Anthony Fry, who has died aged 89, was a figurative painter who rejoiced in light, colour and what the critic Bryan Robertson once described as “sensuous fantasy”.
Fry was greatly influenced by the American abstract expressionists, notably Mark Rothko and Morris Louis. But although his canvasses had the meditative quality of a Rothko colourscape, he worked within the traditional figurative genres of landscape, portraiture and the nude, and his work was underpinned by a solid foundation in drawing.
Fry’s art celebrated the deeper forces which unite our common experience: love, in all its manifestations, and life in its richness, were his subjects. He worked this broad sweep of material into focus through an immediately recognisable language of touch and pigment. Wrestled with, repeatedly erased and reattempted, his marks accumulated accuracy until he was satisfied. “Just when I feel like giving up I rub it all out and discover what I hoped for was somehow there underneath all the time,” he once explained.
Anthony Matthew Lewis Fry was born on June 6 1927 at Theydon Bois, Essex, the eldest and only son of five children of Dr Lewis Fry and his formidable wife Margaret. If there was an intriguing seam of the patrician in his person and possessions, both were probably inherited from his Fry forbears (the chocolate-making Quakers J S Fry & Sons) in Bristol. Fry was a cousin of the art critic and Bloomsbury Group painter Roger Fry, although he was once quoted as saying that he “hated” Fry’s paintings: “We in the family thought they were ghastly.”
After attending the Downs, a prep school near Malvern where he was taught English by W H Auden and painting by Maurice Feild, Tony progressed to Bryanston and continued to study painting at Edinburgh College of Art and then at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts under William Coldstream, Victor Pasmore and Laurence Gowing.
As a young man his paintings of dancing figures, captured in vigorous strokes of earth colours, earned him the Prix de Rome in 1950, and were described by the art historian and critic John Russell as “one of the most individual achievements of British painting in the 1950s”.
In 1954 he joined the London Group of painters, showing successfully at the Leicester Galleries alongside Terry Frost, Ivon Hitchens and his teacher and mentor Duncan Grant. During this period he also began to teach, initially at Camberwell Art School. He subsequently joined the distinguished group of artists then teaching at the Bath Academy at Corsham, including Terry Frost, Peter Lanyon, William Scott and Howard Hodgkin (who was also Fry’s cousin). By now he was installed nearby, in what was to become his lifelong home, with his young wife Barbara, with whom he had two children.
The Rome prize took Fry to Italy where in the tonic light of the south he found new clarity, a new palette, and discovered a new cuisine and where he was to eventually build a little house overlooking the sea on the Monte Argentario.
The award of a Harkness Fellowship in 1961 led him abroad again, this time to the United States for two years. By now he was showing his work in London and New York, going on to exhibit regularly whenever he accumulated enough “pictures” (as he and his friend Craigie Aitchison preferred to call the paintings) to satisfy his eager collectors, who learnt to pounce. To come late to his private views meant almost inevitable frustration.
As is often true of painters who combine technical precision and a sensual nature, Fry excelled in the kitchen. He cared almost as much about his regular and various productions at the stove as for his work, pinned upon the wall or laid on newspaper or on a board across his knees in his studio at the top of the house. His preferred evening tipple was a “sundowner” – two fingers of vodka, a dash of Campari and a little tonic, the ice cubes reflectively stirred with his middle finger.
Drawn ever deeper south to a brighter light, Fry painted in Malta, Spain, Morocco and latterly in India, where, from the early 1990s, he wintered in Cochin for roughly a decade, and painted, in sumptuous colour, the fruit-laden orange groves and banana trees as well as the camel, the wild pig, the elephant and the crocodile, in pictures filled with anthropomorphic possibility. In Cochin he found a profoundly satisfying spiritual connection with the relationship between the deities, humans and nature.
“I always think that what I am doing at the moment is the best thing ever,” Fry once said. “When a painting is flowing, it is a mind-to-brush activity. You are mixing paint and putting it on canvas in a complete flow of the unconscious. Those are the jewel moments one is struggling for.”
Fry’s romantic life was complicated. He married, in 1951, Barbara Harris, who died in 1968. In 1992 he married Sabrina Carver, who embraced his world, peopled with friends, fellow artists, inventors, collectors and all his children. She predeceased him.
He is survived by a son and a daughter from his first marriage, and two sons from previous relationships.
Anthony Fry, born June 6 1927, died November 5 2016.