Jeremy Fry

Inventor-engineer whose ingenuity was matched by astonishing energy

Wednesday 27 July 2005 00:00 BST

Handsome, charismatic, with blinding green eyes, the engineer-inventor and entrepreneur Jeremy Fry had astonishing energy and an interest in almost everything. His designs included a car, a "sea truck", a four-wheel-drive wheelchair and a highly successful valve actuator - and he started James Dyson, 23 years his junior, out on his own inventing career. He rebuilt a village in France, moved a palace in India, rescued the Theatre Royal in Bath and reorganised the Northern Ballet Company.

Fry was born in Bristol in 1924, the second son of the last chairman of the Fry's chocolate concern, Cecil Fry, who had enraged the many Fry aunts and cousins by arranging for the sale of the company to Cadbury's, the arch-enemy. Jeremy was educated at Gordonstoun, joined the Royal Air Force and was qualifying to become a pilot in North America when the Second World War ended.

He studied at the Architectural Association under Leonard Manasseh, who became one of his idols, but left before qualifying, to join his brother David in his Frenchay Products Company, producing one-off prototype components for the aviation industry, and to found the Parsenn Car Company, named after his favourite ski-run, to design, build and race a 500cc car. Jeremy also kept a small sailing boat on Hayling Island and went skiing as often as possible, often in parties with Alec Issigonis and other engineers.

The Fry boys' Frenchay Products Company bought a neighbouring iron foundry, where Jeremy Fry found a disused electrically powered water valve and became intrigued by the idea of specialising in the design and manufacture of electro-mechanical valve actuators. He founded Rotork in 1957, and most of its early business was carried out in the Middle East, with valve actuators installed in the hazardous areas of oil refineries, loading jetties and pipelines, so there was a challenge to make the equipment both explosion-proof and waterproof.

One evening, while on a trip in Saudi Arabia, sitting down after work, Fry noticed a puddle accumulating on the seat of the next bench from the condensation caused by the falling temperature; his observations led to a radical redesign of actuators, with a sealed weatherproof and explosion-proof housing. This was the beginning of Rotork's spectacular growth, with businesses or licence agreements in six countries, unusual for such a small company in the early Sixties. Rotork equipment filled a small but critical role in nuclear generating plants. Fry decided to open an assembly plant in the United States. Rather than starting up in a conventional business park, he bought a 40-acre site of marshy wilderness close to Cambridge, Maryland, and would spend nights there trawling for soft-shell crabs on board a skipjack - the only working sailing boat in the US.

As the company developed, Fry started a splinter design group, Rotork Marine, and in 1970, with James Dyson, fresh from the Royal College of Art, designed the Sea Truck, a flat-bottomed boat that used air to reduce friction as it moved through the water. For several months, Fry operated a fleet of Sea Trucks to deliver supplies during the great floods in Bangladesh. Fry and Dyson also worked together on a wheelchair with four-wheel drive and four-wheel steering and on adapting the industrial cyclone separation system into a domestic vacuum cleaner.

The two parted company amicably; Fry was disappointed when the innovative wheelchair design failed to become a commercial success. Dyson went on to make a great success of the vacuum-cleaner business. Dyson credits Fry as his mentor and acknowledges his influence as a designer and an engineer.

Soon after Fry married Camilla Grinling in 1955, they bought Widcombe Manor, a beautiful miniature 18th-century palace of a house on the side of a hill above Bath. They were marvellous hosts and the house became a lodestar; Cecil Beaton and other luminaries would drive 50 miles to tea in the summer and find Camilla with her sewing machine making chair covers, Jeremy clearing rushes from one of the lakes and small children running wild. Tony Armstrong-Jones courted Princess Margaret there, even taking her into Bath on the pillion of Fry's motorbike. Fry became an object of media and public attention when, at the last minute, he dropped out of being the best man at their marriage because of illness.

In addition to Widcombe, in the 1960s Fry bought an uninhabited hamlet, Le Grand Banc, high in the hills of the Luberon in France. Working with local artisans and masons he rebuilt the entire village using the local silver-coloured stone. It was a hidden idyll in the middle of lavender fields and filled with Fry's collection of contemporary pictures and objects. Camilla and he were by now divorced, but Le Grand Banc became a happy centre for the Fry family and his grown-up children's friends each summer.

In 1978 he turned his restless energy to the beautiful old Theatre Royal in Bath, fallen into the last stages of dilapidation, bought it (reputedly for about £150,000), established a trust to restore it and three years later triumphantly reopened an entirely refurbished state-of-the-art theatre with a gala performance in the presence of Princess Margaret.

Soon after, in 1985, he became Chairman of the Arnolfini Gallery, the arts centre in Bristol, and invited the young and at that time unknown architect David Chipperfield to undertake a complete revamp of the building, and the artist Bruce McClean to design the café and bar, with spectacular results. From 1989, Fry was also Chairman of the Northern Ballet Theatre Company based in Manchester and, when the city reduced its funding to the company, he and his trustees moved the whole operation across the Pennines to Halifax. With the dancer Christopher Gable as Artistic Director he helped make the company one of the best known in the country with a reputation for experiment and innovation.

Among many other commitments Fry played an important role in the Duchess of Westminster's Eaton Hall Design Workshops, conceived to help young engineering designers to get started on their careers.

His art project, called Unlimited, and intended to be an antidote to the exclusivity of the sale of art and the whole idea of limited editions, was much more light-hearted. Fry had invested in John Dunbar's London art gallery Indica, which, when it closed in 1967, left Fry with a number of flashing-light "Signals" by the artist Takis. They started to make properly designed and safe Signals to be sold cheaply and in quantity across the counter. (Unlimited even took a stand at the Ideal Home Exhibition.) The irony is that the art objects produced by Unlimited are now collectors' items.

When he was 70, Fry said "I have one more project in me. I want to create a garden that will mature while I am still alive." He had in mind a house and few acres in Sri Lanka but, in the event, wound up on a hillside in Kerala with two coffee plantations, living in a rajah's palace. Cheated by officials and neighbours, bullied by the local labour unions in Kerala, Fry dismantled the palace, trucked it over the Continental Divide to Tamil Nadu and rebuilt it in the middle of a less ambitious spread growing bananas and pepper, and there he spent his last days. He had become thin and frail, suffered several minor strokes and lived the life of a hermit.

He returned to England for medical and dental treatment from time to time and found life increasingly difficult. However, his 80th birthday party, surrounded by friends and admirers in Le Grand Banc last year, was a triumph. Apart from that, on occasions it seemed to his friends that his life had become a misery. Jeremy Fry died peacefully in his sleep in his palace in Tamil Nadu.

Andy Garnett

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