(Relating to a recent exhibition and associated events in Dorset in April/May 2008)
Fra Newbery was a leading figure in British art and design in the twenty years around 1900. As Director of Glasgow School of Art from 1885 to 1918, he made the school one of the major art training institutions in the world. As a painter, he was closely associated with the Glasgow Boys, a group of artists who were part of the European avante-garde in the early 1890s. He was an important figure in the Arts and crafts movement in Scotland and in the later 1890s helped the group of designers around Charles Rennie Mackintosh to achieve international fame. The Glasgow School of Art building which Mackintosh designed in close collaboration with Newbery is everywhere acknowledged as one of the masterpieces of the late nineteenth century architecture.
While the Glasgow phase of Newbery’s career is well documented, it is less well known that he spent over half his lifetime in Dorset, the sum of his early years and then his retirement. He was actually born in Devon, in the village of Membury, but his family moved the few miles into west Dorset when quite young so, when he went to school, it was to Bridport Boys’ General School which under headmaster, John Beard, was one of the best in the south of England at that time. He was a bright pupil and his vocation as a teacher was evidenced early for at 13 he was appointed as a pupil-teacher and further he then signed up for a 6 year apprenticeship to Beard as trainee schoolmaster. During this time he also attended Bridport School of Art and in the process determined to specialise as an art teacher. It was fitting that, on completion of his training in 1875, his first post was as assistant headmaster at this same Bridport School of Art. Here he spent the next 10 years building up his teaching experience and also gaining additional qualifications before moving to London where he worked as art master in several schools while in parallel enhancing his skills by attending evening classes at South Kensington Art Training School. Under the guidance of its principal, Edward Poynter, he learned new art teaching methods and was influenced by a range of gifted European artists on the staff at the school.
So it was that at the end of this comprehensive gestation period, and still only 30, Newbery was appointed headmaster of Glasgow School of Art ( GSA ) in May 1885. His experience and the teaching philosophies acquired, his extrovert personality and his energetic promotion of both the GSA and its students were now to be put to good use in fostering the careers of many famous artists, not least that of Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
His relationship with Mackintosh was on many levels. Primarily, of course, it was as teacher/student and in this sense Newbery had soon recognised Mackintosh’s talent and was able to encourage and enhance that talent both directly and by bringing together the like minds of Mackintosh, McNair and the two MacDonald sisters, while also promoting their various efforts in the wider world. The next crucial phase was the development of the plans for the new Glasgow School of Art, the subsequent competition for the contract and finally the acceptance and realising of Mackintosh’s proposal it seems obvious looking back that Newbery probably favoured Mackintosh from the beginning. In addition to these professional relationships Newbury and Mackintosh and their respective wives, Jessie and Margaret, became firm friends and would take holidays together in places such as Walberswick in Suffolk: Indeed it was to Walberswick that the Mackintoshes went in 1914 to get away from the stresses and strains of his disrupted architectural career in Glasgow, it is even suggested that Mackintosh suffered a nervous breakdown at this point. The Newburys continued in their constant support tor Mackintosh throughout his remaining lifetime as an example, it is quite probable that it was Fra Newbery who suggested Mackintosh to Bassett-Lowke for the 78 Derngate contract.
As the years went on into 1917 and 1918, Newbery’s own time in Glasgow started to come to an end, he himself suffered mental breakdowns which caused him to take long leaves of absence from his work at GSA and this culminated in his retirement in 1919 and within a few years he had settled in Corfe Castle back in Dorset. Some say the depressions he suffered may have been triggered in some measure by his witnessing the decline of his old friend Mackintosh – who knows?
Newbury’s exhibiting career as an artist in his own right effectively began in 1890. He exhibited in London, Munich, Venice, USA and even Santiago in Chile. Many of his paintings were executed while on holidays in various artist colonies in Scotland and England, most notably at Walberswick. In retirement, Newbery entered a new and highly productive phase as an artist, witness the many paintings of the castle in his new home town of Corfe Castle. He also designed the war memorial for that town as well as numerous other pieces for neighbouring churches and towns across Dorset. In particular, he was keen to give something back to the Bridport, the town where his career had begun, and so he arranged to paint a set of murals for the town hall These paintings depict scenes telling something of the history and industry of the town and they remain on permanent display to this day, his gift of gratitude to the town that formed him.
My impression is that Fra Newbery was a highly trained and well-experienced art master, one who could ‘do’ as well as ‘teach’ and one whose objective was to bring out the best in his pupils. In his early years and at the height of his career in Glasgow, his great energy and enthusiasm rubbed off on the students. Not only that, he sought to provide the right conditions in which talent would blossom by bringing together individuals who could then feed off each other for the common good. He had a flair for publicity and recognised the benefit of exhibiting his own and his students’ works on the international stage. In a business-like way, he was able to create the right ambience, garner the necessary funding and assemble a high calibre of teaching staff at the Glasgow School of Art helping to raise it from a position of mediocrity to one of international renown.
It is interesting to speculate whether any of his students, including Charles Rennie Mackintosh, would have achieved the level of respect and fame they have had it not been for Fra Newbery’s considerable influence upon them.
First published in June 2008 In The Friends of 78 Derngate Newsletter Issue 53.
Author: Peter MacIntosh
Transcribed 2019: Barbara Floyer