, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Isabella went back to London today and the house is empty again. She is forever busy, painting, drawing, sketching everything and everyone and now she added even more to her already staggering amount of activities day to day: the girl is now turning to all those things her forebears were so happy to abandon when the age of modernity (and relative prosperity in the family) abolished some of these backbreaking duties and chores of housekeeping. She’s now learning to spin and weave to make her own clothes and after a few cushions and tapestries even started dabbling in furniture design and woodwork. My precocious daughter who last year exclaimed that the weaponry of the fairer sex should consist of pencils and sketchbooks instead of ruffles, lace and empty chitchat, now spends her time learning how to make all those ruffles and lace. Of course I’m being a bit simplistic and unfair: Isabella’s newfangled passion for fashion is more than empty pastime for the bored and the privileged. It all comes from this new movement in Bloomsbury, specifically from Roger Fry‘s head.

Fry’s ambition is for the artists to become multi-talented, designing furniture, ceramics, book illustrations, as well as painting and sculpture, rather like the artists of the Italian Renaissance, and he is now working on creating a workshop out of Slade students. Isabella is of course dying to be involved in this programme, which is going to be called Omega Workshops and open its gates some time in June if all goes as planned. A similar thing is apparently very successfully operating in France and that’s where Fry got the first idea. A couple of years ago he spent some time across the channel organising two Post-Impressionist exhibitions showing the work of new art by painters like Matisse, Picasso and Cezanne, whose names still cause hyperventillation among the more senior members of the London art establishment. Whilst in Paris choosing paintings for the exhibitions Fry visited Paul Poiret’s Atelier Martine. Fry now wants to promote painting and the decorative arts together and sell the products through his new workshop.

Obviously one is reminded of William Morris and the designers of the Arts and Crafts Movement, but Fry’s idea is quite different. He’s not at all concerned with social reform or protesting against contemporary machine manufacture. He comes from a more aesthetic-philosophical direction and wants to remove what he sees as the false division between the fine and decorative arts. As for the style: the nascent workshop will be no doubt a celebration of Post-Impressionism: bright colours and bold, simplified forms. As a result Isabella is covered in checks and zigzags in yellow, salmon and bright green. Even her stockings are canary yellow, much to the consternation of dear neighbour, Mrs Snythes, who believes in the curative powers and moral roboration of full corsets and expects both me and my shameless daughter to wear black at all times.

Perhaps the best thing that may come out of this new movement is that (besides the art philosophy), Fry genuinely wants to help his artist friends by providing them with the chance to make a living designing and decorating furniture, textiles and other household accessories. Much as I am a supporter of Isabella’s artistic career, my practical side truly hopes that this is a bandwagon my forever hungry daughter can hop on with her creativity and enthusiasm – as long as she doesn’t get too bored too fast at the loom!

The Omega Workshops really did open later in the year and there is still a little bit of exciting Omega stuff to see in Leeds a hundred years on! Find Fry’s painting of Nina Hamnett at the Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery (University of Leeds, UK) and check out the the bold printed linen cushion used to jazz up an old armchair, long before Ingvar Kamprad taught us how to clash our prints in the living room. We love Nina’s stockings too, which should be an inspiration for us all on grey January mornings (and a reminder to re-read ‘Women in Love’, just because we can).

In the Laughing Torso, Nina writes: ‘I had a wonderful collection of stockings at that time and wore flat-heeled shoes with straps on them like children do. They made my feet look very large. They cost five francs and were worn by concierges. I had red stockings and yellow stockings and some that looked like a chess board. Modigliani would run after me up the Boulevard Raspail after the Rotonde had closed. He could always see me because of my loud stockings. One night he nearly caught me so I climbed up a lamp-post and waited at the top till he had gone.’

Roger Elliot Fry, Nina Hamnett, 1917, oil on canvas, The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery, University of Leeds, UK

Roger Elliot Fry, Nina Hamnett, 1917, oil on canvas, The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery, University of Leeds, UK

Read more about the Omega workshops and one of their most well-known fabric ‘Maud’ (used for the cushion in the painting) here:

“The Workshops opened on 8 July 1913 at 33 Fitzroy Square, Bloomsbury, London to cautiously enthusiastic reviews. At the opening Princess Lichnowsky, the German Ambassador’s wife, named the six printed linens. ‘Mechilde’ she named after herself, ‘Margery’ and ‘Pamela’ after Fry’s sister and daughter and ‘Maud’ after Lady Maud Cunard. Fry’s friends Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell were co-directors. Twenty “artist decorator”, students from the Slade School of Art were employed, but so as not to be distracted from their painting, were only allowed to work less than three and a half days a week. Edward Wadsworth, Jessie Etchells, sister of Frederick, and Nina Hamnett were some of the students who later became famous. Edward Wolfe, one of the last artists to join the Workshops recalled that the Omega was an extremely colourful and creatively exciting place, with an atmosphere that encouraged the artist to pick up and decorate whatever came to hand.

The keynote of the Workshops was spontaneity. Fry’s ambition was for the artists to become multi talented, designing furniture, ceramics, book illustrations, as well as painting and sculpture, rather like the artists of the Italian Renaissance. He felt that objects and furniture should be bought for their aesthetic qualities rather than the reputation of the artist, so he insisted that all the work was anonymously produced. […] ‘Maud’, the fabric illustrated , was named after Omega’s patron, Lady Maud Alice Burke Cunard (1872-1948). […] The Omega Post-Impressionist sitting room at the Ideal Home Exhibition in 1913 showed a length of ‘Maud’ hanging on a wall. This was the Workshop’s major undertaking after its opening. The fabrics were also used for garments. A blouse was made using ‘Maud’ fabric in 1914-5 by the Workshops, worn by Roger Fry to a party of the Ballet Russe in London in 1918. In 1914 linen tunics were being made to measure using Omega printed linens. There is a photo of Nina Hamnett in one made up from ‘Maud’ fabric, as well as a painting of her by Roger Fry with the cushion on a chair covered in ‘Maud’.”

Want more of the spirit of 1913? Come to Leeds to see the exhibition ‘1913: The Shape of Time’ at the Henry Moore Institute, which also includes Omega objects, such as lampstands by Roger Fry himself and the Daily Mail’s Ideal Home Exhibition Rug attributed to Frederick Etchell.The exhibition runs between 22nd November 2012 and 17th February 2013.

Further reading and bibliography: http://www2.tate.org.uk/archivejourneys/bloomsburyhtml/art_omega.htm