“The Omega Workshops: Alliance And Enmity In English Art 1911–1920,” “The Omega Workshops 1913–19: Decorative Arts Of Bloomsbury”

Anthony D’Offay Gallery, Crafts Council Gallery

Soon after Roger Fry mounted his second notorious Post-Impressionist exhibition, in 1912, the idea of the Omega Workshops finally crystallized in his mind. He had been wanting to take the new movement in art beyond the boundaries of the galleries for some time, but until the Omega was established in the summer of 1913, his attempts had been sporadic and unsatisfactory. Although he had gathered a group of young painters together in 1911 to execute a substantial mural scheme on the dining room walls of a South London polytechnical college, the outcome was only a partial success. Fry needed a permanent base in order to develop his ambitions in a sustained way, and the Omega provided it.

As the name suggests, Fry wanted the Workshops to be seen as “the last word” in avant-garde audacity. But instead of exhibiting its products in art exhibitions, the Omega aimed at transforming a wide variety of social locations. Its first major commission was carried out for the Daily Mail’s Ideal Home show at Olympia in 1913, where thousands of visitors who never frequented art galleries encountered an outspoken Post-Impressionist sitting room. It was greeted with sarcasm and hostility from many startled viewers of its exclamatory murals, carpets, inlaid desks, and curtains, but its presence at the Ideal Home show did mean that the innovative spirit in art supported by Fry was beginning to spread beyond the confines of a narrow clique.

Despite a major setback in October, 1913, when Wyndham Lewis and three of his friends stormed out of the Workshops in order to found the rival Rebel Art Centre, the Omega enjoyed a successful first year. Apart from producing incidental decorative objects like painted lampshades, clothes, and chairs, it tackled several important commissions for complete interiors. At one end of the social scale Lady Ian Hamilton’s ample Bayswater house was decorated with a mosaic floor, stained glass windows, abstract rugs, and some of the Omega’s best inlaid furniture. But Fry also managed to secure a job from the popular Cadena Café, whose premises at West-bourne Grove were turned into an unabashed showpiece for Omega design at its most clamorous.

The Workshops were never afraid to embellish every available surface with defiant abandon. Working in spacious 18th-century rooms at Fitzroy Square, not far from the area of Bloomsbury where many of them lived, Fry and his friends aimed above all at conveying a sense of delight. Spurning conventional craftsmanship, they set great store by spontaneous invention and the expressiveness of the handmade. Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant were the most outstanding members of the youthful team who attended the Workshops, on a part-time basis, to carry out designs signed only with the anonymous Omega symbol. Improvising with infectious panache, Bell and Grant made many of their most memorable images during the early Omega period.

Their work stood out at these two excellent shows, and the inclusion of some spirited oil paintings in the d’Offay survey suggested that both artists benefited from the stimulus provided by the Omega. Working with speed and enjoyment on everything from painted screens to the walls and ceiling of a nursery, Bell and Grant were encouraged to develop a boldness they might otherwise never have dared to implement.

None of the Omega’s interiors survives, apart from the mosaic floor and steps which Bell designed for Lady Hamilton’s entrance hall, so we cannot confidently assess the Workshops’ complex and ambitious decorative schemes. The painted- and cut-paper mural of an exotic South Seas scene that Bell conceived for the Omega nursery may, from the evidence of photographs, have been a masterpiece. The severely simplified yet buoyant forms of an elephant, a mountain range, and an idyllic lagoon enlivened by leaping fish animate the entire space, anticipating Matisse’s late gouaches découpées by several decades. But the entire room has long since been destroyed, and we are left with a series of haphazard fragments which fail adequately to represent Omega interiors at their most coherent.

The best of the exhibits in the two shows—including Frederick Etchells’ geometrical rug for the Ideal Home exhibition, Bell’s green female bathers on a tall four-fold screen, and Fry’s witty yet rigorous inlaid wood giraffe cupboard—prove that the Omega has been undervalued for too long. But the exuberance of its first year was brutally disrupted by the First World War. The national mood darkened as the loss of life mounted, and the Omega’s flamboyance began to appear unacceptably frivolous. Commissions dwindled, Bell and Grant retreated to the countryside, and the old sense of excited camaraderie was replaced by anxiety over the Omega’s capacity to survive.

Rather than extending the Workshops’ activities into a wider range of social spaces, Fry found himself falling back on domestic schemes for wealthy private clients alone. Arthur Ruck, an old-master dealer, invited the Omega to execute a mural scheme in his Mayfair home. And Lalla Vandervelde, the wife of the Belgian ambassador, subsequently asked Fry to decorate the furniture and walls of her London flat. But there were long periods when very little occurred in the Fitzroy Square workrooms, and some of the later Omega products reflect this loss of energy. Fry’s painted bed for Madame Vandervelde is disappointingly leaden, entirely lacking the effervescence of early Omega designs. Although he pioneered a very radical approach to wall decoration in her flat, developing a minimal style that integrated itself with the existing architecture, Fry soon realized that the Workshops would have to close. The Armistice brought with it no immediate signs of an upsurge in demand for the Omega’s products, and in the summer of 1919 a melancholy clearance sale was held.

For a long time afterwards the Workshops were widely regarded as nothing more than a self-indulgent Bloomsbury charade, and their surviving works irredeemably amateur. Some of the objects do indeed look sloppy and inept,but these two exhibitions proved that the Omega’s finest achievements fulfilled Fry’s fervent hope that the Workshops would allow “free play to the delight in creation in the making of objects for common life.”

Richard Cork