Archive for Virginia Woolf

Venetian Red Bookshelf: A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book

Posted in Book Review, Ceramics, Christine Cariati, Design, Fine & Decorative Arts, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 18, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

A. S. Byatt‘s The Children’s Book is a complex tapestry of a book. It begins in 1895 and ends during the Great War. It is woven through with sensuous descriptions of textiles, pottery glazes, art, clothing and sexual longing, as well as musings on what it is to be an artist or a writer.

As usual, Byatt’s writing is erudite, some would say to a fault. The Children’s Book is unrepentantly intellectual, filled with long, complex digressions on art and nature—and it basks, unashamedly, in the life of ideas. In The Children’s Book, Byatt mines all of her interests—history and natural history, the visual arts, literature, fairy tales, the decorative arts—and weaves them together in an epic tale of two generations of several artistic families (including nearly 20 children) who live in the Kentish countryside.

Victoria & Albert

How could I not love a book that begins in the South Kensington Museum, (later the Victoria & Albert), and immediately engages us with lush descriptions of the forms, ornamentation and glazes of gorgeous decorative objects? The main characters live in a house decorated in the aesthetic of the Arts & Crafts movement, with furniture and wallpaper by William Morris and his cohorts. Their lives are, at first glance, idyllic—Midsummer parties on vast lawns, with theater and puppet shows, open conversation about sexuality, talk about the suffragette movement, the Fabian Society and Socialist idealism. But there’s a dark undercurrent that quickly becomes apparent—a web of adultery, selfishness and secrecy.

William Morris

Byatt is particularly good at illuminating the irony in the disparity between her characters’ professed beliefs and the way they live their lives—whether in the social, sexual or artistic realm. Byatt also doesn’t shy away from showing us the destructive effect that parents’ misguided creativity can have on their children. Most ominously, the carnage of the coming war looms unseen, and many of the children we meet in the opening chapters will be casualties of that war. We feel tragically helpless, even as we worry about the ill effects of  their haphazard upbringing, we suspect these children will not live far into adulthood.

1895 was the end of the Victorian era and the beginning of the Edwardian age, when the cult of childhood began. It was the heyday of children’s literature—J.M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame and E Nesbit were writing their masterpieces. In fact, Byatt’s heroine, Olive Wellwood, who lives with her husband Humphry and their seven children in a country cottage called Todefright—a beloved children’s writer of dark, somewhat Germanic versions of English fairy stories—is largely inspired by E Nesbit. Olive says:

Well, I sometimes feel, stories are the inner life of this house. A kind of spinning of energy. I am this spinning fairy in the attic, I am Mother Goose quacking away what sounds like comforting chatter but is really — is really what holds it all together.

Other characters suggest hybrids of H.G. Wells, D.H. Lawrence—and writers Virginia Woolf, Rupert Brooke, George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde have cameos. It is also a conflicted age. As Byatt writes, “people talked, and thought, earnestly and frivolously, about sex,” at the same time showing “a paradoxical propensity to retreat into childhood, to read and write adventure stories, tales about furry animals, dramas about pre-pubertal children.”

This novel has a multi-stranded narrative, touches on many complex issues and has an enormous cast of characters. Among the interesting characters are Prosper Cain, Special Keeper of Precious Metals at the South Kensington Museum, and Benedict Fludd, a tempestuous and visionary potter (based largely on Eric Gill), who is also a monstrous, sexual predator. (Byatt’s choice of names, such as Cain and Fludd, seem somewhat biblical.) The book is filled with artists and political idealists. Midway through the book, many of the characters, in various combinations, attend the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900, and there are riveting descriptions of the exposition and its exhibits—including the work of Klimt, Rodin and Lalique.

Exposition Universelle, Paris, 1900

The action often grinds to a halt while Byatt lectures us about pottery glazes, the history of puppet theater or discourses on social issues. Each character’s clothing is lovingly detailed, works of art are described, fairy stories told, historical facts abound. Many find this surfeit of digression an irritant in Byatt’s work, and think the book overstuffed with ideas and descriptions. I can’t really dispute Byatt’s verbosity and her tendency to lecture. Nevertheless, Byatt’s descriptive abilities border on the sublime, and I relish a novelist who thinks—no, knows— that art is important, and who invents characters, for all their serious flaws, who are engaged with the moral struggle to define (or evade) their responsibilities, assess their gifts and search for (or resist) some kind of enlightenment through creativity.

If you decide to read the book, I recommend you slow down and enjoy the ride, including the numerous side-trips and detours. It may, as some critics argue, be too much, but in my opinion, most contemporary novels offer way too little—so I’ll vote  for an excess of ideas, beautifully described, any day. If you’ve read The Children’s Book, please share your thoughts with Venetian Red.

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

Venetian Red Notebook: The Art of Reading (and Writing) in Bloomsbury

Posted in Book Review, Christine Cariati, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 17, 2009 by Christine Cariati

CarringtonStracheyDora Carrington, Lytton Strachey, 1916

The Bloomsbury Group of painters, decorative artists, novelists and essayists were also apparently avid readers. Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry painted many portraits of each other, their friends and relations reading, writing and painting. One of their favorite subjects was writer Lytton Strachey, author of Eminent Victorians. Grant, Bell and Fry all painted his portrait, as did Dora Carrington, a great friend of Strachey’s, who chose to keep herself on the fringes of the Bloomsbury circle.

Paintings of people reading are very intriguing. They are quite unlike portraits and self-portraits wherein the subjects make eye contact with the viewer and present how they see themselves, and, perhaps more importantly, how they wish the world to see them. Portraits can be very reassuring, the artist shows us another human face, we look in to their eyes, we recognize something familiar, we connect.

Reading is a solitary, contemplative act—the subject’s gaze is inward, their relationship is with the written word, and we seem to catch them slightly off-guard. The sitter may be deeply absorbed in their book, or perhaps gazing off, lost in thought, musing about what they have just read, or dozing as the book falls into their lap. The artist draws us in to this intimate moment.

Grant, Portrait of Vanessa Bell in an ArmchairDuncan Grant, Portrait of Vanessa Bell in an Armchair, 1915
Yale Center for British Art, New Haven

In some cases we don’t see their face at all, as in Duncan Grant’s Crime and Punishment, below. Grant’s cousin, Marjorie Strachey, (sister of Lytton) is overcome with emotion— she has just finished reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which lies closed beside her on the sofa. Originally titled Despair, the image reverberates with the sense of isolation that pervades the novel.

Grant, Crime & PunishmentDuncan Grant, Crime and Punishment, 1909
Tate, London

Duncan Grant painted Crime and Punishment on board, on the verso is this painting, below, of Lytton Strachey reading a large tome.

Grant, Lytton StracheyDuncan Grant, Lytton Strachey, 1901
Tate, London

James Strachey, the much-younger brother of Lytton Strachey, and later a well-known psychoanalyst, pauses in his reading to reflect.

Grant, James StracheyDuncan Grant, James Strachey, 1910
Tate, London

Leonard Woolf was an author, political theorist and publisher, who with his wife, Virginia Woolf, founded the Hogarth Press in 1917.

Vanessa Bell, Leonard WoolfVanessa Bell, Leonard Woolf, 1940
National Portrait Gallery, London

Winifred Gill was an artist, textile designer, puppeteer and social activist who was an important contributor to the Omega Workshop.

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

Vanessa Bell’s Impressionist portrait of Lytton Strachey.

Vanessa Bell, Lytton StracheyVanessa Bell, Portrait of Lytton Strachey, 1913
Private Collection

The writer Dame Edith Sitwell, in a contemplative pose.

FryEdithSitwellRoger Fry, Portrait of Edith Sitwell, 1915
City Art Galleries, Sheffield

Another Bloomsbury member, the writer and economist John Maynard Keynes in two portraits by Duncan Grant.

Grant, J.M.KeynesDuncan Grant, John Maynard Keynes, 1908
Provost and Fellows of King’s College, Cambridge

Grant, J.M.KeynesDuncan Grant, John Maynard Keynes, c 1917
Private Collection

Duncan Grant painted this portrait of his and Vanessa Bell’s daughter, Angelica, reading by the stove.

Grant, The Stove, Fitzroy StreetDuncan Grant, The Stove, Fitzroy Street, 1936
Private Collection

Since so many of these portraits were painted by Duncan Grant we will close with this portrait of him reading in the sitting room at Charleston.

Vanessa Bell, Interior with Duncan GrantVanessa Bell, Interior with Duncan Grant, 1934
Williamson Art Gallery and Museum, Birkenhead

Eminent Victorians: Julia Margaret Cameron and Virginia Woolf

Posted in Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , , on June 23, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

(Top) Julia Margaret Cameron, Julia Jackson, albumen print, ca. 1867; (Bottom) George Charles Beresford, Virginia Woolf, platinum print, 1902.

While on the subject of Julia Cameron. .  . (see Alice of the Pure Unclouded Brow) I couldn’t help noticing the many portraits of a contemporary of Alice Liddell, a pure pre-Raphaelite beauty, Julia Prinsep Jackson (top).  Julia Jackson was one of Cameron’s favorite sitters; she happened also to be her neice, daughter of Cameron’s sister Maria.   Julia Jackson (1846-1895) married Sir Leslie Stephen (writer and critic) and they begat Virginia (1882-1941), who later married Leonard Woolf, as well as artist Vanessa, who would be a founding member of The Omega Group. V. Stephens looks were distinctive—the long narrow face and those bug-y eyes!— and the portrait above of her has been pretty widely circulated. Still, I was surprised to learn of Virginia’s connection to Cameron.  Julia Stephens died when Virginia was just 13,  and this event was to haunt the writer for many years.

Virginia and her mother were skeins in a familial and social web of the sort that has bound English aristocrats together for centuries—

Julia Jackson’s first marriage was to Herbert Duckworth, a barrister, who died tragically a few years into their marriage. Duckworth might have been a descendent of William the Conquerer, but that illustrious lineage wouldn’t have passed to Virginia, as he was not her father. Interestingly, his descendants are related to Princess Diana. Not to be outdone, however, Virginia was descended on her mother’s side from a page in Marie Antoinette’s court.

Julia Jackson also posed for Edward Burne-Jones, the pre-eminent pre-Raphaelite painter; we know that she was the model for the head of the virgin in  his Adoration of the Magi.

Sir Leslie Stephens’ (Virginia’s father) was a widower when he met Julia Jackson Duckworth. His first wife was the daughter of author William Makepeace Thackeray (Vanity Fair).

In 1926, Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) wrote an introduction to Julia Margaret Cameron’s (her great-aunt) posthumously-published Victorian Photographs of Famous Men & Fair Women.

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