Christmas at Charleston: Joy and the Omega Workshops

Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s first Christmas at Charleston was bleak in many ways. When they moved to the house in 1916, there was no central heating or electricity, and only cold water in the bathroom and kitchen. It was the height of the First World War, and rationing made life even more difficult. Bell’s son Quentin described their first winter at Charleston when the kitchen tap froze, explaining that each morning water had to be fetched from a pump across a frosty field:

‘The snow was thicker and the frost deeper than we were ever to see it again until 1940. One of my earliest memories was walking over to Peaklets, the cottage just visible on the further side of the front field. Here a spring still ran. We went over to fill buckets of water for the house.’

It was quite a change in lifestyle for the two artists; in coming to Charleston, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant had left a lot behind in London. There, they had been at the heart of the Bloomsbury group – a group of artists, writers and thinkers that included Bell’s sister, the writer Virginia Woolf, art critic Roger Fry and economist John Maynard Keynes, among others. They had also been co-directors of the Omega Workshops, a design collective opened by Fry in 1913.

The Omega Workshops aimed to the break boundaries between the fine and decorative arts, bringing modern post-impressionist art into the lives and homes of the London public. The Workshops produced all kinds of household items; an early advertisement promised ‘Examples of interior decorations for bedrooms, nurseries etc., furniture, textiles, hand-dyed dress materials, trays, fans and other objects suitable for Christmas presents.’ Although Roger Fry was keen to see the ideas of modern art used in design, he also wanted the Workshops to help his artist friends. They would give artists the chance to make a communal living designing and decorating furniture, textiles and other household items, alongside their more solitary careers.  

The Workshops were founded and run on friendships – and launched with a party. Vanessa Bell wrote to Roger Fry, suggesting:

‘We should get all your disreputable and some of your aristocratic friends to come – and after dinner we should repair to Fitzroy Sq. where would be decorated furniture, painted walls etc. Then we should all get drunk and dance and kiss. Orders would flow in and the aristocrats would feel sure they were really in the thick of things.’

There was something joyous about the idea of the Omega Workshops, about friends working together to bring new life into interior design. As Fry said, ‘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.’

When Vanessa Bell’s sister, Virginia Woolf, writes about the joy of shopping – ‘here unending beauty, ever fresh, ever new, very cheap and within the reach of everybody, bubbles up every day of the week from an inexhaustible well’ – it is possible to be reminded of the Omega Workshops. Although pieces from the Workshops were not often ‘very cheap’ (many of the customers were those ‘aristocrat friends’), they were always fresh, new, and, above all, a result of the idea that beauty could be brought into the home.

Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant brought the joyous idea that art should be a part of daily life with them to Charleston. Upon arriving in the house, they immediately began to paint the walls and furniture, turning it into the perfect example of a post-impressionist home. Even in that country farmhouse, London and the Omega Workshops were never really far away. Bell continued making pieces for the Workshops, particularly beautiful, giftable paper flowers, and the household would have eaten Christmas dinner sat at a table and chairs designed for the Workshops.

Even with the challenges winter brought, festivities did take place at Charleston, with visitors bringing news, gossip and gifts from London. Charleston would become the Sussex home of the Bloomsbury group and, to this day, is a living example of Omega design. And so, at Charleston this Christmas, 100 years after the Omega Workshops closed their doors, we imagine the farmhouse full of friends, food and laughter and remember the Workshops’ convivial spirit and industrious pursuit of joy.

The exhibition Post-Impressionist Living: The Omega Workshops continues at Charleston until 19 January 2020.

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