The brainchild of Roger Fry, the Omega Workshops was established in 1913 with Fry, Vanessa Bell, and Duncan Grant as co-directors at 33 Fitzroy Square, Bloomsbury. Here, they and other avant-garde artists such as Wyndham Lewis, Henri Doucet, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Nina Hamnett, and Frederick and Jessie Etchells worked on fashion and homeware items including ceramics, furniture, murals, mosaics, textiles, painted screens, and even, on occasion, stage sets.
The Omega Workshops: Background, Intentions, & Influences
The Omega’s raison d’être was simple: to unite the fine and decorative arts. Writing to George Bernard Shaw with the aim of fundraising, Fry stated that there were “many young artists whose painting shows strong decorative feeling, who will be glad to use their talents on applied art both as a means of livelihood and as an advantage to their work as painters and sculptors” (see Further Reading, Marks, p. 18). In doing so, Omega artists would be paid thirty shillings for three and a half days’ work, leaving them free to pursue their own art in the remaining days of the week.
Within this, Fry – whose post-Impressionist exhibition of 1910 had caused something of a stir within the British art scene– hoped to bring the influence of continental art into British homes via the pieces made and sold at the Omega. A pronounced Fauvist, Matissian influence is discernible in the Omega’s preference for bold lines and bolder color palettes, not least apparent in the sign hanging outside 33 Fitzroy Square, redesigned in 1915 by Grant. Naturally, the Omega aesthetic stood in marked contrast with traditional British taste.
Though the comparison with the firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Company is perhaps inevitable, from the very start, the Omega Workshops had little in common with the Arts and Crafts movement. Lacking William Morris’ ambition by his own admission, Fry stated in the Omega Prospectus that he did “not hope to solve the social problems of production at the same time as the artistic.”
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This is not to say that the Omega was entirely devoid of social ambition: not only did it provide paid work for struggling artists, but Fry also organized a series of talks, concerts, and dramatic performances to raise funds for Belgian refugees following the outbreak of war in 1914. However, despite his insistence on bringing the artist and the artisan into closer alignment, Fry took what might be considered a more pragmatic view of the role of machine manufacture in the Omega Workshops: if a machine could make an object as well as or better than an artisan, then a machine would be used.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, the wares on sale at the Omega Workshops were never marketed to the average man on the street. Despite the artisanal, somewhat rustic appearance of some of its products, the goods on sale at the Omega Workshops were often far from inexpensive. Rather, the Omega tended to appeal to the cultural elite, with such writers as Virginia Woolf, W. B. Yeats, Edith Sitwell, H. G. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw purchasing items.
The enterprise, moreover, relied on funding from wealthy patrons such as Maud Cunard, an American socialite, and Princess Mechtilde Lichnowsky, who gave her name to an Omega printed linen now attributed to Frederick Etchells and featured in the set design of the 1914 play The Wynmartens.
Division & Defection: The Ideal Home Rumpus
Not long into its six-year run, however, cracks soon started to form. In the space of just three months, a dispute between two factions of the Omega broke out, with Fry, Bell, and Grant on one side and Wyndham Lewis, Frederick Etchells, Cuthbert Hamilton, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, and Edward Wadsworth on the other. Though Lewis also objected to the Omega’s insistence on not attributing works to specific artists, tensions came to a climax in what has come to be known as the “Ideal Home rumpus.”
Following an invitation from the Daily Mail to display an Omega-decorated sitting room at the 1913 Ideal Home exhibition – which Fry eagerly accepted – Lewis bitterly cut ties with the Omega, taking Etchells, Hamilton, Gaudier-Brzeska, and Wadsworth with him. Together, they were instrumental in forming the Vorticist movement, developed the rival (short-lived) Rebel Art Centre in nearby Great Ormond Street, and published the first issue of the magazine Blast.
With its emphasis on patriotism and its condemnation of what it took to be the effete prettiness of the British art scene (the Omega Workshops included), Vorticism was in stark contrast with the remaining Omega artists, many of whom were pacifists. Though vorticism would not survive the First World War – and, in turn, the Omega Workshops would not do much better – Lewis continued to undermine and lampoon the Omega and the Bloomsbury Group more generally. In the second (and last) edition of Blast, published in 1915, Lewis lambasted what he witheringly referred to as “Mr. Fry’s curtain and pin-cushion factory in Fitzroy Square” for its “abject, anaemic, and amateurish manifestations of this Matisse ‘decorativeness’” (see Further Reading, Shone, p. 115).
Cracks, however, were not just forming between the Omega artists. Despite their high prices, customers were often disappointed by the quality of Omega products. As Woolf wrote in her biography of Fry: “Cracks appeared. Legs came off. Varnish ran” (see Further Reading, Woolf, p. 196).
After a customer reported that her Omega garden bench had lost its paint during a frost, Bell proposed that they “send her a pot of the right color with directions on how to paint it again” (see Further Reading, Reed, p. 121). In a letter from 1914, George Bernard Shaw drew Fry’s attention to the poorly made objects on sale at the Omega and suggested making better use of window displays. Nonetheless, he also agreed to contribute a further £500 to the Workshops’ funds.
The Beginning of the End: The Outbreak of World War I
1914, of course, also saw the outbreak of the First World War, a conflict that was to put further strain on the Omega. From the start, Fry had hoped that the Omega Workshops would introduce elements of a continental post-Impressionist aesthetic into British interiors. The outbreak of war, however, sparked a violently nationalist knee-jerk reaction among certain sections of the British population, leading to an instinctive distrust of all things perceived to be new and non-native. Moreover, many artists associated with the Omega were pacifists and conscientious objectors, not least of all Duncan Grant and Roger Fry, the latter having been raised as a Quaker.
In contrast, Lewis and the other defecting artists signed up soon after war was declared: Wadsworth joined the navy before being invalided out in 1917 and subsequently worked on naval dazzle camouflage, and Lewis served on the western front as a second lieutenant in the Royal Artillery before being made an official war artist following the Battle of Passchendaele, while Gaudier-Brzeska died in action in 1915 fighting in the French Army.
Arguably, Lewis’ pro-war stance was in line with his above-cited criticisms of the Omega’s predilection for prettiness or “decorativeness.” And with the outbreak of war, a pernicious and reactionary view took hold in certain quarters of British society in which overtly Modernist or Bohemian enterprises such as the Omega were perceived as “feminizing forces” capable of “sap[ping] the nation of its vigour and the will to fight,” as Arthur S. Marks (2010) explains. Though never a popular enterprise by any means, the Omega was falling out of favor.
In the war’s final year, however, the Omega was commissioned to provide the stage set for Too Much Money, a comedic farce written by Israel Zangwill. The play’s title might be seen as somewhat ironic, however, in light of the Omega Workshops’ finances. Never achieving financial security, the Omega was reliant on the patronage of the cultural elite. Fry, after largely financing the Omega through his own money (he had inherited a substantial legacy upon the death of his chocolatier uncle, Joseph Storrs Fry II, in 1913), made the decision to close the Omega Workshops in 1918. A sale was held in June of the following year, and the remaining products were sold off. By 1920, the enterprise had been officially liquidated.
Personal Treachery: The End of the Omega Workshops
Writing in her diary in December 1918, Virginia Woolf described a visit from Fry:
“We had some melancholy revelations about the treachery of certain friends towards the Omega. Roger’s great point is that though superficially unbalanced & exaggerated his sense of balance is always right in the end; he is always magnanimous and forgiving, however much weight he may lay upon imaginary or semi-imaginary grievances. The Omega case is that his artists accept commissions independently of the Omega. For that & other reasons the poor shop has been a source of unmitigated disillusion to him – a weariness & grievance.”
(See Further Reading, Marks, p. 30).
As Marks (2010) explains, the “certain friends” to whom Woolf refers here are none other than Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, Woolf’s own sister, and the nature of their treachery was accepting a private commission from peripheral Bloomsbury Group members St John and Mary Hutchinson to design and decorate a dining room for them.
This, however, was perhaps not the only act of treachery from which Fry was left smarting. It can be argued that tensions were mounting within the Omega’s co-directorship. Fry had first met Bell, along with her husband, Clive, outside Cambridge Railway Station in 1910. A year later, the three went on holiday to Turkey, during which Bell suffered a miscarriage and a subsequent breakdown. Finding Fry more attentive to her than her own husband, Fry and Bell began an affair in the summer of 1911. The affair came to an end when Bell fell in love with Grant. Fry, however, was still in love with Bell and would remain so for years to come.
Meanwhile, Bell had fallen in love with Grant, who, despite being openly homosexual, fathered a daughter with Bell, who was born on Christmas Day 1918. If Fry had hoped to keep Bell close by making her and Grant co-directors of the Omega Workshops, it was clear that her life now lay with Grant, with whom she continued to live and collaborate until her death in 1961.
The Omega is typically read as something of a footnote to the history of Modernist art. Indeed, lacking the enduring commercial appeal of Morris & Co. and the cultural impact of the Bauhaus Movement, even Fry himself, in 1924, would refer to it as “the ill-fated Omega Workshops.” If the Omega Workshops were indeed doomed to failure, however, this need not necessarily be a reflection on the enterprise itself but on its context.
For all Fry believed that the Omega Workshops had been “a failure,” he was even more convinced that “it would have succeeded in any other European country but England.” Just as his post-Impressionist exhibition of 1910 had “let the continental cat out of the bag,” as Christopher Reed (2004) states, the Omega sought to bring continental taste into British homes. Though it met with resistance in this regard, the Omega Workshops produced innovative wares, brought continental influences into British art, and supported the careers of some of the most important artists of the twentieth century. In this sense, then, the legacy of the Omega has had the last word.
Agwin, Ben (2019). “The Omega Workshops and the modern artistic interior on the British stage, 1914-1918, with special reference to The Wynmartens (1914)”. Interiors, 10 (1-2), 7-38.
Marks, Arthur S. (2012). “A sign and a shop sign: The Ω and Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops.” The British Art Journal, 13 (1), 18-36.
Reed, Christopher (2004). Bloomsbury Rooms: Modernism, Subculture, and Domesticity. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Shone, Richard (1976). Bloomsbury Portraits: Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, and their Circle. Oxford: Phaidon.
Woolf, Virginia (2003). Roger Fry. London: Vintage.