Visitors entering the Fry Gallery will find in the lobby a Victorian bust of the Rt. Hon, Lewis Fry, MP for Bristol executed in 1882 by James Havard Thomas, and perhaps wonder why he is there in “a shrine to my favourite Essex artists” (to quote Grayson Perry).
The answer is that it is largely because of his decisions that we are here now. The story begins in the 1830s when Francis Gibson, a wealthy Saffron Walden businessman created a fine garden on land adjacent to his house in the High Street. This successful project (Bridge End Garden, which now merits Grade 2 Registered Garden status), was completed in 1840. In 1857 Gibson additionally built on the path to the garden, behind a very unpretentious door, what Olive Cook describes as ”a perfect two-roomed miniature example of Victorian museum architecture” to house his collection of 17th century Dutch Masters. Gibson died aged 53 the following year, leaving a widow and two children. His daughter, Elizabeth, who in 1858 had married Lewis Fry, (at that time a solicitor in his home town of Bristol), subsequently inherited the family estate on her mother’s death in 1866.
That the fusion of the East Anglian based Gibson family with the West Country Fry family was an important development, was shown in 1866 when Elizabeth and Francis took the decision to retain the Garden and Gallery, while remaining in Bristol, and furthermore to allow public access to both. This was a generous decision, and it was confirmed in 1870 on Elizabeth’s death aged 40, when Francis opted to continue this practice, although by then there was no direct familial connection with the town. It would appear that he maintained the Garden at his own expense when in 1918, at the age of 86 he wrote to Saffron Walden Borough Council saying he was no longer able to keep the Garden open to the public and offered to lease the Garden to them. For the third time he chose to keep the land, and its public access, instead of realising his asset. The Borough Council accepted the offer of a maintenance lease, and this state of affairs happily continues to this day.
Lewis Fry, who was a Liberal Member of Parliament for 19 years, and who rendered great service in Bristol, including being among the founders of the present University, died in 1921. His importance to the Gallery was recognised in the change of name from Gibson to Fry for the gallery building which was made in 1985 when the Fry Art Gallery Society was formed and after it had been granted a rent-free lease by the third Fry generation in succession intent on continuing the tradition of public access.