Published  22/07/2009

Beyond Bloomsbury: Designs of the Omega Workshops, 1913–19

Beyond Bloomsbury: Designs of the Omega Workshops, 1913–19

Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, London
18 June–20 September 2009


Beyond Bloomsbury: Designs of the Omega Workshops, 1913-19 offers an opportunity for the work of the Omega Workshop to be seen in the most comprehensive form to date, and for the contribution of Roger Fry (1866-1934) scholar, critic and impresario to be fully recognised. The Omega project represents a moment in the history of British art when theorists and artists worked together in the application of modernist principles to craft and design; Omega was established in the summer of 1913. Many avant-garde artists were employed. A range of products was created inspired by European contemporary art, from clothing to rugs, linens to ceramics and furniture.

The Workshops in 33 Fitzroy Square, London offered a Fauve shawl, a Post-Impressionist chair, or a Cubist gown. Mainstream Edwardian culture and aesthetics were greatly challenged by the Omega Workshop’s approach to art and life. It is most appropriate for the reappraisal of the Omega Workshops to take place at the Courtauld Institute of Art. In 1930 Roger Fry wrote in the Burlington Magazine a letter showing his full support for the establishment of a school for the study of the history of art in London; his admiration of Samuel Courtauld was reciprocated. Courtauld, ‘regarded Fry as the model of an outward-looking and publicly engaged scholar; both men shared a belief in the social necessity of art and the obligations that this imposed on those who owned, cared for and studied it”.1 Fry died two years after the Courtauld Institute opened. He bequeathed much of his collection to the Home House Society (now the Samuel Courtauld Trust) – paintings by the Bloomsbury artists, his collection of African and Oceanic wooden carvings, Chinese artefacts and European contemporary painting. A number of Omega ceramics was also included. When his daughter Pamela Diamand died in 1958 the collection was transformed when she bequeathed 100 design drawings from the Omega Workshops. The catalogue that accompanies the exhibition reproduces all of the drawings, many for the first time.

Roger Fry was the most influential individual in the introduction of modern art to England in the early years of the twentieth century. He was a scholar of Italian art, art critic to the Athenaeum, and well -known as a lecturer in art history. In 1906 he became the Curator of Paintings, and then, the European Advisor to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In 1909 he accepted the position of editor of the Burlington Magazine; from 1910 he became a key figure of the Bloomsbury Group. In the same year he organised the exhibition, Manet and the Post-Impressionists at the Grafton Galleries in London. The exhibition organised by Fry introduced the British public to large numbers of work by Cézanne, Matisse, Seurat, Van Gogh and Picasso and caused a public outrage. The exhibition of over 200 works was anchored to Manet, who had already become acceptable in England. He was represented by eight oil paintings, including Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère, (1882) and a pastel drawing. The central figures were Gauguin, Van Gogh and Cézanne, with works by Seurat, Signac, Cross, Redon, Denis, Sérusier, Vallotton, Vlaminck, Rouault, Derain, Matisse and Picasso. For purposes of convention, they were called Post-Impressionists, after terms such as ‘expressionists’ were rejected.

The public and the press were angry partly because of the sheer size of the exhibition, and because they felt they had been betrayed, by a leading connoisseur, whom they had trusted. By introducing this work in Britain, Fry seemingly destroyed his reputation as an art critic. Desmond MacCarthy who was secretary of the show wrote: ‘kind people called him mad, and reminded others that his wife was in an asylum. The majority declared him to be a subverter of morals and art, and a blatant self-advertiser’.2 Virginia Woolf recalls that the public in 1910 was thrown into paroxysms of rage and laughter.3 The pictures, they insisted, could not be taken seriously. They were: ‘outrageous, anarchistic and childish’.4 The works by Cézanne were compared to the scribbles of small children. Ricketts exclaimed: ‘Why talk of the sincerity of all this rubbish’, and his view that the works on show were the works of madmen, was supported by eminent doctors.5 Fry’s response was: ‘There has been nothing like this outbreak of militant Philistinism since Whistler’s day’.6 The press had a field day. The general consensus was that the works exhibited by Roger Fry were perverse and hideous. They displayed no element of skill, sensitivity or truth to nature, and ignored the established canons of beauty. (The New Age, London, December 1910)

In the face of highly personal criticism, Fry received support and enthusiasm from his Bloomsbury friends, and other young artists who found the show refreshing. For Vanessa Bell, for example, the exhibition and the public reaction to it, was exciting and dramatic. It confirmed her feelings that as an artist she could be detached from the rest of society (for British Society, in her view did not understand art) and possibly contributed to the limitations she placed upon her associations and friendships, which in turn, she portrayed in her painting. Sir William Rothenstein observed that Fry became, ‘the central figure, round whom the more advanced young English painters grouped themselves’.7 This meant more to Fry than winning the acceptance of the art establishment for whom, by this stage, he held little respect.

The exhibition introduced the work of Cézanne, Matisse and Gauguin and was a turning point in British art. In his writing and through his friendships, Fry encouraged artists to relinquish any aspect of their painting that was associated with literary ideas and to work at the expressive potential of pure form. He claimed that in the new conception of art, decorative elements were more important than representational elements. In the work of the Post-Impressionist artists, Fry saw the renunciation of descriptive detail, which tied art to an illusion of the real world. The severe forms in Cézanne appealed to Fry’s Quaker upbringing, which had favoured simplicity, asceticism and intellectual rigour, and a distrust of embellishment and ostentation. His scientific training made his approach to art analytical and he was anxious to discover order and stability in visual terms. Fry regarded art as a means of searching for reality and he looked forward to introducing Post-Impressionist art to Britain with a missionary zeal.

Vanessa Bell (née Stephen) was a key, supporting figure in the establishment of Omega. She has been described as, ‘the matriarch of Bloomsbury’ because of her ability to organise the practical concerns of life8. Her ideas about taste and interior design encouraged Fry. She believed that the English were unable to appreciate simplicity or boldness in design. In a number of letters to Roger Fry in 1912 she expressed her opinions about British taste and decorative art9. She observed that English taste was for discreet, expensive and complicated patterning, devoid of gaiety and freshness.

During the summer of 1912 Vanessa and Clive Bell visited Bell’s parents in Wiltshire. Vanessa Bell described to Fry how depressed their wealthy tastelessness made her feel. She felt the English could not escape ‘fatal prettiness’.10 She found conventional taste stifling for she often associated it with her claustrophobic Victorian upbringing. When she and her sister (Virginia Woolf) moved from Kensington to Bloomsbury in 1904 she had painted the walls white in contrast to the dark, intricate Morris wallpapers and dark paintwork in her parents’ house. She related simplicity and gaiety in the decoration of houses and objects with personal freedom which she believed led to a better family life, more rewarding friendships and, for her the capacity to work hard at her painting. Her enthusiasm too, with her fellow Bloomsbury Group members, for the light and warmth in Italy and France, made England seem ‘too dreary for words’. The fact that her life by this stage included two small children meant that, in her own view, it was quite impractical to live in an elegant manner. If she were to continue painting while she had maternal responsibilities, then life had to be simplified, and she cared less and less for tidiness or conventional appearances. Her attitudes gave strength to Roger Fry’s plans for the establishment of workshops that were to enable artists to broaden their range of activities and further the cause of post-impressionism. It is important too, to realise that the Omega Workshops really were enjoyable and social – a contrast to endless difficulties in surviving commercially as artists. Friendship was a key unifying factor.

In May 1913 the Omega Workshops were formally established with Roger Fry, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell as directors. It was a limited company, with shareholders, employees and a number of subcontracted craftsmen producing wares, offsite from original Omega pieces. At the height of their production artists included (with Bell and Grant): Wyndham Lewis, Frederick Etchells, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Winifred Gill. Gill in fact ran the workshops from the start of the war until 1916. During 1913 Vanessa Bell spent a great deal of time there. Her training and experience as a painter and her knowledge of post-impressionist theories of art (through Bloomsbury discussions with Roger Fry and her husband, Clive Bell) gave a sureness of touch to her work. As a result the pieces she produced there were fresh, bold and unselfconscious. The Omega Workshops were established by Roger Fry to enable painters and sculptors to earn a livelihood from art and also to disseminate post-impressionist ideas. If the public lived with objects decorated by these artists, Fry believed, they could understand and appreciate post-impressionist paintings.

The aims of the workshops were a far -cry from the political and philosophical aims of William Morris’ aesthetic in the 1880s and the more intellectually rigorous Bauhaus in Germany in 1919. Unlike Morris who stated that art like education and freedom had to be made available to the masses, Fry was more concerned with providing a situation where artists could enjoy absolute freedom from convention and infuse their work, and the making of it, with a sense of joy. The sense of joy on the artist’s part, Fry perceived, would be conveyed to the owner. Fry also recognised the need for a viable project, which enabled artists to earn money. In contrast to the Bauhaus, Fry did not attempt to forge closer ties between design and industry. Fry did, however, share Morris’ belief that machine-made objects suffered from a deadness and lack of humanity; and that of the Bauhaus, that simplicity in design was preferable to objects that became impractical when they were very ornate.

In “Art and Socialism” in 1912,11 Fry wrote a description of a railway station restaurant, to illustrate the condition of the decorative arts in Britain. He pointed out that on every object there was a different and elaborate pattern. He was appalled by the amount of ‘art’ that the small area harboured: stained glass, lace curtains, patterns from at least four centuries and as many countries, linoleum stamped with a complicated pattern, sham silver medallions, and imitation eighteenth century satin brocade wallpaper. Fry felt that the actual process of making these objects was clearly thought to be unimportant, by manufacturers and customers. He described the surface of modern manufacturers as an, ‘eczematous eruption of pattern’. Virginia Woolf, looking back on this time, wrote: “At last he felt… a time was at hand when a real society was possible. It was to be a society of people of moderate means, a society based upon the old Cambridge ideal of truth and free speaking, but alive, as Cambridge never had been to the importance of the arts. It was possible in France, why not England? No art could flourish without such a background. The young English artist tended to become illiterate, narrow-minded and self-centred with disastrous effects upon his work, failing any society where, among the amenities of civilisation, ideas were discussed in common and he was accepted as an equal.”12

Fry observed the delightful possibilities of Poiret’s École Martine in Paris, which he had visited in 1911.13 He intended that the Omega be run along similar lines. Poiret’s Atelier was established in 1911 to encourage free activity in the decoration of objects, fabrics and furniture. Fry admired the simplicity and vivacity in the work produced there and a number of the early Omega works share these qualities.

Production began quickly at the Omega largely owing to the enthusiasm of Fry and Bell. The boldness of the work offended numerous members of British society who valued the technical expertise and elaborate qualities of Morris designs or the elegance and subtlety of Edwardian décor. In the catalogue for the official opening in July 1913 Fry stressed the gaiety and the enjoyment - experienced by the makers. Indeed the roughness in the final product assured against the emphasis on finish that Fry believed deadened the imaginative life. Fry did not value craftsmanship as such and did not share Morris’ desire to revive the crafts. Any product that required skilled labour was sent out to craftsmen. The work at the Omega workshops was highly experimental and concerned with decoration rather than with design. For instance, simple well-designed pieces of furniture were bought and then decorated at the Omega where they became Omega products.

The limited concern for craft and finish, which was intended to preserve ‘the spontaneous freshness of peasant or primitive work while satisfying the needs and expressing the feelings of modern cultivated man’,14 resulted in a number of problems. Legs of tables or chairs sometimes fell off, and on one occasion, the paint on a set of outdoor furniture peeled off after the first shower of rain. The steep learning curve, which the artists experienced, was financially difficult to accommodate. In addition, the often bizarre and exuberant character of the Omega products, which only appealed to a small, wealthy avant-garde, meant that customers bought on a single occasion but usually did not go back. As early as 1914 there were financial problems and the war hastened Omega’s decline.

The best Omega work was produced in 1913. It was bright, joyous and fresh. But there was no quality control and, as a result, much of the work produced during the war years was very amateurish. Omega interiors sometimes became very cluttered and overdone. An example was the Cadena Café at 59, Westbourne Grove in London, decorated in 1914. Although the room possesses a unity because all aspects of the decoration are in a cubist style, the viewer is barraged with such a large number of decorated surfaces, that it is difficult to appreciate any one aspect of the interior. As a result, there is little sense of simplicity or comfort offered by the complex collection of designs. The general effect is a modern avant-garde version of the clutter and confusion that Fry had criticised in the railway restaurant in 1912. The main improvements were that the objects were all decorated in a similar manner, and the artists enjoyed making them. Perhaps the most successful work produced by Omega, is in the field of textiles. As early as 1925, Paul Nash claimed that the ‘modern movement in textile design began with the establishment of the Omega Workshops.’ Their importance lies as much as in their experimental ambitions as in the finished products. Their desire to retain the artist’s touch was in clear contrast to the Arts and Crafts Movement, whose designers had mostly trained as architects. Omega’s designs were looser, uneven and thus liberating; the lessons learned there informed the subsequent painting of many of the artists. Attempts to fuse the worlds of art and fashion were also made, where the conception, design, structure and making all took place seamlessly, so to speak. The normal hierarchy with designer and seamstress with distinctly different status, melded to become more democratic, more collaborative. Photographs of the gowns, and jackets evoke a sense of daring and fun. The avant-garde choice of colour was too much, in fact for Virginia Woolf, who wrote to her sister, “My God, what colours you are responsible for! Karin [Stephen]’s clothes almost wrenched my eyes from the sockets – a skirt barred with reds and yellows of the vilest kind, and a pea green blouse on top, with a gaudy handkerchief on her head, supposed to be of the very boldest taste. I shall retire into dove colour and old lavender, with a lace collar, and lawn wristlets”.15

The Omega Workshops floundered as a result of the First World War, which brought to an end the lingering `Edwardian summer, conclusively – its market was depressed and its artists dispersed. The initial vitality and cohesive quality was lost as foundation members went their separate ways. Some went to the war and others such as Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant went to the country. Bell and Grant moved to Suffolk in 1915 and then to Charleston in Sussex in 1916, where Grant and David Garnett, as conscientious objectors, were employed as farm labourers. The work of artists such as Vanessa Bell from 1914-1920 was less dramatically influenced by outside influences than the period 1910 to 1914. Their isolation from the London art world and Britain’s isolation from the continent, both brought about by the war, exerted a decisive impact on the art produced, with more private and personal visions. Bell’s new concerns, for example, were less with the previous exuberant experimentation of intellectual doctrines than with coming to terms with a dramatically changed environment, with domestic responsibilities and with personal relationships. Grace Brockington discusses Omega in the context of the peace movement; she argues that the war also supplied a sense of political and cultural purpose, which it had previously lacked. Despite his own feelings of disappointment about the Omega’s chances of survival, Fry managed to transform the Workshops into a centre for pacifist resistance. “They published books, put on puppet shows, organised a social club, employed conscientious objectors, and contributed to Quaker relief work in France: activities which projected Fry’s pacifist sense of civilisation as the antithesis of war”.16

This is a key exhibition a revision, that examines an important episode in British art; the catalogue is excellent - a major contribution to the scholarship of the period.  In the Introduction, written in 1936 to Roger Fry’s Last Lectures, Sir Kenneth Clark wrote: “In so far as taste can be changed by one man, it was changed by Roger Fry”.17

1. Deborah Swallow, “Director’s Foreword’, Beyond Bloomsbury: Designs of the Omega Workshops, 1913-19, The  Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, London, 18 June – 20 September 2009, p.6.
2. Roger Fry married Helen Coombe in 1896. By 1900 she was suffering metal illness and was hospitalised in 1910.
3. Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry: A Biography, (1940), Penguin, London, p.133.
4. Ibid, p.135.
5. Ibid, p.135.
6. Roger Fry letter to his mother, ibid, p.136.
7. Ibid, p.138.
8. S.P Rosenbaum, The Bloomsbury Group, A Collection of Memoirs, Commentary and Criticism, Croom Helm, London, 1975, p.165.
9. Charleston Papers, King’s College, Cambridge.
10. Vanessa Bell to Roger Fry, August 1912, Charleston Papers.
11. First published as “The Artist in The Great State” in Socialism and the Great State, edited by H.G. Wells, 1912. Reprinted as ‘Art and Socialism’, Vision and Design, by Roger Fry, (1920) Oxford University Press, pp. 47-48.
12. Woolf, op.cit., pp. 159-60.
13. I. Anscombe, Omega and After: Bloomsbury and the Decorative Arts, Thames and Hudson, London, 1981, p.13.
14. Ibid, p.32.
15. Quoted by Elizabeth Sheehan, “Dressmaking at the Omega: Experiments in Art and Fashion”, op.cit, p.54.
16. Grace Brockington, “The Omega and the End of Civilisation: Pacifism, Publishing and Performance in the First World War”, ibid, p.61.
17. Roger Fry, Last Lectures, (1939), Beacon Press, Boston, p.ix.

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