It is one hundred years since the Omega Workshops closed their doors at 33 Fitzroy Square, in London – just six years after the pioneering design enterprise had opened. Their bright, bold colours, abstract patterns, Cubist-style lampstands and Fauvist-inspired textiles were perhaps a little too avant-garde for the mainstream audience. But a major new exhibition at Charleston – featuring around 200 Omega objects – explores the workshop’s lasting influence as well as its radical beginnings.
The Omega Workshops were founded in 1913 by the painter and influential art critic Roger Fry. He had been instrumental in the introduction of modern art to England in the early years of the twentieth century and, in 1910, had organised an exhibition that included works by Cézanne, Matisse, Seurat, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Picasso – all of them largely unknown in the UK at that time. The exhibition shocked and outraged the establishment, but it energised younger artists – Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant among them – and changed the way they painted.
As well as Fine Art, Fry was also interested in domestic design, but was frustrated by the British tendency to constantly reference the past. “He wanted to get that Post-Impressionist aesthetic into the home,” explains Dr Darren Clarke, Head of Collections at Charleston and curator of the exhibition.
To that end, Fry set up the Omega Workshops, bringing this new sensibility to the decorative arts. “It was seen as quite a novelty but there was an excitement to it,” explains Darren. “In the exhibition, we’re trying to capture what it would have been like, going into the Omega Workshops in Fitzroy Square. Coming from an Edwardian world of polite and tasteful things, and then going through the doors and seeing the wild designs and fantastic colours. Fry liked surfaces to be rough and tactile; lumpy paint and lumpy ceramics. It would have taken quite a lot of guts for people to have that furniture in their homes, and to buy Omega clothes and wear them in the street.”
The workshops were also a source of steady income for Fry’s artist friends. He invited them to work three mornings a week, giving them time and money to carry on with their own work. Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant were employed as co-directors and designers from the outset, with other artists working on an informal basis, contributing designs for products including ceramics, textiles, children’s toys, clothes and furniture.
It was Fry’s intention that the pieces be available to everyone, but customers came largely from friends, artists and the cultured elite. “George Bernard Shaw supported the workshop from the outset, and Sickert and Picasso both visited. It was a real hotspot for people visiting London in that period. It was a very trendy place to be seen.”
In 1916, Bell and Grant moved from London to Charleston, furnishing their home with Omega furniture, textiles and decorations. Whilst the Workshops themselves were short-lived, closing in July 1919, Fry’s forward-looking vision found its most complete expression in the unlikely setting of a Sussex farmhouse. “The whole of Charleston is that quintessential Post-Impressionist house”, concludes Darren. “The ethos of the Omega Workshops in its living, breathing state. That’s very much why we’re doing this exhibition here. It’s like bringing Omega home.”
Image: Opening room of the Omega Workshops, 33 Fitzroy Square, London. © The Charleston Trust
Post-Impressionist Living: The Omega Workshops continues until January 2020