Omega Workshops, 1913-1919

Opening room of the Omega Workshops, 33 Fitzroy Square, London. © The Charleston Trust

On 8 July 1913 the Omega Workshops opened their doors at 33 Fitzroy Square in the heart of bohemian London.

Founded by painter and art critic Roger Fry (1866-1934), the Workshops employed some of the most radical avant-garde artists of the day, with Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) and Duncan Grant (1885-1978) as co-directors. Their anti-establishment approach paired with Post-Impressionist experimentalism produced modern designs and items for the home, from printed fabrics and textiles to ceramics, furniture and clothing.

Expressive, bright and bold in colour, and largely abstract in form, the items produced by artists at the Workshops embodied the new ideals for living and the belief that art and freedom of expression are fundamental. Fry’s philosophy that art is an integral part of life found its most convincing expression in this radical approach to interior design, which shattered the conventional divide between the fine and applied arts. As he famously put it:

‘it is time that the spirit of fun is introduced into furniture and ceramics. We have suffered too long from the dull and the stupidly serious’.

In establishing the Omega Workshops, Fry also wanted to provide young, visionary artists with regular work which, in turn, would generate a steady income and support their efforts to focus on their own art. He insisted that objects should be valued aesthetically rather than for the artist’s reputation and so all of the Workshops’ designs and products were unsigned and marked only with the Greek letter Ω. This anonymity has resulted in continuous academic debate surrounding questions of attribution of particular designs.

Here we take a closer look at three artists behind the Ω: Nina Hamnett, Wyndham Lewis, and Winifred Gill.

Nina Hamnett

Nina Hamnett (R) and Winifred Gill modelling Omega dresses at the Workshops. Image © The Charleston Trust.

Welsh artist and writer Nina Hamnett (1890-1956) was closely associated with the Omega Workshops and its artists for many years.

Hamnett knew the art circles of Paris as well as those of London, and whilst living in Montparnasse before the First World War she made friends with leading members of the Parisian avant-garde scene including Amedeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau. Back in London, she was close to Walter Sickert, Augustus John, Wyndham Lewis, as well as Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Roger Fry, both of whom she had love affairs with.

Immortalised in portraits by Walter Sickert and Roger Fry, and in drawings and sculptures by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Hamnett’s legacy as a muse, lover and the self-styled ‘Queen of Bohemia’ has in recent times overshadowed her art. But her reputation as an artist did not go unnoticed amongst her contemporaries and in 1913, Hamnett joined the Omega Workshops where she began working on decorative designs for the home as well as modelling Omega dress designs. The Workshops offered a lifeline and became a haven for Hamnett during the War. With steady work and income, she was able to continue to focus on her own art.

Hamnett’s contribution to the Omega designs were as important as the introductions and artist connections that she facilitated. She introduced both Gaudier-Breszka and Edward Wolfe to the Omega, as well as her former husband, Norwegian artist Edgar de Bergen. Under the pseudonym Roald Kristian, he was active for some two years at the Workshops. Kristian created lampshade and rug designs, illustrated the first two Omega books, and contributed two pieces to Original Wood-cuts by Various Artists.

At the Workshops, Hamnett worked on abstract designs for household items like candlesticks and collaborated with other artists on larger projects. In 1915, together with three other Omega artists, Fry, Kristian and Dolores Courtney, Hamnett worked on a mural, Scenes of Contemporary London Life, commissioned by art dealer Arthur Ruck for 4 Berkeley Square, London. 

A year later she exhibited at the Omega Workshops in a show House Decoration: Plain or Artistic. Dedicated solely to still lifes, this exhibition included Hamnett’s “plain” jugs and bottles. Her draughtsmanship was noted in Westminster Gazette at the time — ‘Miss Hamnett possesses a faculty for resolute statement in paint that Mr. Duncan Grant seems unaccountably to lack. I say “unaccountably,” because the shakiness of his handling seems to be deliberate’.[1]

In her first autobiography, Laughing Torso (1932), Hamnett writes extensively about her connections to Fry and what life was like at the Omega Workshops. Her recollections of the bohemian Lon-don life of the 1910s and 20s recreate the atmosphere of the period and offer a glimpse behind that bohemian curtain (no doubt made of fabric printed with one of the Omega designs).

Wyndham Lewis

Installation view from Charleston’s exhibition, Post-Impressionist Living: The Omega Workshops showing Wyndham Lewis’ design for panels of the four-fold screen at the opening room of the Omega Workshops. Artwork details: 1912-13 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London / The Estate of Percy Wyndham Lewis. All Rights Reserved 2020 / Bridgeman Images.

Percy Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) was a painter, writer and critic. His involvement with the Omega Workshops was short-lived, but nevertheless notable.

In 1912, Lewis exhibited his Cubo-Futurist illustrations, as well as three large oil paintings at the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition at the Grafton Galleries. Roger Fry, who organised the show, attempted to introduce the British public to works by British avant-garde artists. In many ways, this exhibition also anticipated stylistic features of objects and designs that were produced at the Omega Workshops in the coming years.

His participation in the exhibition brought him closer to Fry and members of the Bloomsbury Group, including Clive Bell and Duncan Grant. Before long, he was invited to join the Omega Workshops.

A great example of Lewis’ output at the Workshops can be seen in the historic photograph of the opening room of the Omega Workshops showroom at 33 Fitzroy Square. The four-fold screen in the foreground is decorated with a circus-inspired design created by Lewis in 1912-13.

However, his working relationship with the group turned sour and after a number of fallings out, he made the decision to split from the group. The commission for wall decorations at the 1913 Ideal Home Exhibition was the final straw, resulting in a major quarrel with Roger Fry. Lewis believed that Fry misappropriated the commission, and in October 1913 he announced his resignation from the Omega Workshops. In a letter to the Workshops’ shareholders and patrons, Lewis outlined his fundamental disagreement with and criticism of the Workshop’s ideology.

To add insult to injury, Lewis not only left the group but took three other members with him: Frederick Etchells, Edward Wadsworth and Gaudier-Breszka. Together, they formed a rival decorating workshop, the Rebel Art Centre. The Centre operated for only four months but gave rise to the Vorticist movement.

Lewis co-founded the Vorticist group and wrote its manifesto which was published in BLAST, the group’s literary publication. Despite its roots in Cubism, Futurism and the Bloomsbury group, Lewis distinguished his Vorticist aesthetic from other avant-garde practices. Landscape and nudes were rejected in favour of a geometric style with a strong tendency towards abstraction. Dynamism, the machine age, militarism and all things modern were fully embraced, but in contrast to Futurism, a Vorticist painting was colourful and full of bold lines that drew the viewer’s eye to the centre of the canvas.

The artist’s style of geometric abstraction was developing around the time of his involvement with the Omega Workshops. Lewis had been producing paintings in this style for a little over a year be-fore the Vorticist movement was fully formed and was given its name by Ezra Pound. Perhaps his split from the group was inevitable, with or without his disagreements with Fry?

Despite his parting, Lewis continued to exhibit alongside the Bloomsbury artists until the First World War. In 1914, he was showing his work together with Duncan Grant in a Post-Impressionist exhibition at Whitechapel. The exhibition also included ‘furniture and hangings and household things from the Omega Workshops’[2]

Winifred Gill

Artist, social reformer and craftswoman Winifred Gill’s (1891-1981) writings, in this case her extensive correspondence, have become an invaluable source of information about the Omega Workshops. Her letters not only provide us with insider knowledge of the Omega group, its people and operations, but also allow us to reconsider the experience of women at the Workshops.

As many other young women working for the Workshops at the time, Gill was an aspiring art student. Born to a middle-class Quaker family, she was part of a generation of women who were starting to benefit from their increasing financial independence and access to education and public life.

As fate would have it, her neighbour at the time was no other than Roger Fry. Gill was first employed to help with childcare and later on as a secretary to his sister. However, Fry saw a great potential in her playful creativity and, on his recommendation, she enrolled at the Slade School of Art. Subsequently, she was one of the first artists to be invited by Fry to join the Omega Workshops in 1913.

An unofficial manager, Gill was an integral part of the Omega throughout its lifetime. She was the only salaried member of staff and acted as a mediator between the Workshops’ directors (Fry, Grant and Bell) and their creative cohort of artists. In the early years, she was Fry’s assistant, with whom she shared an office and helped with various administrative aspects of running the business. However, during the War, she almost entirely took over the daily running of the Workshops.

Her individual designs included patterns for fabrics and textiles, jewellery, woodblock and lino prints, jointed toys and marionettes. She faithfully subscribed to Fry’s philosophy of anonymous collective creativity. This makes identifying her individual artistic contributions rather difficult. In recent years, academics and art historians have suggested that some Omega designs, which previously were attributed to artists like Duncan Grant, ought to be reattributed to Gill.

Installation view from Charleston’s exhibition, Post-Impressionist Living: The Omega Workshops showing designs for textiles. Image © James Bellorini. 

In addition to administrative duties and her own designs, a big part of her time at the Workshops was taken up by translating other artists’ blueprints into finished products. As Katy Norris points out, tedious, monotonous and repetitive, this was a typical kind of ‘labour that female artist assistants were expected to undertake at the Omega in the name of artistic collaboration’. This work largely influenced the conclusion that women (apart from Vanessa Bell) played a secondary role at the Workshops to that of male artists. However, this understanding is now shifting toward a more wholesome understand of the Omega and its artistic practices.

107 years later

The short-lived association of Lewis with the Omega Workshops could not be more different from that of Hamnett’s and Gill’s. However, his invitation to join the Workshops in its inception is worth consideration. Hamnett and Lewis were both rebels who stood against the convention and tradition of the time. What attracted Roger Fry to them was their anti-establishment approach, Post-Impressionist experimentalism and avant-garde tendencies. Hamnett’s flamboyant personality, rejection of authority and the mainstream, as well as her familiarity with the Parisian and London avant-garde circles was a perfect match for both Fry and the Workshops.

In Gill, or as she is often described ‘the unsung heroine of the Omega Workshops’, Fry found not only a brilliant assistant but also a talented Omega artist in her own right.

Lewis’ participation in the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition brought him closer to Fry, but his obsession with the machine age broke him apart from the Omega group. Or was it really Lewis’ envy over a misappropriated commission? Or was his rebellious nature too… rebellious? Was Lewis, unsatisfied with Fry’s insistence on the anonymity of all Omega designs, itching to form his own centre of creativity? These questions are all worth exploring.

Three individual artists, with their idiosyncratic styles, who at one point in their artistic careers were part of a collective effort, in which ideas and skills were exchanged with mutual respect. Today, 107 years since the day the Omega Workshops opened their doors, we continue to celebrate both their collective and individual impact!

Discover more about the Omega Workshops on Charleston’s YouTube channel

By Charleston’s Artisa Curatorial Fellow, Diana Tsar

 

 

[1] —-, ‘Decoration: Plain or Artistic’, Westminster Gazette, 17 November 1916.

[2] The Manchester Guardian, ‘Post-Impressionists for Whitechapel,’ Thursday 9 April 1914, p. 6.

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