Beyond Bloomsbury: Designs of the Omega Workshops 1913-19

By Ed Sexton | 19 June 2009
A black and white picture of people working in an artistic workshop

Roger Fry in the Omega Workshops, courtesy of the Courtauld Gallery

Exhibition: Beyond Bloomsbury – Designs of the Omega Workshop, The Courtauld Gallery, London, until September 20 2009

Beyond Bloomsbury takes a look at the short, sharp burst of British design at the early 20th century Omega Workshop, injecting both fun and fine art into interior design and home furnishings.

Opened by artist and influential critic Roger Fry, the Workshop bought together a collective of some of the most cutting edge artists of the day who designed and made products under the anonymous banner of the Omega Workshop.

This exhibition brings together pieces from the Courtauld's collection as well as some guest items, which show the range of techniques and the variety of pieces produced by the Omega artists.

a painted sign

Omega Workshop (Duncan Grant), Signboard (1915). Oil on wood with metal stud. The Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A silk "Peacock Stole" and its accompanying designs typify the Omega's ability to infuse fine art in everyday objects. The piece, which was specially conserved by the V&A for the exhibition, contains some imperfections where the artist had trouble with the paint but there is a painterly quality to the design.

The pattern is not strictly symmetric and differs on both sides of the stole. The organic, handmade quality of the workmanship allows the piece to retain some of the character of the artist. The freehand qualities were viewed by some as shoddy workmanship, but the radical colours and designs meant that the Omega pieces appealed to a niche market of wealthy clients and intellectuals.

A picture of a green and blue painted design

(above) Omega Workshop Design for Peacock Stole Gouache and pencil on paper The Courtauld Gallery, London.

The original signboard painted by Duncan Grant, which would have swung above the entrance to the workshops in 33 Fitzroy Square, hangs above a doorway between display rooms. The sign was not there to inform the public about the workshop, but created as a signal to those who knew its presence.

Fry gave opportunities to radical young artists who had not been through formal training, and in doing so created a new creative vocabulary to develop a range of products which were ahead of their time, acting as a catalyst for developments in other areas of art.

The exhibition guides you through the development process of a number of different products and shows that there was some difficulty in transferring the free flowing fine art designs into production.

A picture of a painted design

(Above) Omega Workshop Pamela (1913), printed linen, made in France. Picture courtesy Manchester City Art Gallery

A number of items designed by the Omega artists were sent out to specialists to be made, such as Royal Wilton, who made the rugs. A small jewel of a rug produced for Lady Hamilton's flat in Hyde Park Gardens is covered with a striking angular pattern, surrounded by drawings illustrating the creative process behind the design.

The painterly designs seem like they may have caused problems for those who went onto produce the patterns. Areas are highlighted and questioned on the designs, eradicated by the manufacturer and removed from the final rug.

A picture of a multi-coloured textile design

(Above) Omega Workshop Design for a scarf or rug Gouache and pencil on paper The Courtauld Gallery, London

There was a great transference of design amongst the pieces produced by the Omega, with furnishing fabrics used for clothing and patterns and designs transferred from linen onto lamp stands.

Colour acted as a simple yet highly effective way to vary the products. Ceramics and fabrics used the same outline patterns or shapes, but were produced in a number of different colour ways or glazes.

A fine example of the use of colour and glazes can be seen in the display of comic and quirky cats produced by Henri Gaudier Brzeska, who experimented with glazes to add variety to the pieces that were produced.

A picture of a yellow and green squared textile pattern

(Above) Omega Workshop Mechtilde (1913), printed linen, made in France. Picture courtesy Manchester City Art Gallery

An entire wall is covered with a display of the brightly-coloured, abstract printed furnishing fabrics, ranging from the geometrical to the flowing, named after customers of the workshops such as Lady Maud Cunard.

The designs were produced using wood block and stencil printing at a Workshop in France, and the range of colours show how the printed textiles attained a freedom of expression comparable to painting on canvas.

Further highlights of the exhibition include the painted furniture. A table and screen decorated by Duncan Grant use a lily pond as an inspiration and if you look carefully you can see a goldfish on the table.

A picture of two colourfully-painted plates

(Above) Omega Workshop (attributed to Duncan Grant). Plate painted with a sailboat (1913). Commercial plate painted over the glaze The Courtauld Gallery, London

A three-fold screen bathes in the landscape produced by Vanessa Bell, again showing how the Omega blurred the line between fine art and furnishing, producing both functional and highly decorative pieces.

Sadly the Omega workshop failed to be profitable and, despite managing to stay open during the First World War, they closed in 1919. Nevertheless, their bold designs continue to impact on interior design and furnishing today.

Running alongside Beyond Bloomsbury is a display of work from Winifred Gill, who ran and organised the Workshop during the First World War.

a painted folding screen

Omega Workshop (Vanessa Bell) Bathers in a Landscape Four-fold Screen (1913). Gouache and pencil on paper laid on canvas, The Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Open 10am-6pm (3.30pm on July 6). Admission £5/£4 (free for under-18s, full-time students and unemployed, no admission charge before 2pm on Mondays).

Exhibition events:

Curator's talks July 1, August 5, September 2, 5.15pm-6pm

Lunchtime talks June 26, July 10, August 7, August 21, September 4, September 18, 1.15pm-1.30pm

Tours Sundays until September 21, 3pm-3.45pm (except August 23).

Public lecture by Professor Christopher Reed July 7, 6pm-7pm

Study day September 12, 10am-3pm

Family activities August 22 and 23, 11am-5pm

Admission to all events free with entry charge, except study day (£35/£30, call 020 7848 2678 to book). For more information visit the Courtauld online or call 020 7848 2526.

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