Frances Crabtree studied at the University of Nottingham and gained her PhD for a study of Roger Fry. She taught art history at Sheffield City Polytechnic before becoming a freelance writer and curator. She returned to academic work to take up the post of professor of Art History at Newcastle University. In 1974, Crabtree married Julian Spalding.
Spalding specialises in 20th-century British art, biography and cultural history and her work includes 15 major books, essays, criticism and reviews. She curated the 2003 exhibition "John Piper in the 1930s: Abstraction on the Beach" at Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London. She has also written a study of poet Stevie Smith and a biography of John and Myfanwy Piper. When reviewing John Piper, Myfanwy Piper: Lives in Art, The Independent said of Spalding "At her scintillating best, she is both a brilliant encapsulator and shrewd summer-up; above all, an enthusiast and advocate whose wisdom makes you eager for her subject." 
Spalding was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1984. She was appointed as Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the Birthday Honours 2005 for services to literature. She is a trustee of the Charleston Trust.
- Magnificent Dreams: Burne-Jones and the Late Victorians (1978)
- Whistler (1979)
- Vanessa Bell (1979, ISBN 0 2977 8162 6)
- Roger Fry: Art and Life (1980)
- — (2016) . Vanessa Bell: Portrait of the Bloomsbury Artist. I.B.Tauris. ISBN 978-1-78453-241-3.
- British Art since 1900 (1986)
- Stevie Smith: A Critical Biography (1988)
- 20th Century Painters and Sculptors: Dictionary of British Art (1990)
- Dance Till the Stars Come Down: A Biography of John Minton (1991)
- Virginia Woolf: Paper Darts: the Illustrated Letters (ed) (1991)
- Duncan Grant: A Biography (1997)
- The Tate: A History (1998)
- Ravilious in Public: A Guide to Works by the Artist in Public Collections (2002)
- John Piper in the 1930s: Abstraction on the Beach (2003)
- Gwen Raverat: Friends, Family and Affections (2001)
- The Bloomsbury Group, National Portrait Gallery Insights (2005)
- John Piper, Myfanwy Piper: Lives in Art, Oxford University Press (2009, ISBN 978-0-19-956761-4)
- Spalding, Frances (June 2011). "The contemporaneous past: reviving native traditions, in modern ways". Australian Book Review. 332: 16–17.
- Review of: Harris, Alexandra. Romantic moderns: English writers, artists and the imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper. Thames & Hudson. ISBN 9780500251713.
- "Spalding, Prof. Frances". Who's Who 2013. A & C Black, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing. 2013. Retrieved 12 January 2013. Oxford University Press, December 2012; online edition, November 2012.
- "John Piper in the 1930s – Abstraction on the Beach". Studio International]. Retrieved 14 February 2014.
- Roderic Dunnett (20 November 2009). "John Piper, Myfanwy Piper: lives in art, By Frances Spalding". The Independent. Retrieved 15 February 2014.
- "Royal Society of Literature: All Fellows". Royal Society of Literature. Archived from the original on 5 March 2010. Retrieved 10 August 2010.
- Charity Commission. The Charleston Trust, registered charity no. 1107313.
- Malvern, Jack (7 October 2016). "Editor quits oldest art magazine after brush with staff". The Times. Retrieved 25 July 2019.
- "Vanessa Bell by Frances Spalding". Goodreads. Retrieved 12 January 2016.