Also known as
Ella J. Osborn Robinson,
Ella Fry was painter, teacher, printmaker and pianist whose prints had a dark, almost surrealist quality reflecting the uncertain times in which she lived. She lived a full life as an artist, musician and producer for the ABC.
painter, printmaker and pianist, was born in Brisbane on 13 May 1916 and educated at the Brisbane Girls’ Grammar School. Ella Robinson’s formal art training began with an apprenticeship to Morden & Bentley, a local commercial art firm, in about 1934. In 1935 she moved to Sydney and studied art and music concurrently, attending the National Art School at East Sydney Technical College in 1936-39 and the Sydney Conservatorium of Music in 1936-40. In 1940 she returned to Brisbane and held an exhibition of paintings and drawings with Vera Cottew and Muriel Foote ( Shaw ) from which the Queensland National Art Gallery purchased Ella’s self portrait. Over the following years, she exhibited her paintings and prints regularly, often through the Royal Queensland Art Society. Her series of linocuts, Interpretations of Music by Moussorgsky (1942), was purchased by the Queensland Gallery from the 1942 annual exhibition of the Royal Art Society of Queensland in Brisbane. (The National Gallery of Australia has another copy, purchased 1989.) Gnomus 1941 (6.2 × 11.5 cm, inscr. l.r. 'Gnomus’, l.r. 'Ella J. Robinson/1941’) is the first print in the 1941-2 series inspired to illustrate Pictures at an Exhibition , a suite by the Russian composer Modeste Moussorgsky (1839-81) who himself had been inspired by a memorial exhibition of watercolours and drawings by his friend Victor Hartmann (1834-73). She owned a copy of Moussorgsky’s score (Art Gallery of Western Australia) with the following preface:
'It is a serie [sic] of ten pieces, each bearing the name of a picture, the impression of which the composer has tried to translate into music. The Prelude and Interludes, each entitled PROMENADE, consist of one theme with variations which conveys the idea of the composer strolling amongst the pictures.’
A list of the ten pieces and a description of each image follows. The subjects fall into three categories: images such as Tuileries: Children Quarrelling at Play and The Market Place at Limoges inspired by Hartmann’s travels, images derived from traditional Russian folklore such as Hut of the Baba-Yaga (a witch in Russian mythology) and architectural studies and general sketches. Hartmann was one of the most important architectural figures within the 'Balakirev’ circle which, through the use of techniques and images from peasant handcrafts, folk song and legend and the traditions of medieval Russia, sought to establish a 'Slavonic renaissance’. Many of his drawings included in his 1874 memorial exhibition incorporated such traditional references. Fry, however, had not seen any reproductions of Hartmann’s paintings. Wishing to make a visual interpretation of the music she was playing at the time, she based her designs solely on the brief descriptions given in Moussorgsky’s score. That for Gnomus is 'a drawing representing a dwarf, who totters with faltering steps on his little legs’. Her dwarf is walking down a long dark corridor. Spot-lit in an open doorway, he hesitates, perhaps startled, and as if unsure whether to continue along the corridor or change direction towards the light source. This unknown element creates a foreboding atmosphere and implies a malevolent presence. Whether the source of this malevolence is the dwarf or something unseen by all except the dwarf is not clear. Strongly cast shadows play a major part in this image, indeed, in more than half of the ten images in the series. Used to suggest the presence of a figure or force just beyond the picture frame, this gives them a personal, darkly atmospheric continuity.
Fry’s images were unusual in the context of Australian printmaking at the time, normally characterised by the decorative work of artists such as Margaret Preston and Thea Proctor . There is, however, a visual and thematic link between these dark images and the distinctly Australian brand of Surrealism that emerged, in part, as a reaction to the horrors of World War II. A similar tone is evident in some of the works of artists like Russell Drysdale , Peter Purves-Smith and James Cant , whose dark and foreboding images were personal expressions of the pervasive uncertainty and fear of the era. Redolent with cultural references, Ella Fry’s prints are primarily highly individualistic expressions that represent a culmination of her personal interest in music and art. Informed by contemporary social issues, they can also be read against the broader backdrop of Australian art during World War II.
In 1943-45 Ella Robinson taught music and art at the Tamworth Church of England Girls School. Her musical career was also maintained. In addition to frequent piano recitals and solo performances she produced radio broadcasts for the ABC until 1948. In 1945 she married Melville Fry. Two years later, they moved to Perth where her dual career continued under the name of Ella Fry. Her involvement in the visual arts expanded in 1956 when she was appointed to the Board of Trustees of the Art Gallery of Western Australia. She was Vice-Chair of the Board from 1970 and Chair in 1976-86. In 1983 she was awarded the CBE. Ella Fry died on 17 May 1997 – in Brisbane according to Butler (although she was still living in Perth when contacted re Heritage in 1995). She is represented in the National Gallery of Australia, Queensland Art Gallery and the Art Gallery of Western Australia, as well as in numerous university, regional and private collections.