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Thursday, March 4, 2010

Bold Lives, Bold Interiors: the Alpha and Omega of Bloomsbury

The sun is shining, the birds are singing and the washing machine is fixed – so what could be better than a spot of musing on one of my favourite subjects: the decorative arts of Bloomsbury. If I had any skills in that department, my husband would come home to find that I had taken a paintbrush to his suits and carved a cherub on the front door. Because I haven’t, and to maintain our good relations, I limit myself to books about how the Bloomsbury group decorated the space that surrounded them.

My latest indulgence is “Omega and after: Bloomsbury and the decorative arts” by Isabelle Anscombe with a foreword by John Lehmann. This book tells the story of the long defunct Omega Studio, interlaced with the extraordinary personal tales of the people who founded and ran it.

In 1913, one year before the outbreak of the Great War, Roger Fry, the enfant terrible of the British art establishment founded the Omega Workshop in London’s Fitzroy Square. He did so with the help of his friend and lover, the artist Vanessa Bell and another artist, who was not yet a lover of either of them; Duncan Grant. The Omega Workshop was set up to provide work for struggling artists. The idea was that they were able to spend a few days per week decorating furniture and fabrics which would then be sold by Omega. In this was they were afforded a little money and the time to pursue the development of their talents. The style was simple and striking – gone were the days of the lace tablecloth and the covered piano leg.

The life of Omega was driven in no small part by the relationships between its founders – relationships which were of Byzantine complexity. At the time of foundation the love affair between Roger Fry, middle aged widower, and Vanessa Bell, young married mother was gradually unfolding. Vanessa was married to the kindly philandering Clive Bell and was drawn to the artistic verve and conversation of Fry. The Omega project was inextricably connected with their feelings for one another. When the Omega Workshop folded 6 years later, that too owed much to the personal. By that time, Vanessa was deeply in love with the homosexual Duncan Grant and the two were engaged in a companionable partnership that was to last for the rest of her life. Six months after the birth of Vanessa and Duncan’s child, the writer Angelica Garnett, the Omega Workshop was closed.

Its death was due in large part to the fact that Vanessa was now tied to the rural home that she shared with Duncan and her children. Whilst the workshop closed and its goods were sold off, Vanessa and Duncan set about decorating what would be the most famous example of their domestic vision: Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex. This is a house, which can be visited today, and where every surface is painted, every corner designed. The lives and loves of the inhabitants and their commitment to their home is writ large on every wall. The style is bold, colourful, arresting and was born in the Omega Workshop. It is a million miles from the austere propriety of the Victorian and Edwardian houses that Roger, Vanessa and Duncan grew up in.

This book is a super contribution to the slightly overcrowded library of Bloomsbury themed books. It tells the story succinctly and is beautifully illustrated. Being a woman who would paint the surface of the dining room table if I could, I was a little disappointed that there was not more on how the Omega and Bloomsbury style has impacted upon later generations. Clearly the style still resonates today and Charleston’s many visitors must have in some small way reproduced its visions in their own homes. It would have been nice to read about this. For the moment I shall have to content myself with pictures. I have included a few of various Charleston wonders.

20 comments:

  1. This book sounds fascinating. One of my favourite eras, and I do love a good tangle of artistic love affairs!

    www.lampandbook.blogspot.com

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  2. I love the work produced by Omega. I saw the exhibition the Courtauld did on Omega last summer and it was absolutely wonderful getting to see the beautifully painted furniture, rugs and textile designs up so close. I'd love to have a leaf through this book!

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  3. Thank you Hannah for such an enlightening post. I have always been fascinated by the tangled lives of the artistic Bloomsbury Set, but didn't know very much about the Omega Studio - the book sounds very interesting. What an amazing group of people!

    I absolutely love Charleston House and we will visit it again on our Sussex weekend coming up in the early summer. Like you I would paint everything that moves. I just love the flower motifs on the panelling in your second photo!

    Have a great weekend. Jeanne

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  4. Hi all - thanks for your comments

    Lulu - yes they are fascinating aren't they and the books are always beautifully illustrated with art that the protagonists produced....

    Rachel - I would have loved to get to that exhibition but I somehow managed to miss it what with getting married, being away, spending a ridiculous amount of time in job interviews etc - such a shame. I'm glad that you enjoyed it though.

    Jeanne - yes isn't Charleston beautiful, I hope you enjoy your weekend in Sussex - summer is a great time as the garden which is so connected to the house will be in its prime and a great place to sit and contemplate...

    Have great weekends all,

    Hannah

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  5. What a great review! I want to learn more. That book is going on my wish list.

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  6. How fascinating! I had never heard of Omega before and I love the arts and this time period. What beautiful photos to illustrate your points!

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  7. Hi - thanks for your comments

    Rose City Reader - thanks for visiting. there are quite a lot of books on Bloomsbury - both the literary and the artistic/decorative side (some would say alightly too many!) and I do hope that you enjoy discovering..

    Amused - thank you so much for your kind comments - the pictures in books about Bloomsbury are always great!

    Have a great weekend

    Hannah

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  8. I'm reading a biography of Virginia Woolf right now, so I'm all about Bloomsbury. Gorgeous photos!

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  9. Very cool looking house. I'll have to scare up a copy of the book and read further.

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  10. Love those prints. Never managed to get into Woolf. From that era I'm more of an admirer of Rebecca West.

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  11. This one sounds wonderful - this is an area I really want to start reading more about. What others would you suggest?

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  12. What a great post. I didn't know about this aspect of the Bloomsbury set.

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  13. I've added the book to my "must-have" list. I have several Bloomsbury books, but they don't tell a lot about Omega. I can't find the book in Sweden though, so I have search the web for it.

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  14. Hi all - thanks very much for your comments

    Bybee - enjoy the biography - I do love Virginia Woolf's work

    Kristen - hope you enjoy reading more. Charleston is a pretty amazing house..

    Vintage Reading - I would really like to get into Rebecca West although I have never actually read anything of hers. I think that Persephone Books use some of the Omega prints on their end papers.

    Karen - I am so pleased that you are interested! If you are interested in Bloomsbury from an art point of view - I would recommend "Vanessa Bell" by Frances Spalding - and if from the literary point of view then "Lytton Strachey" by Michael Holroyd. Also - reading the output of the Bloomsbury Group - Strachey, Woolf, E. M. Forster is also a wonderful introduction to their world. Enjoy!

    Thomas - Thanks so much for your comment - the artistic legecy of the Bloomsbury set tends to get a bit ignored compared with their literary legacy - but I think that it is well worth remembering!

    Em - I do hope that you manage to get hold of it, I got mind on amazon. Thanks so much for visiting!

    Have a great week all,

    Hannah

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  15. I really enjoy the interplay of story and images.

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  16. Hi Paul - thanks for visiting and I am pleased to hear that you enjoyed the post - I guess that a wonderful mix of stories and images is the joy of Bloomsbury...

    Have a great week,

    Hannah

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  17. Congratulations for your interesting blog, Hanna! Nice place, informative posts ...I'll be back! Cheers.
    MG

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  18. Hannah, you write beautiful reviews and though I had not heard of this book, you have made me very curious about it. Great review, and the photos add a wonderful touch!

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  19. Maria - Thank you so much for visiting and for your kind comments....

    Zibilee - I am so pleased that my review has interested you in this book - it is a good read and an interesting subject...

    Have a great week,

    Hannah

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  20. Oh, I love this post. I'm one of those who can never read enough about the times and the people. Something that draws me is the beauty in a domestic setting - the way one's home is the work of art. The vase of flowers is gorgeous in itself, but to paint in the background so that the viewer sees it in context is a wonder to me. I've not been to either of the sisters' houses but I've seen pictures.

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