Omega Workshops (1913-19) mark
Dessert plate, ca. 1914-16
Earthenware with cobalt blue glaze
Diameter: 10 inches
Collection of Jasper Johns
The Omega Workshops
In 1913, Roger Fry opened the Omega Workshops at 33 Fitzroy Square, with Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell as codirectors. As a result of the second Post-Impressionist exhibition, Fry felt that to “rectify the lamentable condition of the applied arts” he would have to follow a course similar to Williams Morris’s and that “any attempt to bring art and industry together must depend to some extent on the aims and predilections current among artists of the day.” For Fry, this meant establishing an organization based on an application of the Post-Impressionist styles of Gauguin, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Picasso, and Matisse as well as incorporating the influences of Africa and the Middle East.
Though Fry eschewed the word “guild” when forming the workshops, to avoid any connection to Morris’s Arts and Crafts prototype, he did feel that “the greatest art has always been communal, the expression of common aspirations and ideals.” With this in mind, the Omega was established as a workshop where artists worked three half days a week for a subsistence wage of thirty shillings, freeing up their remaining time to concentrate on their own art. None of the work for the Omega was signed, though many artists participated in the venture at various times, including Wyndham Lewis, Edward Wadsworth, Frederick and Jessie Etchells, Nina Hamnett, Winifred Gill, Paul Nash, and Carrington.
Their output was remarkably varied, from cushion covers, scarves, lampshades, hats, and dresses, to tables, chairs, bedsteads, children’s toys, pottery, tie-dyeing, batik, and other textiles. Any design could be chosen for any purpose, which meant occasionally the same design was used to adorn quite different objects, such as a silk evening cloak and a firescreen. Winifred Gill remembered, “We just went ahead as we liked. I don’t remember ever being given any direction or the designs being criticized. The rather boring thing was that if a design became popular one had to keep copying it.”
By the end of the nineteenth century the word “omega” was in common use as meaning the last word on a subject, and many of Fry’s friends believed he chose this name to imply that the workshops were the last word in decorative art. His old friend C. R. Ashbee, the Arts and Crafts designer, chaffed him for the impertinence of suggesting this, but Gill remembered that Fry “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.”
Though the Omega Workshops attracted patrons, the timing could not have been much worse. Its heyday was the brief period shortly before the outbreak of World War I, and though it struggled to survive throughout the war, it was forced to close in 1919. By this time, Grant and Bell were living in Sussex and they began to accept commissions on their own, designing interior spaces for the Stracheys, Raymond Mortimer, Maynard Keynes, Angus Davidson, and the Woolfs’ home in Tavistock Square, which Virginia described as “all vast panels of moonrises and prima donna’s bouquets.” The Omega experience was transformed into a new direction in the work of Grant, Bell, and Carrington, who, for the rest of their careers, continued to spend much of their creative energies on the applied arts.
Hogarth Press and the Graphic Arts
In 1917, Leonard and Virginia Woolf acquired a small hand-printing press and set it up in the dining room of their home, Hogarth House. The purchase was intended to solve a variety of problems: it would allow them to publish their own work without the interference of editors and outside publishers; it would give Virginia a manual distraction from the day-to-day strain of writing; and it would allow them to publish the works of other artists they believed in.
After a rather steep learning curve, the Press began to flourish, establishing itself as an arbiter of avant-garde literary taste. Between 1917 and 1946, the Press published 525 titles with work by Katherine Mansfield, T. S. Eliot, Clive Bell, C. Day Lewis, Robert Graves, E. M. Forster, Christopher Isherwood, Maynard Keynes, William Plomer, and Vita Sackville-West as well as the first translation of contemporary foreign works, Freud, and the papers of the International Psycho-Analytical Institute.
The Press also opened avenues of expression for many of the artists of the day. Several of the earliest publications were supplemented with black-and-white woodcuts, a technique popular with William Morris, Eric Gill, Edward Wadsworth, and Roald Kristian as well as the French artists Roger Fry so much admired—Gauguin, Derain, Matisse, Picasso, and Vlaminck. The last of the four books that came out under the Omega imprint, Original Woodcuts by Various Artists (1919), boasted examples by Fry, Bell, Grant, Kristian, Simon Bussy, E. McKnight Kauffer, and Edward Wolfe. In 1921 the Hogarth Press published Fry’s Twelve Original Woodcuts.
Carrington, Vanessa Bell, and Duncan Grant all provided illustrations for works published by the Hogarth Press. But images provided by the artists were never intended to replicate the verbal imagery of the text; rather, they were intended to serve as the artist’s response to the words, creating an evocative cohesion between the two.