Archive for Omega Workshops

Winifred Gill and the Omega Workshops

Posted in Ceramics, Christine Cariati, Design, Embroidery, Fashion, Fine & Decorative Arts, Furniture, Rugs, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2009 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Winifred Gill, Sketch of dancers, 1916
Pencil, ink and watercolor on paper
The Bodleian Library, Oxford

Winifred Gill (1891-1981) was one of the unsung heroines of the Omega Workshops. The task of  creating patterns or translating existing designs to be used on textiles, furniture and home furnishings fell largely to the women of the Omega Workshops—Gill, Jesse Etchells and Nina Hamnett among others. Artist Vanessa Bell also helped to produce some of the embroidery and other needlework, but because she was also one of the directors, not as much of the handwork fell to her.

Roger Fry at the Omega Workshops, c.1913

Duncan Grant, design for embroidered firescreen, c.1912
Embroidered by Lady Ottoline Morrell
Collection of Bryan Ferry

It is largely through Gill’s letters and taped recordings from the 1960s, that we know as much as we do about the day-to-day activities at the Omega—their production methods, anecdotes about specific projects and the personalities of the participants. (Gill’s archive was donated in 2009 to the Bodleian Library, Oxford, by her niece, Dr. Margaret Bennett.) Winifred Gill not only had artistic talent, she was intelligent and energetic, with a practical side that enabled her to also manage the business and handle sales.

The Omega Workshops Showroom, 1913

The Omega Workshops, started in 1913 by Roger Fry, was a modernist incarnation of the earlier Arts & Crafts movement that was the legacy of William Morris. Fry was an art critic and painter who wanted to move the British public past the traditions of Edwardian design. He embraced the contemporary European modernist movements—Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Fauvism and the Futurists—while also cultivating a bit of a Japanese aesthetic, especially through the use of painted screens. The Omega Workshops’ expressive, colorful, bold and abstract designs were the forerunners of the British artist/designer movement that followed mid-century. In 1925, Paul Nash wrote:

The modern movement in textile design began with the establishment of the Omega Workshops.

Paul Nash, Cherry Orchard, 1930
Block-printed silk crêpe-de-chine, Cresta Silks Ltd.

Roger Fry had some experience in interior design prior to founding the Omega Workshops. Among other things, he had built and furnished his home at Durbins, painted a mural at his mother’s home in Cheyne Walk, and decorated the home of his friend, Hubert Crackenthorpe. His co-directors, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant were also very actively engaged in the decorative arts, both for themselves and friends, including their home at Charleston.

Photograph of the drawing room at Charleston in the 1930s

Duncan Grant, Interior with the Artist’s Daughter, c. 1935-36
Oil on canvas
Collection of Dick Chapman and Ben Duncan

Fry chose to open the Omega Workshops in Fitzroy Square, London—then rather a shabby neighborhood—in a regular house, rather than a shop, in order to better integrate the work within a domestic setting. When the workshop ended in 1919, Fry wrote:

I have lost $2000 and five years of gratuitous hand work: I cannot waste more on a country that regards the attempt to create as a kind of Bolshevism.

Over the years, in addition to Fry, Bell and Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Paul Nash, Frederick Etchells and others contributed to the designs. Their clients included George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, E.M. Forster and Gertrude Stein—as well as Virginia Woolf, Lady Ottoline Morrell and others of the Bloomsbury set. Winifred Gill indicates in her letters that there was a lot of collaboration—Grant, Bell and others contributed designs which were stored away and later reworked into patterns for specific products by Gill, Hamnett and many of the other unheralded young women who did so much of the work.

Nina Hamnett and Winifred Gill in Omega fabrics
from The Illustrated London Herald, 1915
The British Library

Roger Fry, Portrait of Nina Hamnett, c. 1917
Oil on canvas
Courtauld Institute Galleries, London

Roger Fry, Winifred Gill by the Pool at Durbins, 1912
Private Collection

Part of Fry’s motivation in establishing the workshop was to find a way for young artists to make a living. At the time, Fry was accused of choosing the name Omega because the current usage of the word was “the last word,” meaning that he thought the workshop’s products were the last word in decorative art. But Winifred Gill wrote that Fry chose it because:

He was looking for something, some trademark, that had a name of its own that everybody knew. I think it was very effective because everyone could say Omega and remember it.

Omega also had a ready-made, recognizable symbol, Ω, and all the work of the Omega, produced anonymously, was marked with the Greek letter (and occasionally incorporated into designs.)

Roger Fry, Design for Cadena rug, 1914

Young artists would drop by the Omega, seeking employment, but often Fry politely turned them down—he liked to scout out artists for himself at art schools and exhibitions—and even artists who came highly recommended had to show a portfolio before being taken on. Gill wrote that some of the young artists, like Wyndham Lewis, broke with the Omega because they resented the anonymity of the work—they wanted to claim credit and recognition for their designs.

Omega Workshops, painted lamp bases, 1913

I seem to remember a long time painting the legs of tables. It had come as a surprise to me that black and white size paint would produce blue. When Venetian red was added, a warm mulberry colour resulted which I always connect with Vanessa. She was very fond of it, and we used it a good deal for background on our furniture. Trays too we painted. O yes, and endless candlesticks. When I remember Nina Hamnett at work it is always a candlestick she has in her hand.
Letter from Winifred Gill to Duncan Grant, 1966

Winifred Gill was invited by Roger Fry to join the workshop in 1913. Like Fry, she came from a Quaker family in Surrey, and was, at the time, working as an assistant to Fry’s sister Joan at her philanthropic foundation, as well as attending art classes at the Slade. Gill’s attraction to the Omega was not only for the artistic aspect and because she lauded the attempt to provide support for young artists, but because she also deeply believed in Fry’s pacifist social agenda. Gill played an essential role in running the workshop and beginning in 1915 she served as the workshop’s business manager. During her time at the Omega, Gill made woodcuts, paintings, designs for toys and household objects. In 1919, Gill designed some artificial flowers with Vanessa Bell on commission, to be used as part of a theater set.

Roger Fry, Still Life with Omega Flowers, 1919
Oil on canvas
Tatham Art Gallery, Pietermaritzburg

Gill also designed marionettes with articulated joints which portrayed dancers and musicians. The marionettes were used in a 1917 production of War and Peace: A Dramatic Fantasia a pacifist play written by Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson which was attended by W.B. Yeats, Arnold Bennett, G.B. Shaw and Lytton Strachey.

Winifred Gill with her clown puppet Joey, c.1920
The Bodleian, Oxford

The Omega Workshops came to an end in 1919, defeated by the effects of the war, the unreadiness of the British public to embrace new ideas and internal disagreements. However, thought it lasted only six years, the influence of the Omega carries on to the present day.

1946, Miller’s Galleries in Lewes held an exhibition of Omega Workshops products, displayed in a similar fashion to the arrangements at Fitzroy Square. At the time Winifred Gill wrote to Vanessa Bell about the possibility of an Omega room as a permanent fixture at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Vanessa Bell replied:

I hope it may happen for I thought the things at Miller’s in Lewes looked very good, especially the pottery…How long ago all that time seems—it was very strange having it revived for a while…

Painted version of Omega mark used on ceramics

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Venetian Red Bookshelf: 2009 Picks

Posted in Book Review, Christine Cariati, Design, Female Artists, Fiber Arts, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Textiles, Wallpaper with tags , , , , on December 1, 2009 by Christine Cariati

Most every Venetian Red post cites a book or two related to the topic at hand. Occasionally we review books at length. Many readers have commented with appreciation, and we decided that more in this department just might be better. Today we introduce Venetian Red Bookshelf, a periodic round up of books, favorites from our bookshelves and studio worktables.

Albrecht Dürer, Self-Portrait, 1500

In her beautiful book,  A Face to the World, Laura Cumming writes engagingly about the art of the self-portrait. Cumming draws you into her subject with the mesmerizing self-portrait by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) on the cover and keeps your attention by her thoughtful inquiries into the intriguing art of the self portrait via literature, philosophy, history and biography. The book is thoroughly researched, very well-written, extremely entertaining and beautifully illustrated with self-portraits from Dürer to Warhol. —Christine Cariati.

The Grammar of Ornament, by Owen Jones. A classic in the annals of design; there isn’t much more to be said here. But if you do want want more, you might be interested in the VR post A Question of Ornament.Liz Hager

Necklace, Jaipur, mid-nineteenth century

Maharaja: The Splendour of India’s Royal Courts, edited by Anna Jackson and Amin Jaffer, was published as a companion to the current exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. It is a lushly illustrated book that explores both the reality and fantasy surrounding India’s maharajas, with knowledgeable essays about the splendid paintings, textiles, jewelry, metalwork and furniture of India’s rulers from the 18th century to 1947. —Christine Cariati.

Yasuhiro Suzuki—Cabbage Bowls, paperclay. Each leaf “peels” off to become its own functional bowl.

Designing Design, by Kenya Hara. “Creativity is to discover a question that has never been asked. If one brings up an idiosyncratic question, the answer he gives will necessarily be unique as well.” Quite possibly the most inspirational book in my collection.  This book by Japanese designer and curator Kenya Hara is chock full of pearls of deep wisdom on design as a philosophy of life. In between them are loads of images of creative solutions masquerading as products, graphics, systems, food, art. Think different!—Liz Hager

Gunta Stölzl, Untitled, watercolor and colored chalk, 1921

Finally, a book that does justice to the contributions of the women of the Bauhaus movement, Ulrike Müller’s Bauhaus Women: Art, Handicraft, Design. Müller explores the life and art of the more recognized artists—weavers Anni Albers and Gunta Stölzl and metalworker Marianne Brandt—along with those whose work has been largely neglected, such as Gertrud Grunow, Ida Kerkovius, Benite Otte, Otti Berger, Ilse Fehling, Lou Scheper-Berkenkamp, et al. An excellent companion book is Gunta Stolzl: Bauhaus Master, recently published by the Museum of Modern Art in conjunction with their current exhibition, Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity.Christine Cariati.

Color: A Natural History of the Palette, by Victoria Findlay. In this part travelogue, part historical investigation Findlay traverses the globe in search of the often-surprising origin of natural pigments and dyes. Maybe you know that the “Ultramarine Blue” pigment was originally ground up lapis lazuli mined only in Afghanistan. (Michaelangelo is reputed to have held up a painting waiting for the stuff.) But did you know that the royal purple of the ancient world was made from the mucous gland of a sea snail (murex brandaris) or that Napoleon might have died from the arsenic in the green paint of his wallpaper on St. Helena? This book is a welcomed addition to any painter’s bookshelf.  — Liz Hager

Winifred Gill, Sketch of dancers, 1916

Beyond Bloomsbury: Designs of the Omega Workshops 1913-19 was published to coincide with the exhibition of the same name at The Courtauld Gallery, London, which was held from June-September of this year. It is a beautiful book which, in addition to showing finished pieces, also includes many preliminary sketches for designs. For those of you in the San Francisco Bay Area, a related exhibition, A Room of Their Own: The Bloomsbury Artists in American Collections is currently at Mills College, Oakland until December 13, 2009. —Christine Cariati.

William Kentridge: Five Themes (catalog). William Kentridge is quite possibly the most talented artist working today. He’s a man of enormous creative capacity, who has profound things to say. If you missed the “Five Themes” retrospective in San Francisco and absolutely cannot get to NY MOMA this spring to see it, this catalog may be a painful indication of what you have missed. If you did see the show, the catalog will forever be a reminder of his particular genius.  For more on the exhibition, see Last Days in San Francisco.Liz Hager

Wallpaper: The Ultimate Guide by Charlotte Abrahams is a rather giddy celebration of wallpaper, tracing its history, designers, manufacturers and uses—and has many full-page reproductions of contemporary designs. A good companion to the 2005 second edition of The Papered Wall: The History, Patterns and Techniques of Wallpaper edited by Leslie Hoskins which takes a comprehensive and detailed historical approach to the subject. —Christine Cariati.

Francisco Goya, from Los Caprichos, 1797-98, etching.

The Demon & The Angel, by Edward Hirsch. Mark Rothko once observed that “All art deals with intimations of mortality.” Drawing predominantly on Frederico Garcia Lorca’s concept of the the duende (literally translated as “demon,” although the Spanish word implies inspiration in the face of tragedy, even death), poet Edward Hirsch delves enthusiastically into the source of artistic inspiration, which he believes emanates from both the “irrational splendors” of the duende and the inspirational angel (divine, though not religious, notion). Not limiting himself to poets, Hirsch also invokes Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Jimi Hendrix, Portuguese Fado.  It’s heady to the point of obscurity in parts, but still worth the read for the thought-provoking nature of many of its insights.  —Liz Hager

Trade textile, block-printed and dyed cotton, Gujarat, c.1340-80

Each of the four small hard-cover books included in V&A Pattern: Slipcased Set #1 (William Morris, Digital Pioneers, Indian Florals and The Fifties) comes with a CD which designers can use to rework and redraw the patterns for their own use (after obtaining a license from the V&A.) The V&A plans to issue three more sets in this series, the next, V&A Pattern Slipcase #2, will be out in early 2010 and will include Owen Jones, Novelty Patterns, Secret Garden and Kimono. Not nearly as much fun as spending endless hours rifling through the V&A textile collections in person, but the books are lovely, with an interesting and somewhat unusual assortment of patterns that provide an inspiring glimpse into the vast resources in the V&A’s textile collection. —Christine Cariati.

Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893, oil, tempera & pastel on cardboard.

Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, by David Bayles & Ted Orland.  What working artist facing the inspirational void hasn’t felt a fevered terror similar to the one depicted in Munch’s celebrated painting?  This booklet of 188 pages is both a pragmatic reminder of reality—i.e. “Making  art now means working in the face of uncertainty; it means living with doubt and contradiction, doing something no one much cares whether you do, and for which there may be neither audience nor reward”— and soothing medicinal balm—i.e. “The best you can do is make art you care about—and lot’s of it! The rest is largely a matter of perseverance.” No artist should be without this. —Liz Hager

A Different Canvas: The British Abstractionists

Posted in Female Artists, Liz Hager, Painting, Sculpture, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 13, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

This is the third installment in a series of posts, in which Venetian Red explores aspects of artist-designed textiles.  For all posts in the series, click here.

Henry Moore—Barbed Wire 1946

Henry Moore, Barbed Wire, ca. 1946,
serigraphy in five colors, spun rayon (courtesy The Ascher Collection).

While primarily known as sculptors and painters, the British “Abstractionists” Ben Nicholson (1894-1982), Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), and Henry Moore (1898-1986) also designed a fair number of textiles. Though not always huge commercial successes, in fact their designs did help revitalize British textile design, which was nearly moribund in the pre-War years.

Nicholson, Hepworth, and Moore were eager to experiment with textiles; they all considered designing for the applied arts to be a legitimate part of their artistic output. Further, they understood the power of the mass-distributed textiles to introduce their individual aesthetics to new audiences.

Barbara Hepworth—Pillar, 1937

Barbara Hepworth, Pillar, 1937,
woven cotton and rayon furnishing fabric, produced by Edinburgh Weavers.

A discussion of mid-20th-century textile design in Britain necessarily begins with William Morris (1834-1896), the undisputed progenitor of the industry. Through tireless efforts, Morris and members of the Arts & Crafts movement provided the framework—in terms of both design and production—that would thrust Britain, indeed the world, into the modern design age.

Ben Nicholson—3 Circles, 1937

Ben Nicholson, Three Circles, 1946-47,
screen printed linen, produced by Edinburgh Weavers (courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum).

By the mid-19th century Britain enjoyed clear dominance in the production of textiles. An ample supply of inexpensive cotton thread from her colonies, together with an unfailing commitment to industrialization of the weaving process and to the production of synthetic dyes (spurred by the discovery of synthetic mauve in 1856 by Sir William Perkin) formed the backbone of her competitive advantage.

Roller printed export cotton, Lancashire 1858

Pre-Morris Design—typical roller-printed export cotton, Lancashire, ca.1858
(courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum).

Nonetheless, the nation’s pre-occupation with technology eventually stymied design innovation. By the 1860s, the industry was hopelessly mired in copy-cat design practices that bred profusely-ornate and garishly-colored patterns. The country’s ability to provide innovative décor and fashion fabrics to a burgeoning middle class was seriously compromised.

Wm Morris—Larkspur wallpaper, 1872

William Morris, Larkspur (detail), 1872, wallpaper design.

By the 1870s, Morris and his colleagues succeeded in breathing new life into the British textile trade. Morris’ imaginative and harmonious designs were influenced not only by the arts of Medieval England and France, but 16th- and 17th-century Italian textiles, as well as growing attention to the cultivation of formal gardens. The designs sought to achieved a more naturalistic depiction of floral arrangements in both color and form. Indeed, great observation was at the core of  Morris’ superior draftsmanship.  Morris succeeded in creating designs that are timeless; a century and a half later, we still find them irresistible.

In addition, Morris’ unflagging promotion the standards of hand-made production (natural dying, hand weaving, block printing) led to innovation in weaving techniques, which, in turn, restored a richness of quality to fabrics that had nearly been lost through the rapid mechanization of looms.

Phyllis Barron—Log pattern , 1915

Phyllis Barron, Log, 1915, hand-blocked cotton.

The shadow of Morris’ legacy was long. Certainly, pockets of creativity existed in Britain well into the 1920s. After Morris, the design standard was ably carried  by C.F.A. VoyseyWalter Crane, Rennie Macintosh, Liberty’s, the Omega Workshops, among others. Originally painters, Phyllis Barron (1890-1964), Dorothy Larcher (1882-1952), and Enid Marx (1902-1998) were committed to continue the revival of hand block textile printing techniques that Morris had begun. Through much truly laborious work, they produced many stunning designs, in the process keeping the hand-crafted principles of the Arts & Crafts movement alive.

Enid Marx, Blue Waves

Enid Marx, Waves, ca. 1930s, hand-block printed cotton.

Outside Britain, perhaps the most visible disciples of the movement were Peter Behrens and the Darmstadt colony, the Wiener Werkstätte, and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Lötte Frömel-Fochler—Grünfink

Lotte Frömel-Fochler, Grünfink, 1910, fabric sample.

By the early 1930s, these innovations notwithstanding, the British textile industry on the whole had once again sunk into a deep design funk. In place of British goods, the lushly-ornamental designs of the French had become highly-desirous. The British textile manufacturers were simply unable to compete effectively. Compounding matters, an ever-deepening economic depression enveloped the nation.

Nancy Nicholson—Unicorn, 1930s

Nancy Nicholson, Unicorn, 1930s, bedspread, block print and stencil.

A handful of textile firms specifically sought to redress this problem. In the early 1930s, Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth began experimenting with block printing on textiles through Poulk Press, established by Nicholson’s sister, Nancy. Later they would work under the auspices of Edinburgh Weavers (established in 1928) whose director, Alastair Morton, regularly commissioned artists throughout the 30s, 40s, and 50s to provide avant garde fabrics to the architectural trade.

Alastair Morton

Alastair Morton, late 1930s (?).

In October 1937, Morton launched the “Constructivist Fabrics” collection with designs by Nicholson,Hepworth,Winifred Nicholson (Nicholson’s first wife), and Arthur Jackson (Barbara Hepworth’s cousin).

Ben Nicholson—Princess, 1933

Ben Nicholson, Princess, 1933, hand block printed cotton.

Nicholson was already pre-occupied with flat geometric shapes in his paintings and linocut prints, and it is easy to imagine why he was influenced by Enid Marx’s work (though he found her techniques too slow and soon had his sister printing his designs). Nicholson produced some of the most austere textile prints of the pre-War period; but as Three Circles (above) demonstrates, he also could harness his fascination with geometry into appealing designs.

Hepworth’s textile designs closely follow her abstract paintings and drawings, in which she often worked out ideas for her sculptures. Hepworth had a gift for mathematics, and was close to her father (a civil engineer), so her two-dimensional works often have the vestiges of technical drawings in them. She and Nicholson were married for over 20 years, and although their work is different, it is also highly complementary.

Marianne Mahler—Treetops, 1939

Marianne Mahler, Treetops, 1939,
printed cotton and rayon furnishing fabric, printed by Edinburgh Weavers.

Though the importance of the Edinburgh Weavers within interior design industry was substantiated by the magazines and trendsetters of the 1930s and 40s, Morton once admitted that the fabrics weren’t always commercial successes:

There may be relatively few buildings yet that can suitably use them. But we are confident that they are the type of buildings and fabrics that the present generation wants and their production will have been justified if they have helped to develop a genuine contemporary style of interior decoration, keeping its place in the living culture of today.”

—Alistair Morton and Edinburgh Weavers, exhibition catalogue, Scottish National Gallery of Art, Edinburgh, 1978, p. 12

The company continued to produce avant garde textiles until Alastair Morton’s death in 1963.

Victor Vasarely, Oeta, furnishing fabric, 1962,
printed by Edinburgh Weavers, (courtesy Victoria & Albert Museum)

Henry Moore first became interested in fabrics during WWII, when Czech exiles Zika and Lida Ascher commissioned Moore, Matisse, Alexander Calder, Jean Cocteau, and others, to create designs for a collection of limited-edition silk scarves for their textile company. Soon Moore had filled four notebooks with designs, not simply for this commission, but for furnishing fabrics and dress-making material.

Henry Moore—Three Standing Figures, 1944, silk serigraphed scarf

Henry Moore, Three Standing Figures, 1944
serigraph on silk, printed by Ascher, Ltd.

His textile designs show a wholly different Moore, full of expressionistic line and color. Textile design fitted Moore’s socialist aim of integrating modern art into daily life, so familiar, though ominous, objects, including barbed wire or twisted safety pins,  gave his designs a distinctive hard edge. Whimsical motifs such as clock hands, sea creatures, and piano keys referenced Moore’s pre-war flirtation with surrealism.

Henry Moore, textile design

Henry Moore, textile design from sketchbook, 1940s, pencil/was/crayon/wash.

Given the drab chroma of his iconic stone and metal sculptures, one of the most astonishing elements of Moore’s textile designs is his use of vivid color. The artist conceived his hues—among them lime green, mustard yellow, bright pink—as a counterweight to post-war drabness. Moore once said that color for him was “a bit of a holiday,” and his work in textiles offered him the opportunity to work unfettered in this realm.

Wider Connections

Enid Marx
Alison Morton, hand weaver & daughter of Alistair Morton
VADS—Textile Collection
Meg Andrews—Antique Costumes & Textiles
Barbara Hepworth

“Henry Moore Textiles”

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