Frances Spalding’s lifelong passion for paintings was sparked, ironically enough, by her music teacher, who was looking to offload her accumulated collection of back issues of Discovering Art magazine.

“I was very pleased, because inside these magazines were high-quality colour pictures of paintings,” she recalls. “I asked my mother if I could cut them up and fill the entire upstairs loo with images. So I was familiar with the history of art before I perhaps knew much about it.”

This daily immersion in her wallpaper of great works paid off when Spalding applied to the University of Nottingham to read Art History.

“When I went for my interview there was a slide test. And I knew absolutely every single one of them! I got them all right, and somebody else came out of the room at the same time as me and said ‘oh, that was so difficult, I didn’t know any of them,’ so I sort of said ‘oh it was ok’. Because I saw them every day.”

Now an Emeritus Fellow at Clare Hall, Spalding is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Art. She has combined her role as a Professor of Art History, teaching for 15 years at the University of Newcastle, with a prolific career as a critic, writer and biographer, having written the lives of artists Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell, John Minton, Duncan Grant, John and Myfanwy Piper and, of particular interest to Darwinians, Gwen Raverat, as well as the poet Stevie Smith. In 2005 she was made a CBE for Services to Literature.

Her breakthrough moment, as she remembers it, came on a visit to an exhibition of Edwardian art in Bradford, while based in Sheffield owing to her husband’s role at the city’s art gallery. Living in Sheffield placed her in easy reach of regional galleries in Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool and Hull, all of which had significant collections of British art, in which much civic pride had been invested.

“I was doing my PhD on Roger Fry, who came into his own through the Victorian and Edwardian period, and I didn’t know much about the Edwardian period from the point of view of art. But along came this exhibition of Edwardian art in Bradford. So we went to see it and I found myself saying ‘I want to write about this’. And my husband said ‘please do, because the critics don’t like leaving London unless it’s something really important.’”

The resultant piece was published by Arts Review, and Spalding can still feel the thrill of seeing it in print.

“I went into the art school where I was a Research Assistant, teaching three hours a week and reading for a PhD at the same time, and I saw a fresh copy of this magazine. I opened it up and there was my name under a 300-word piece. I was so proud!”

That review was the first of many, and Spalding rapidly became sufficiently expert in 20th century British art to write a book on the subject. Thames & Hudson commissioned British Art Since 1900, subsequently included in the Thames & Hudson World of Art series, which sold well and was used in schools, colleges and universities. At the same time, her PhD on the painter and critic Roger Fry had been published as Roger Fry: Art and Life, signalling her interest in the wider Bloomsbury Group. In addition, Quentin Bell, nephew of Virginia Woolf, had recently published a two-volume biography of his aunt.

“It was a revelation to people, and gave Virginia Woolf a huge burst of interest,” says Spalding. “Because people suddenly got to see inside the life of this extraordinary writer. But even Quentin Bell said little about her sister and Vanessa Bell remained a somewhat silent figure within the Bloomsbury Group. And few knew at that stage how important her modernist pictures would come to be regarded as.”

While revisiting the archives at King’s College with the notion of attempting a monograph on Vanessa Bell, Spalding had a chance conversation with a librarian and learnt that not one but two Americans had expressed an interest in writing Bell’s biography. Hearing that this opportunity had arisen and that Quentin Bell had asked both of them to submit trial chapters of his mother’s life, Spalding realised that “I wanted to do this more than anything in the whole world”. She decided to remake direct contact with Quentin Bell, and  rang him that evening to ask if she too could enter the competition for the job.

“In those days, in the telephone boxes, you had to put your coins in and then press a button to make them drop, with a clunk into the box. So I got a sort of tower of coins and went into the Market Square in the evening, when it was quiet, and started to ring Quentin Bell and explain. And he said well, I’m looking at two other presentations, perhaps you should write a chapter too, and I’ll consider you at the same time. But you must ask my sister, Angelica Garnett, if she approves. So then I had to get more coins, and make more phone calls, in a not particularly nice smelling public telephone box. But in the end I got the job and that was a tremendous breakthrough and a wonderful thing.”

Spalding’s 1983 biography of Bell, still the definitive rendering of the artist’s life, paved the way for a succession of acclaimed biographies. She describes the process of getting under someone else’s skin for this purpose as ‘laborious’, but it clearly offers a uniquely rewarding opportunity for a meeting of minds.

“I like biography because it’s polyphonic. It’s not just your voice – you’re also listening to what other people have said about your subject, and you have to read letters and diaries with great care as to what is and is not being said. It’s important to let your subject’s own voice be heard.”

The repetition of this process has resulted in a mental scrapbook of comments and quotes, internal souvenirs from the lives she has recreated on the page.

“I do find that I carry around in my head bizarre little bits and pieces that you never quite forget. For instance when Vanessa Bell suddenly says in one letter ‘I think neatness is the thing to aim for in middle age.’ I’m often going to a party and thinking now what the heck can I wear and then am reminded of her words.”

As a long-term devotee of the Darwin Lecture Series, Spalding was gratifyingly pleased to be asked to contribute, even if the topic of revolution gave her brief pause for thought.

“Of course what springs to mind is the Russian Revolution and the French Revolution …. so there was a slight wariness that it wasn’t my subject area as it were. But then I realised that art is full of revolutionary spirit and it constantly challenges how we see things and what we’re prepared to accept as a method of representation. So it really does turn the world upside down.”

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