, whose observations laid the basis for the nomenclature of cloud formations, is the ancestor of both Roger Fry and HowardHodgkin. Behind Roger Fry, on both sides of his family, lay seven generations of Quakers. His mother, Mariabella Hodgkin, bore her husband, Sir Edward Fry, two sons and seven daughters. Together husband and wife successfully thwarted many suitors the Fry girls may have had. None married but four were to distinguish themselves in public life. Of these the most outstanding was Margery Fry who devoted her energies to educational matters and prison reform, becoming an outspoken opponent of capital punishment.

Hodgkin’s ‘Forty Paintings 1973-1984’ represented Britain at the 1984 Venice Biennale. The following year he won the Turner Prize. Owing to his mother’s friendship with Margery Fry, Hodgkin, as a young man, frequently visited her house in Holland Park – 48 Clarendon Road. Here he recalls the impressions made on him on these visits, in conversation with Frances Spalding who herself became familiar with the house at a later date, when it had become the home of Margery’s niece (Roger Fry’s daughter), Pamela Diamand.

HH: I can describe those two downstairs rooms [in Margery Fry’s house]. There were double doors that opened and hadreally rather poor, pastiche, late Roger Fry paintings of China on them byPamela, done as a welcome-back present to Margery when she returned from a trip to China. Margery was quite sniffy about them. She said that in particular she thought that a painting of Ming tombs looked like a row of over life-size pigs, so she had them painted out. In their place a Chinese friend wrote beneficial sayings in calligraphy – it was the top left hand panel. She was a very, verysevere critic of everyone except Roger.

She was very remarkable and quite extraordinarily vain and very beautiful – in a strange sort of way, particularly in the evening. She liked wearing extravagant clothes and had some bright pistachio green shoes she was very proud of. She did look amazing.

FS: That’s very un-Quakerish.

HH: She suffered from feelings of possessions or no possessions. She would buy beautiful bits of jewellery and then think – who can I give these to? I particularly remember the elephant tray which was recently at Spink’s.

FS: With a marquetry design by Duncan Grant?

HH: Yes. Margery greatly admired Duncan. The only names that were always being mentioned were Roger and Duncan. And the spinet, now in the Courtauld Gallery, bulked large in the room. I think she had it in her rooms at Somerville. I think that’s when Roger painted the nude inside of the lid.

FS: She went to Somerville around 1926.

HH: I think it’s earlier then, I think some of the cubist ornament was done before the nude.

FS: What made Margery remarkable in your eyes, was it her huge personality?

HH: Yes, she was a very strong personality. She did look absolutely splendid and must have been very beautiful when young. She had her hair cut short, as was fashionable at the time, in two – they looked a bit like bunches of broccoli – so that they stuck out either side of her head – not flattering. She had the most beautiful eyes and, by the time I knew her, no shape at all: she was just a big bag of beautiful silk.

She loved wonderful things and liked beautiful objects very much. The room was very self-consciously arranged. She tried to pretend that it wasn’t. On either side of the mantelpiece she had, on one side, a Louis XVI escritoire and matching, of the same height and by the same maker, on the right was what is apparently correctly called a semainier, a chest of drawers with seven rather shallow drawers, one for each day of the week. She said they must be false because of what she paid for them. I suspect they were probably authentic and probably not quite as cheap as she suggested. On the chimney breast in between was a very trite flower piece by Roger in a very good Italian frame. Below were lots of treasures. It was years before I discovered that they were probably not treasures. She loved to say – this is a Wei dynasty figure. I’m sure it was but the head had come off at some point and been badly stuck on again. They were nearly all things that had belonged to Roger. The only really important thing was a sgraffito Byzantine pot which he had been very proud of. There were also Tanagra figurines and beads and a box of wood. And a Provençal winejug – I think that was there because the flowers in the flower piece were stuck in one of these. She also had a very glamorous radio – I’ve never seen one like it in any exhibition. It was a polished mahogany radio, made, I suspect, by Gordon Russell or one of his pupils and was done especially for the Governors of the BBC. It was extremely glamorous. Round the circular soundhole, which was covered with brown silk, was a gilded ring with a chamferededge. Above that hung a Siennese painting of a Virgin and Child on a goldground. There were lots of cushions with Omega fabrics on the huge sofas. In many ways it was the sort of intellectual home you could find now.

FS: But you wouldn’t very readily find objects from such a range of cultures.

HH: No, you wouldn’t. The walls were covered with a wonderful wallpaper designed by Pamela’s husband Micu. It was done like fish scales, tiny little overlapping… it was all over and beautifully done, very faint colours which added up to a luminous grey. Micu was a man of tremendous fascination. ..He was like an animal superstar when he came into the room, even as an old man. He told me – I was a child when I first met him – he earned his living doing the patterns at the end of toffee papers as wallpapers had gone out of fashion.

FS: And wax paper for bread.

HH: Yes.

FS: I always thought it rather symbolic that the wax papers that he made ended up protecting Roger Fry’s pochades because Pamela thought that was the best use for them.

Richard Morphet mentions in his introduction to your Serpentine catalogue your experience of the house, these two connected rooms and their relation to the small garden outside and the larger communal garden beyond…

HH: They did mean a great deal to me. I remember it very well. But can I describe the next room? The room I’ve been describing was at the front of the house with long windows down to the ground, the radio on a table, a sofa here, another there and Margery seated here. And it was wonderful to sit and talk with her because the folding doors were never closed and behind you would see the Duncan Grant table covered with glass and standing on a Duncan Grant carpet. Beyond that you would see French windows open to the garden, the little garden…

FS: You stepped down iron steps into the garden…

HH: You stepped down – the garden was in fact quite a way down, but the communal garden was on a side of a hill that goes up to Notting Hill Gate, so if you were talking to Margery you would see grass, at least as I remember it and bushes.

The only picture of any significance was a little Derain – one of the most beautiful and natural pictures by him I’ve ever seen. It gave the lie to the incredibly laboured pictures by Roger that surrounded it. This second room, the dining-room, had bookcases half way up the walls. The pictures constantly moved around. Paintings by Roger were on both sides. There were Omega pots, Chinese bowls with low-toned colours and alot of them, mostly things that were of rather dim quality and didn’t have enough identity.

FS: Did all this have an influence, did it help develop your eye?

HH: Yes, probably, but I think not nearly as direct an influence as Richard [Morphet] imagined it to have been. He’s brilliant about the looking through – that certainly did influence me, it must have. It’s very difficult for artists, I suspect, to know… But I was always fascinated by people in rooms and by the experience of coming from outside into this room where Margery virtually always sat, facing the light and her guests automatically sat around. There was a certain element of built-in admiration by virtue of the way the furniture wasarranged. It was a great relief to go there from my parents’ house which was, I think, extremely of its period and had very few objects in it, cream coloured walls and brown furniture. It was the colour of those two rugs – there were two Duncan Grant rugs in the dining-room at one time – which leapt out at one like an explosion.

FS: One thing that makes the Omega significant was the way it challenged the English love of tonal harmonies and restraint.

HH: Yes, it was tone rather than colour. It’s very important to try and avoid hindsight, but I was absolutely knocked out by the carpets. I thought they were wonderful designs. They have this sort of informality. I don’t think they were a deeply considered slap in the face of English taste or anything of the sort. Duncan probably knocked them off while he was thinking about something else. Do you know that marvellous carpet called ‘The Throne of Blood’?

FS: ‘The Pool of Blood’.

HH: One of the things I do want to point out was the total discrepancy between the paintings on the wall by Roger– there was a wonderful gouache by Rouault – and then the table and some bits of pottery and the carpet, it was likegoing from one world into another. His paintings always seem to me the acme of feebleness, timidity…

 FS: They’re well put together.

HH: Well… I don’t think he had, when he was painting, any kind of physical sensibility about what a picture is – though he wrote about this so eloquently. I don’t think he had, as a painter, any whatever. I’ve never seen a painting where I felt that he had – except when he’s painting portraits.

FS: There’s a remarkable one of Margery as a young girl.

HH: Yes, I know, isn’t it extraordinary. Something was set free. Like his painting of Forster which is a much better painting than so many of his others.

Having seen what by now people are already forgetting about – modernist paintings in New York in quantity – before I saw these subfusc rooms in Holland Park, suddenly one was back [in relation to the rugs] in the twentieth century as it seemed to me as an adolescent child. And when later people began to exhibit Bloomsbury – it’s a terribly meaningless word – and I don’t mean Bloomsbury but Omega decorative art, I was astonished by how good it was. How great it was. I think it’s an amazing little tiny manifestation of something really extraordinary that vanished almost at once, entirely through a certain lack of morale. I find the decorative art of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell afterwards… well, to put it as bluntly as possible, embarrassing compared to what they did then. It was some incredible high point, it was the equal to anything in the world and probably better than anything being done anywhere else. For all sorts of reasons – there are marvellous bits of misunderstood art nouveau in the inlaid furniture, for example. But the spirit seemed to go out of it almost as soon as it arrived, a bit like Vorticism…

FS: Yes, there’s a very despairing letter which Roger Fry wrote from France after the Omega closed down [‘I’m doing a lot of landscape, and am revelling in my freedom from that desperate effort of the Omega Workshops. I see now the futility of trying to do something serious in England’]

HH: He probably knew in his heart of hearts what had happened, morally what had happened. It was in the end a complete moral failure.

FS: Why do you call it a moral failure?

HH: A failure of will and belief – moral in that sense. A failure of morale.

FS: But it was partly a failure because the public did not support it.

HH: Well, all right, but to look up from the Omega table-top at Clarendon Road to the row of pictures by Roger, some of which were painted at that time or a yearor two later – that’s what I find almost impossible to understand.

People have asked me over many years how one defines works of art that really matter and if you think in your mind’s eye of a successful piece of Omega – and some of them were awful, it was a kind of kill or cure situation – there was an authenticity about them, with the means fitting the end to an absolutely extraordinary extent. But the paintings had a complete lack of physical sensibility of any kind. It was like someonebeing tone deaf. As a painter I think Roger’s knowledge and ambition made him trip up all the time. Even his sense of tone was uncertain. With time I forgive his pictures less and less, partly because of their effect on other people. Those terrible constipated Duncan Grants of the mid 1930s… I think are very much the fault of Roger. It was rather like Kitaj saying to David Hockney think of the Old Masters and unfortunately he did. I think Duncan had this great lyrical gift which was thrown to the wolves very quickly.

FS: You know that Virginia Woolf, on holiday with Roger and Margery Fry in Greece, remarked that the reason they were both bad painters was their inability to ‘simmer’.

HH: I think that’s very good, they couldn’t simmer and therefore they couldn’t come to the boil. I think it was very useful for me to see that here was this painted table which was very clearly a table but there was a picture that never would be a picture because it lacked all the physical properties of a great work of art. Think of the Sickert that belonged to Roger Fry…

FS: The tube station picture in the Courtauld… (Queen’s Road Station, Bayswater)

HH: The tube station – you see there I would be very happy to feel a certain kind of affinity. That was the opposite of what Roger could or seemed to want to do. He was a complete failure as an artist. You know that marvellous etching by Sickert of Roger lecturing called Visions,Volumes and Recession – it’s the kind of totally visual, physically visual image, entirely to do with the picture plane and what you can and cannot do. It’s an extraordinary piece of work which like lots of his best work could be fitted into European or almost any pictorial representational art at any time. And it was only done as a little sort of squib but it came naturally to him.

What I’m trying to suggest, which is probably art historically quite wrong but it seemed like that at the time, was that Roger’s later pictures, and later Duncan Grant’s and Vanessa Bell’s when they became turgid and immensely careful, depended on the thing seen in a way that nobody during the great periods of representational painting would have countenanced for one second. It took me nearly thirty years to realise that Dutch still lives are made of totally abstract pieces of paint.

The suspicion of art, oddly enough –and this sounds so illogical because it comes from someone who spent his whole life celebrating the artifice of art – was total in his disciples. The sense that there was no colour in Roger’s paintings, or his inability to use it, became a sort of tenet with early Euston Road painters.

FS: So the man who, when lecturing in front of a Crucifixion, referred to ‘this central mass’, totally ignoring what it represented…

HH: Yes, exactly.

FS: …was at the same time unable in his own paintings to allow artifice to operate, he was so dependent on what he was looking at.

HH: That’s exactly what I’m saying. You know his lithographs? You would never think that lithography was a medium that had come to have a physical identity of itsown, if you looked at those. My first serious teacher, Clifford Ellis, adored Roger Fry and spoke about him with great admiration but that remark about his lithographs is a quote from him – he was trying to teach me lithography at the time.

Frances Spalding is the author of Roger Fry: Art and Life and the biographer of Vanessa Bell, John Minton, Duncan Grant and Gwen Raverat, as well of the poet Stevie Smith. Her other books include British Art since 1900, in the Thames & Hudson World of Art series, a  centenary history of Tate and most recently, John Piper, Myfanwy Piper: Lives in Art, published by Oxford UniversityPress. See further,