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The Crimson Bookshelf

REFLECTIONS ON BRITISH PAINTING, by Roger Fry, New York; Macmillan.

By W. E. H.

ROGER FRY, who died last year, was the Slade Professor of Art at Oxford. He was an ubiquitous figure in the world of art and had been so ever since he changed his allegiance from science to art (he went down from the University with a science degree), but though his artistic taste was catholic, he was never the more dilettante or amateur: he brought to the criticism of art a precision of perception that made his judgments always worthy of consideration, even when they seemed to one to be wrong. For he was imbued with the scientific spirit: the search for right reason before authority.

In this book, which consists of lectures delivered in connection with the Exhibition of British Art at Burlington House in January 1934, Fry was faced with the acid test of his career. The British Isles have never fostered or produced the kind of distinction in the graphic and plastic arts which one would ordinarily expect, in view of the success of English poetry.

Only an aesthetic blackguardism, Fry proceeds to show, will find any English artists of absolutely the first rank except in architecture. "In Wren we did produce, as it seems to me, the greatest artistic personality of our nation--a man that one can put beside the great Italians and perhaps above any of the French." Of course, dissent will be forthcoming; what about Hogarth? Hogarth "was a propagandist for morals, and the propagandists never even wants to discover the truth; he is in too great a hurry to makes his case against the fools and the wicked, having, as a rule, no idea how like the fools and the wicked are to the wise and good." As for Sir Joshua Reynolds, who "hoped that British Art would take its place in the European tradition and achieve what he called the grand style," "one is tempted to take his mastery for granted," forgetting that "he learned to imitate the final results of mastery without going through the preliminaries." Still Fry is not altogether unmindful of the virtues of Sir Joshua--he began has critical life with an edition of the "Discourses"--he reminds us that Reynolds "at least took his art seriously--he at least set the example of a high standard of artistic conscience." Not everybody will agree with Fry that the portrait of Lord Heathfield is Reynold's masterpiece, but everybody will be glad to read his tribute to Gainsborough, whom he salutes as an artist unique in the XVIIIth century, who "saw and felt plastically." Even Macaulay's schoolboy must have been struck by the curious inability of the XVIIITH century to draw a Gothic tower that did not look "faked," perhaps Gainsborough's realism came from his scepticism about the validity of the laws of the school. "When Sir Joshua declared that the main mass of a picture could not be blue" he painted the "Blue Boy," perhaps his best-known work. Blake, of course, is the ideal artistic anarchist, "an almost perfect example of the visionary," and Fry does not warm up to him, for "he was the victim, but a very happy victim, of a well-recognized form of mental discase."

Lawrence was a master, despite his faults, and Wilkie was at all events competent, as were Bonington, Elty, and Crome or Cotman, to name a few others. One must remember that competence is almost a pejorative term in criticism, if connotes the damnation of faint praise. Turner was once one of the gods of Fry's idolatry, so his remarks here, though just to this reviewer, may seem to some idol-demolition. Fry recovers, however, from any suggestion of mere pique, with his laudation of Constable: "Constable, like Gainsborough, belongs to the great European tradition of design." We are thus reminded that the whole aim of Fry's life was to build up an artistic tradition n England, to put her in the front rank of artistic as she was of military powers, so that her culture might keep pace with her civilization. Oxford may have a functionary called the Buskin Master of Drawing, there may be a National Portrait Gallery and a Royal Academy, but England is not. Fry maintained, so hospitable to the arts as she ought to be. His last book may contribute, in small measure, to rouse the British lion from the slumbers of Philistinism.

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