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.
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.
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.