The Charleston Attic

Month: April, 2016

Omega Textiles: Artistic Production for Domestic Design

An inscription featured on the verso of this object allows us a glimpse into what its image might conceal. The address of Omega Workshops Ltd. ‘33 Fitzroy Square’ is inscribed on the paper. This firm, which was directors’ Roger Fry, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bells’ first experiment in commercial domestic design, was in a way a patronage of their recognisably bold modernist design aesthetic.

With roots in many aspects of the Arts and Crafts movement, which developed at the end of the 19th century, Omega, established in 1913, sought to remove perceived divisions between the decorative and fine arts. Designing and producing furniture, textiles, painted murals and household goods; the Omega Workshops became a method through which Fry could employ and encourage artistic work from many of his friends and acquaintances. The aesthetic of Omega was largely Post-Impressionist, however numerous other influences become apparent when studying the breadth of work produced in their short period of trading.

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CHA/P/2622.  Omega pattern design. Gouache on graph paper. Recto. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Standing alone, as a piece of art usually must, the design is modern, geometric and angular in composition. Its circles, arranged in context like cogs revolving in a mechanical engine seem an influence at odds with the arts and crafts ethos, one of Vorticist and Cubo-Futurist movements of the period. These sought to capture speed and energy with an interest in the mechanics and dynamics of the modern age.

A couple of words scattered on the back of the piece craft a complex history of its authorship; these read ‘Not by VB. Fry?’. Inscribed in pencil as lightly as the comment is unsure of itself, they are markings of a number of possible viewers. We know Grant signed many works retrospectively in the 1960s (sometimes even signing the work of others, often attributing work to ‘VB’), both for exhibition and sale. Previous to the Angelica Garnett collection being gifted to Charleston, others would have had access to the works so this inscription could have been penned by a viewer after Grant’s death. The letters on the recto of the image (written contemporaneously) seem to spell ‘soiree’ which could be the authors title for the piece, and below a three letter initial which matches none of the known members’ signatures. According to the inscriptions on the verso, the latter authority must have agreed, and attributes the image (uncertainly) to Roger Fry.

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CHA/P/2622. Blank page with inscriptions; ‘Not by VB. Fry?’ and ’33 Fitzroy Square’. Verso. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

The design is painted in gouache on graph paper; the squared canvas allowing for precise straight lines and calculated geometric pattern. Additionally, this material could have been used to accommodate a better translation into a rug, cushion or textile design. Omega artists produced patterns and these unusual designs had to be translated, often creatively, by manufacturers. Omega rug designs were thought to be manufactured by English firm ‘The Royal Wilton Carpet Factory’ who opened a London office in 1913. To ensure products were bought for their aesthetic appeal and quality, and not for the reputation of the artist or designer, works were not signed individually. Works were marked only by the letter ‘Ω’. This could be why the design appears not to be signed by any known Omega textile artist.

It is possible that this piece was created by Frederick Etchells, painter and founding member of the Omega workshops, following that many of his works on canvas were highly geometrical in style. In 1913, during production of works for Omega, Etchells worked closely and in collaboration with Duncan Grant in Grant’s London studio. Etchells decision to leave the guild at the end of that year was followed by his joining Wyndham Lewis’ Vorticists, a group that were in opposition to Omega. Though Etchells soon gave up painting and became a successful architect, this preliminary work certainly shows a sense of the architectural, featuring blocks built on top of one another with relief-like circular and square forms structured into the image.

Although the written signature is missing here; the signing ultimately is in the work, where paint and painter combine to produce a corporeal object and image standing in for the body and then name of the painter. We can only speculate as to who the author is but this preliminary design for a textile shows a vision for domestic design that remains modern 100 years after its production.

‘Collaboration at Cambridge: Bloomsbury Heritage in Domestic Aesthetic’

Last week was #MuseumWeek 2016, and to celebrate, The Charleston Attic will once again be joining institutions all over the world by writing a blog post reflecting one of the themes trending on Twitter.

Thursday’s theme of cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible, shows the scope for discovery within the several thousand works on paper and canvas that make up the Angelica Garnett Gift.

Last week also marked our independence as the new Attic Interns as we continue with the task in hand: to photograph, catalogue and publish Grant and Bell’s works so that they may be viewed online. There is much excitement to be had in unearthing new items in the collection, and it seems like the perfect opportunity, in celebration of Charleston’s cultural heritage through the Gift, to talk about this week’s findings in relation to the theme.

We have been looking closely at two sketchbooks by Duncan Grant; dated circa 1919 and 1923 respectively. Grant, as we well know, was always drawing- his sketchbooks alone make up a large part of the Gift. The earlier sketchbook contains preparatory figurative studies for the mural that Grant and Vanessa Bell had designed for John Maynard Keynes’ rooms at Webb’s Court, King’s College, Cambridge in 1920. These were the second set of murals that John Maynard Keynes had commissioned from Grant for his Cambridge rooms; the first being in 1910. These four panels were covered some years later and the room redesigned in 1920, when a new mural was put in place.

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Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, Mural for John Maynard Keynes (1920), Webb’s Court, King’s College. Photograph © King’s College Archives.

Filling entire pages in the book, the figurative studies in pencil and charcoal are emphasized by the variations of shadow and shading made through the boldness of the pressed line on the faded cream paper. Looking at Grant’s sketches of these figures, his focus on certain parts of the body is apparent. His large rough outlines of hands and feet, drawn as appendages to the shapely legs and arms continuing off the pages, conveys bodily movement, as we imagine what the figures would look like as a whole.

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CHA/P/2620/19 Duncan Grant, study of feet, pencil and charcoal on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

 

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CHA/P/2620/9 Duncan Grant, study of hands, pencil and charcoal on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

The figures depicted on the panels are vivid; they are painted in bright colour, and are almost life-size. The poses they strike are dynamic. Although they are dominant – as painted figures they are made the focus of the space’s decoration – the poses they strike are less sexualized than the figures in the original mural by Grant, where surviving photographs show a revel of semi-nude male and female dancers cavorting in a lush vineyard, their baskets burgeoning under the weight of nature’s pleasures in the form of fresh fruit.

‘Grant’s imagery links the abundance of nature with the sensual pleasures of wine, music, and the body, so that nature is figured as sensual and sensuality is asserted as natural.’, writes Christopher Reed about the scene in the early mural in ‘Bloomsbury Rooms’. ‘These themes anticipate the subsequent half-century of Bloomsbury’s domestic iconography, and, in broadest terms, express the group’s determination to implement a domestic existence in opposition to the conventional Victorian equation of civilisation with dominion over nature and discipline over the body.’

The figures in Grant’s initial 1910 mural and in his later 1920 collaboration with Bell are classical, a decidedly  Post-Impressionist aesthetic that harks back to the Renaissance. This is as much a reflection of his painterly style as it is of Bell’s, and it marks one of their earliest artistic collaborations in interiors.

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CHA/P/2620/20 Duncan Grant, figure study, pencil and charcoal on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

 

Grant’s early and later designs for these murals, conveys, in Reed’s words, ‘…[a] sensual vision’ on Grant’s part, one which ‘re-imagine[s]…a domestic environment to express [a] new way…of life [through]…sexual identity.’Reed saw Grant’s decoration of Keynes’ living space as ‘sett[ing] a modern stage for a new way of life’ for Keynes, ‘the life of a young economist [at Cambridge] who was Grant’s friend and lover.’

The expression of radical ideas through creative practises was the drive behind the Bloomsbury domestic aesthetic that led to Charleston. The interiors decorated by Bell and Grant are as much a demonstration of their artistic practises as their works on canvas. Through our work with the collection, we are gaining a rich insight into the cultural heritage at Charleston.

The objects and their surroundings provide tangible evidence of a past way of life and work. This quotidian sketchbook of Duncan Grant’s is one of many, just like all of the sketchbooks Grant tucked away in the nooks and crannies in corners of the rooms at Charleston. Today is it this particular sketchbook, filled with rough studies for the mural on Keynes’ sitting room wall, that reveals traces of the early Bloomsbury domestic aesthetic.

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CHA/P/2620/2 Duncan Grant, figure study, pencil and charcoal on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

 

 

 

 

 

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