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Fra Newbery Portrait

Francis Henry Newbery, known as ‘Fra’ Newbery, was born at Membury, Devon, England on 15 May 1855.

After working for his father as a shoe maker until the age of nine, Newbery was educated and later trained to be a teacher at Bridport Boys’ General School and from about 1869 attended the Bridport School of Art, qualifying as an art master two years later.

Newbery and Bridport

The place in which Newbery grew up is possibly key to how he held an unusually open mind to every artist’s perception. Even though he taught art, he was already regarded as a very accomplished painter and sculptor with many commissions in several different styles under his belt by the age of just nineteen. Bridport was one of the very few non-dominated religious towns in the world at the time. In 1850 there was almost every religious group known congregating in one building or another; Catholic, Hindu, Mormon, Quaker, Church of England. In fact there were over thirty different religious groups all living in harmony throughout a population of less than 8,000 and Newbery taught anyone from any religious denomination without prejudice. In a time when religion was still of such immense importance to the greater part of the population in England and there was still an onus to learn how to draw and paint and sculpt various religious subjects. Newbery decided that it was important to teach the skills of the crafts before the subjects and refused to persuade his students to concentrate on the religious aspects of art exclusively although he taught the syllabus to the letter. What he managed to achieve was absolutely revolutionary in education and not just in the teaching of art but also in writing styles, acceptance of other languages and the reading and exploration of several religious subjects in order to compare stories, without incitement to argument. It appears that Newbery had a very calming approach to teaching and in doing so to became influential to the way that many of other art educationalists of the day began to teach.

Early career

The life changer came in May 1872, when Newbery was seventeen. The inheritance from his late uncle included the family’s design and textile empire. Newbery & Co was one of the most important and influential design houses and creators of decorative textile trimmings in the world. It was established in 1782 in Berkshire, England and when Fra inherited it at the age of 17, he soon relocated it to Bridport which was full of the finest rope and net makers. Amongst the rope and net makers were the talented passementerie artisans making decorative ropes and fringing and tassels, Newbery & Co was already widely regarded as ‘the crown jewelers of the global textile industry’ and serviced, as it still does today, the palaces, theatres and stately buildings throughout the British Empire and beyond. Once it was relocated to Newbery’s home town, even though he was spending much of his life in London, the inheritance gave him a financial means that very few other artists enjoyed, hence being able to offer the generous cash prize for the first arts competition.

In 1875 he obtained an appointment as art master at a London secondary school. In the same year, he launched The Newbery Arts Prize and later attracted enough exhibits to fill the auditorium of The Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Science. He continued to worked in London schools until 1882 when he obtained a scholarship to become a Master of Art in Training at the National Art Training School (now the Royal College of Art). By the time he left he was acting as a member of staff, teaching painting, the figure, and architecture.

Glasgow School of Art

In 1885 he was appointed director of the Glasgow School of Art and under his leadership the School developed an international reputation throughout the British Empire and beyond. Francis Henry Newbery was associated with the flourishing of Glasgow ‘Style’ and the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his circle. Under Francis Newbery’s direction the Glasgow School’s prestige grew, both internationally and at home. His reputation as a successful director was enhanced by the high profile of various Glasgow artists from the 1890s until the early years of the 20th century and during that time he was widely charged with the creation and formation of The Art and Crafts Movement.

Jessie and Henry Newbery at Eastgate House in Corfe Castle, Dorset


He retired in 1917 with his wife Jessie, when they returned to Dorset and purchased Eastgate House, in Corfe Castle together with a former chapel and cottages. The chapel became Newbery’s studio and he continued painting until 1932. He died at Corfe Castle on 18 December 1946. Newbery is unquestionably one of the greatest and very much unsung hero of Western design and his influences, philosophies and inspiration is still resonating today.

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