Frances Spalding studied at Nottingham University 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.
Spalding specializes 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 awarded an Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the Birthday Honours 2005 for services to literature. She is a trustee of the Charleston Trust.
In 1974, Frances Spalding married Julian Spalding.
- Magnificent Dreams: Burne-Jones and the Late Victorians (1978)
- Whistler (1979)
- Roger Fry: Art and Life (1980)
- Vanessa Bell (1983)
- 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 (2004)
- 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.
- "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". UK: 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. Retrieved 10 August 2010.
- The Charleston Trust, Registered Charity no. 1107313 at the Charity Commission