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The Artist Helen Coombe (1864–1937): The Tragedy of Roger Fry's Wife

The Artist Helen Coombe (1864–1937): The Tragedy of Roger Fry's Wife


This fascinating book presents the first biography of Helen Coombe, a woman admired not only for her artistic skill, but also for her intellect, personality and wit. It reveals her family background and education, her place in the Arts and Crafts Movement and her outstanding artistic output.


Helen Coombe was married to Roger Fry, an artist who was to achieve most fame as an art critic, historian and protagonist of the Bloomsbury Group. Soon after their marriage in 1896, she displayed symptoms of schizophrenia. After the first episode, she temporarily resumed her career and had two children with Fry, but for the last thirty years of her life she was sectioned under the Lunacy Act and committed to an institution.


This thoroughly researched book makes full use of archival material, including correspondence, diaries and medical records. It illuminates late Victorian and Edwardian society and culture. It throws new light, by no means all of it favourable, on Roger Fry. It is a ‘must’ for all interested in the Bloomsbury Group, art history, and the handling of mental illness at a time before efficacious antipsychotic drugs were available.

  • By Martin Ferguson Smith

    October 2023

    Hardback, 234 x 156 mm 

    328 pages, approx. 72 illus. 

    ISBN: 978-1-913645-53-3

  • About the author

    Martin Ferguson Smith, OBE, MA, MLitt, LittD, FSA, FRGS, FRHistS is Emeritus Professor of Classics at Durham University. His books include Dearest Jean: Rose Macaulay’s Letters to a Cousin (2011, 2017) and In and out of Bloomsbury: Biographical Essays on Twentieth-Century Writers and Artists (2021, 2023). As a classicist he is best known for his work on Lucretius and his discovery of thousands of words of the philosophical inscription set up by the Epicurean Diogenes at Oinoanda in southern Turkey around AD 130. He lives in contented isolation on the island of Foula in Shetland.

  • In the press

    "Martin Ferguson Smith’s fine book poignantly evokes Helen Coombe’s tragic life while also richly celebrating her creative talent."—The British Art Journal

    "a compelling and meticulously researched biography"—Virginia Woolf Bulletin

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