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Virginia Woolf portrait comes home and major exhibition opens at Charleston
Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell, 1912 © National Portrait Gallery, London The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett.


FIRLE.- 100 years after the Omega Workshops closed their doors in the heart of bohemian London, a major exhibition exploring their radical approach to modern design and living opened at Charleston this weekend, where the Workshops’ ideals found their most convincing expression.

Established by the painter and art critic Roger Fry in 1913, the Omega Workshops were a design enterprise that employed many of the most avant-garde artists of the day. Inspired by the new, vital spirit of Post-Impressionism they created thrillingly bold, colourful and abstract items for the home that challenged the social sensibilities of Edwardian Britain. In 1913, Fry remarked to a journalist:

Post-Impressionist Living: The Omega Workshops (14 September 2019 – 19 January 2020) features the largest display of Omega objects in more than 30 years, with around 200 works on show. The exhibition traces the Workshops’ philosophy and beginnings through to their pioneering experiments in interior design.

Drawing on loans from the V&A, The Courtauld Gallery, a number of private collectors and Charleston’s own collection, the exhibition showcases some of the finest examples of the Workshops’ furniture, ceramics, printed fabrics and textiles, including many works on public display for the first time. Works on paper that reveal the vision and design processes of the artists who worked at the Omega Workshops also feature.

Fry viewed art as a necessary facet of everyday life and, through the Omega Workshops, sought to remove what he saw as the false division between fine and decorative art. This experimental moment in design history sparked a change in British taste and style that still resonates today. At their height, artists employed by the Workshops included Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Frederick and Jessie Etchells, Nina Hamnett, Henri Doucet, Edward Wadsworth, Alvaro Guevara, Edward Wolfe and Wyndham Lewis.

Well ahead of their time, the Workshops’ expressive, colourful and bold designs pioneered many of the trends which became wildly fashionable in the fabrics and ceramics of the 1920s and 30s. Virginia Woolf, George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, W.B. Yeats and E.M. Forster; as well as high society figures like Lady Ottoline Morrell and Maud Cunard were among the customers at the Workshops’ premises at 33 Fitzroy Square, London. Even Gertrude Stein paid a visit.

As the former home of the Omega Workshops’ co-directors, Bloomsbury artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, Charleston is a fitting setting for the exhibition. The House’s playfully painted interiors, brightly decorated furniture and embroideries make it the living embodiment of a Post-Impressionist inspired home. When Bell and Grant moved to Charleston in October 1916 they brought an array of Omega items with them, and today Charleston’s collection includes the tableware the Bloomsbury group ate with and the chairs they sat on.

Dr Darren Clarke, Head of Collections, Research and Exhibitions at Charleston who has curated the exhibition said: "Roger Fry's vision for the Omega Workshops was to bring the Post-Impressionist aesthetic into the home. Charleston is that living ideal; a place where art and design merge and live harmoniously. Still inspiring artists and creatives today, the Omega created exciting and radical designs, looking for honesty and integrity as well as beauty and mindfulness in the items people chose for their homes”.

Vanessa Bell’s first solo exhibition was held at the Omega Workshops in 1916 and accompanying the exhibition is Bell’s portrait of her sister, the writer Virginia Woolf. It is on display at Charleston for the first time as part of COMING HOME, a major National Portrait Gallery project.

COMING HOME sees 50 portraits of iconic individuals from the national Collection travelling to the towns and cities most closely associated with their subjects.

The portrait of Virginia Woolf, one of the 20th century’s most important novelists and a central figure in the Bloomsbury group, was painted by her elder sister Vanessa Bell at Asheham; the Sussex home the two sisters took in 1912. It is only a short distance from Charleston, the house that Bell would take with her friend and lover Duncan Grant in 1916 and Monk’s house, the marital home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf from 1919.

Asheham was a place of experimentation, where Vanessa Bell could try out new colour schemes and decorations away from the publicity of London. In 1912, while Bell was painting this portrait of her sister, plans were already being made to take the Bloomsbury group’s interest in Post-Impressionist art into the home. Woolf is depicted in an armchair knitting, her facial features are blurred, abstracted through the use of bold areas of colour inspired the Post-Impressionists. This blurring serves the portrait with a sense of intimacy and highlights the painter’s proximity to the sitter.

Dr Nicholas Cullinan, Director of the National Portrait Gallery said: “We are delighted to lend Vanessa Bell’s portrait of her sister Virginia Woolf to Charleston as part of our exciting new COMING HOME initiative. We hope that sending portraits ‘home’ in this way will foster a sense of pride and create a personal connection for local communities to a bigger national history; thus helping us to fulfil our aim of being truly a national gallery for everyone, in our role as the nation’s family album.”

Post-Impressionist Living: The Omega Workshops is the latest exhibition to be staged in Charleston’s new galleries which opened last September. From Cubist-style lampshade holders and rugs to Fauvist-inspired textiles, the exhibition gives visitors a taste of what it must have been like to step inside the Omega Workshops’ studios and showrooms, with a diverse range of items being made and sold.

The Omega Workshops managed to stay open throughout the First World War, eventually closing in 1919. Although short-lived, this visionary group of design disruptors had a far-reaching influence and paved the way for more expressive forms of representation in decorative art that retained the artist’s touch.






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