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Beyond Bloomsbury: Designs of The Omega Workshops 1913–19

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Beyond Bloomsbury: Designs of The Omega Workshops 1913–19

18 June – 20 September 2009

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Established in 1913 by the painter and influential art critic Roger Fry, the Omega Workshops were an experimental design collective, whose members included Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and other artists of the Bloomsbury Group.

Well ahead of their time, the Omega Workshops brought the experimental language of avant-garde art to domestic design in Edwardian Britain. They were a laboratory of design ideas, creating a range of objects for the home, from rugs and linens to ceramics, furniture and clothing – all boldly coloured with dynamic abstract patterns. No artist was allowed to sign their work, and everything produced by the Workshops bore only the Greek letter Ω (Omega).

The exhibition unites The Courtauld’s uniquely important collection of Omega working drawings with the finest examples of the Workshops’ printed fabrics, Cubist-inspired rugs and splendidly painted textiles, as well as ceramics and furniture to explore the Omega Workshops’ radical approach to modern design.

Lead Supporter
The Friends of The Courtauld

Additional support
The Drapers’ Charitable Foundation

Roger Fry in the Omega Studio
Roger Fry in the Omega Studio

With the opening of the Omega Workshops in 1913 as laboratory of radical design ideas, Roger Fry signalled a break with mainstream Edwardian culture and aesthetics. Inspired by contemporary art in Europe, the Omega Workshops created a range of objects for the home, from rugs and linens to ceramics, furniture and clothing – all boldly coloured and patterned with dynamic abstract designs. For a short while, the Workshops’ premises at 33 Fitzroy Square was the only place to shop in London for a ‘Fauve’ shawl, a ‘Post-Impressionist’ chair or a Cubist-inspired rug.

Fry sought to challenge the commercial market in domestic interiors with new and exciting products, and the Omega Workshops functioned as a beacon of opposition to mainstream Edwardian culture and aesthetics. As he told a journalist in 1913: ‘It is time that the spirit of fun was introduced into furniture and into fabrics.  We have suffered too long from the dull and the stupidly serious.’  The Workshops managed to stay open during the First World War but eventually closed in 1919. Although it operated for just six years, it saw the creation of an impressive sequence of thrillingly bold designs which were well ahead of their time.

Omega Workshops (attributed to Duncan Grant) Design, 1913-15, The Courtauld Gallery © Estate of Duncan Grant. All rights reserved, DACS 2009.
Omega Workshops (attributed to Duncan Grant) Design, 1913-15, The Courtauld Gallery © Estate of Duncan Grant. All rights reserved, DACS 2009.

The Omega Workshops was a limited company, with shareholders, employees and several subcontracted craftsmen producing wares off site for the Omega ‘brand’ from original designs by the Workshops’ artists.  At its height they included Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Frederick Etchells, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Winifred Gill – the remarkable young woman who ran the Workshops from the start of the War until 1916. Fry insisted that the designs were produced anonymously, bearing only the Greek letter Ω (Omega) in a square, which also decorated the signboard outside 33 Fitzroy Square.  The premises served as a shared working studio and a showroom where informed clientele could drop in to make a small purchase, choose to have something made from a wide range of designs, or even commission an entire interior. Clients included Virginia Woolf, George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, W.B. Yeats and E.M. Forster, as well as bohemian high society figures like Lady Ottoline Morrell and Maud Cunard. Fry was also adept at bringing visiting intellectual grandees such as Gertrude Stein to the Omega.

Omega Showroom: 'A Futurist Bedroom'
Omega Showroom: ‘A Futurist Bedroom’

There was no other shop in London like it, where artists and rich patrons rubbed shoulders and where artists’ designs were sold directly to the consumer. Virginia Woolf recalled the lively atmosphere: ‘There were bright chintzes designed by the young artists; there were painted tables and painted chairs; and there was Roger Fry himself escorting now Lady So-and-so, now a business man from Birmingham, round the rooms and doing his best to persuade them to buy.’

This exhibition unites the largest collection of surviving working drawings of the Omega Workshops, bequeathed to The Courtauld Gallery by Fry’s daughter Pamela Diamand in 1958, with the finest examples of their printed linens, hand-knotted rugs, woven wools and splendidly painted silks. Concentrating on textiles and designs for textiles, the exhibition explores how the Omega artists moved from a painterly idea to the finished object. At the heart of the exhibition are spectacular examples of the Omega’s range of abstract printed furnishing fabrics, ranging from the geometrical Mechtilde, named after the German ambassador’s wife, to the fluid and painterly Pamela, named after Fry’s daughter. Various colourways are displayed to show how printed textiles attained a freedom of expression comparable to painting on canvas. One of the highlights of the group of large-scale design drawings is a sketch, perhaps for a rug or scarf, which bears comparison with the very boldest abstract paintings of the period.

Omega Workshops (attributed to Roger Fry) Design with Confronted Peacocks, 1913-14 © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London
Omega Workshops (attributed to Roger Fry) Design with Confronted Peacocks, 1913-14 © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

One of the revelations of the exhibition is the so-calledPeacock Stole. This long stole of chiffon silk, which remained unsold, is painted in primary colours with a bold motif of confronting peacocks. Conserved especially for the exhibition, it has not been on view for over fifty years and this is a unique opportunity to see it reunited with two preparatory drawings in The Courtauld’s collection. Shown nearby is Vanessa Bell’s important painted screen Bathers in a Landscape – a transitional object between fine and decorative art, which displays passages of pure decoration and colour that resonate with the abstract textiles.

Another highlight in the exhibition is the set of spectacular rugs designed at the Omega, and probably made at the Royal Wilton Carpet Factory. These are shown together with their working drawings to reveal aspects of the design, commissioning and manufacturing process. The include the striking Ideal Home Exhibition Rug and a small jewel of a rug designed by Vanessa Bell for Lady Ian Hamilton’s flat at 1 Hyde Park Gardens. The finished rugs intentionally preserve the loose informal quality of the original design drawings, which was such an important part of the Omega’s modernist aesthetic.

Omega Workshops (attributed to Roger Fry) Painted Plate with Letter Omega, 1913 © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London
Omega Workshops (attributed to Roger Fry) Painted Plate with Letter Omega, 1913 © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

The exhibition also demonstrates the diversity and range of media made and sold at the Omega Workshops, in particular ceramics. It includes a distinctive selection of the tableware Fry made for the Omega, as well as a few lively, Matisse-inspired painted plates and a row of handheld terracotta cats by the French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, each glazed in a different colour, echoing Fry’s experiments in glazes. The displays conclude with examples of other Omega products, illustrating the range of their design activity, including a Ballets Russes-inspired waistcoat made from an Omega woven fabric called Cracow, a marquetry tray by Gaudier-Brzeska, painted furniture and a series of eye-catching Cubist-inspired lamp-stands.

Beyond Bloomsbury: Designs of the Omega Workshops 1913-19 is a revealing reappraisal of this experimental moment in British design history.  It seeks to lift the Omega Workshops out of the context of the ‘Bloomsbury Group’ of bohemian artists and intellectuals in which it has so often been seen and to consider it as a boldly ambitious experiment in design which had a far-reaching influence, particularly in the field of artist-designed textiles in Britain.

Since the war came as a bolt out of the blue to all but a few voices crying in the wilderness, Germany and England were full of each other’s holiday makers, so a sort of moratorium of three or four-days was arranged to give them all time to get home.
Winifred Gill to Duncan Grant, September 1966.

Winfred Gill (1891–1981) is the unsung heroine of the Omega Workshops. As well as producing designs for the Omega, she also played a key role in running the workshops. After the Jubilee reunion of the Omega Workshops in the 1960’s, Winifred Gill began corresponding by letter with Duncan Grant, who was also a significant member of the group. The letters covered many things from Gill’s memories of the artists involved in the workshops to the experience of living through the First World War and how it affected everything they undertook.

At the time of writing the letters, Winifred Gill was living with her niece, Dr Margaret Bennett, in an East London general practice. True to many close family members they share a very similar voice. Dr Bennett recounts that patients telephoning the surgery would often mistake Gill for her, much to the patients frustration and their amusement.

Below are recordings taken from two of the letters written by Winifred Gill to Duncan Grant and read out by Dr Bennett, to whom we are very grateful. The recordings were made in the house the letters were written.

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