‘Character sketches’: drawings by Fred Roe 1900 -1945

Sir Aston Webb signing the minutes
by Fred Roe
16 January 1924
NPG D43147

The artist Fred Roe (1864-1947) assembled two albums of ‘Character sketches’ between 1900 and 1945, containing portraits of Roe’s friends, colleagues and acquaintances. Many of these are drawn in pencil on menu cards and table plans and other ephemera, giving us a vivid sense of the portraits' context. A number of portraits were signed, not only by Roe, but also by the sitter. As well as portraits sketched at social events, a substantial number of portraits and comic sketches were made during committee meetings for the Artists' General Benevolent Institution and the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours. The albums therefore depict the social and professional circles of a London artist in London in the first half of the twentieth century

Roe used the albums as a filing system, allowing him to retrieve sketches and have them reproduced in publications, sometimes alongside the sitter’s obituary. He annotated the album pages with the sitter’s biographical information, and in one case, even jotted down the sitter's birthday. The albums were extensively annotated by Roe’s son, the art historian F. Gordon Roe; they were generously donated to the NPG by his daughter, the artist (Eleanor) Frances Gordon Maynard (née Roe).

Learn more about Fred Roe

Alfred Frederic Roe was born on 8 May, 1864 in Cambridge, the youngest son of Robert Roe (1793-1880), an engraver, miniaturist and print-seller. His mother was Maria Plees, the daughter of a Suffolk vicar. Fred’s two older brothers were both clerics and amateur painters.

Fred Roe initially studied horse-painting, but soon moved to London to study in John Seymour Lucas’ studio. His first exhibited picture was a 'costume piece' – a painting of a historical scene in period dress – which was shown at the Royal Institute of Oil Painters (ROI) in 1885. Roe went on to specialise in costume pieces; the period room settings shown in his paintings led him to develop a formidable knowledge of historic oak furniture, he published widely on this subject, and was recognised as an expert. He first exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1887, and he continued to show there until a few years of his death in 1947. He also showed at other principal London and provincial centres, as well as at the Paris Salon, the Rome International (1911), Toronto, and other overseas galleries.

He served for many years as a Member of Council of both the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour, and of the Artists' General Benevolent Institution. He also belonged to the Arts Club, Royal British-Colonial Society, the Royal Society of British Artists, the Artworkers’ Guild, the Kernoozers’ Club (historic arms and armour), the Meyrick Society and the Essex Archaeological Society. Fred Roe married, in 1890, Letitia Mabel Lee (1869-1940), the elder daughter of Sydney Williams Lee F.R.I.B.A. (1841-1917). His son, Frederic Gordon Roe, was an art historian, and Editor of the Connoisseur Magazine.

Other material relating to Fred Roe in the National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery has several paintings, and one drawing by Fred Roe, as well as the ‘Character Sketches’ albums.

2420 Sir Coleridge Grove (oil). Given by Reginald Grundy, 1921

4123 Nathaniel Louis Cohen (oil sketch). Given by the artist's son, Frederic Gordon Roe, 1959

4168 Sir (Edward) Guy Dawber (oil sketch). Given by the artist’s son, Frederic Gordon Roe, 1960

4367 King Edward VII (pencil). Given by the artist's son, Frederic Gordon Roe, 1964.

The oil sketches 4123 and 4168 were preparatory works for a proposed painting ‘Alan Cobham Responds’, and are connected to D43178a and D43178 and their associated ephemera in ‘Character sketches’ Volume 1. The project was commissioned by Sir Charles Wakefield, but was abandoned at Roe’s request due to difficulty in obtaining sittings from those present at the event.

The NPG Registered Packet for each of the four NPG works contains some correspondence with the artist, relating to their acquisition.

Other sources of information about Fred Roe

Fred Roe’s artist day books are held in the archive of the Royal Academy. They provide information about his professional activities, which dovetail with the ‘Character Sketches albums.

GB/0397 Royal Academy of Arts Archive. >RO Roe Ledgers 1885-1947

“Volumes covering the whole of Roe's career. In them he lists his works, purchases, prices, dates of sittings and expenses. They also contain miscellaneous sketches and cuttings, and have been extensively annotated by F. Gordon Roe, mainly with notes about the Roe family and persons whose portraits Roe painted.”

In addition, the Royal Academy holds an archive of the Royal Academy Club, at whose events many of Roe’s portraits were drawn.

GB/0397 Royal Academy of Arts Archive. RAA Royal Academy of Arts, official archive 1768-2001 >RAA/CLB Royal Academy Dining Club 1769-present

Paintings by Fred Roe in the national collections are viewable on the BBC website ‘Your Paintings’.