Friday, August 5, 2016

Bath, Somerset

A view of some rooms

I have just enjoyed immensely the current exhibition at the Victoria Galley, Bath. It is called A Room of Their Own: Lost Bloomsbury Interiors 1914–30, and looks at the stunning interior designs of members of the Bloomsbury group,* especially the work of the Omega Workshops and in particular designs by Bloomsbury Group members Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, and Roger Fry.† Only at Charleston in Sussex, the country house of Bell and Grant, and a favourite meeting point of the other members of the group, do such interiors survive. So the exhibition draws together paintings, screens, lamps, painted furniture, ceramics, and other decorative items from various public and private collections, arranging some of them in groups to recreate several long-vanished interiors.

One of the most effective of these room sets (they’re actually partial rooms, arranged where two walls meet to create the effect of a domestic corner) is what one might call an ‘early Omega Workshop’ room (above), inspired by an illustration in Roger Fry’s The Artist as Decorator. Strongly coloured abstract panels on the walls, a fireplace dressed with white vases, a beautiful decorated dining table (its worn surface an angular labyrinth of stripes), and some Omega Egyptian chairs are the main elements. Nearby is a glorious ‘Lily Pond’ screen by Duncan Grant, which, the caption tells us, was made by dripping ‘puddles’ of paint on to its surface to create a vibrant composition of black, green, and pink – a technique prefiguring Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings decades later.

Another room, a music room, shows the more muted colours and figurative art of the later period, with a screen by Vanessa Bell depicting musicians. A further room (below), again subtly pastel in palette, evokes a dining room designed for Dorothy Wellesley in 1929, with paintings of classical nudes and bathers, a fireplace with arched and round decorations like a modernist take on Adam, and an octagonal dining table decorated with a huge flower-like pattern.
Between this small group of room sets are displayed striking designs, fans, and pieces of furniture such as Roger Fry’s luxurious marquetry cabinet featuring a pair of giraffes in different inlaid woods. The whole show (in one large room of the gallery) gives not just an admirable impression of the lost interiors but also a sense of how the designs of the Omega Workshop developed and of the input of its notable contributors – both the three I’ve mentioned and other artists, notably Carrington, whose work on show includes a stand-out portrait and some stunning painted furniture. Above all, this exhibition provides a glimpse of how the Bloomsbury Group’s ideas about modern art and literature were not just for the study: they lived their ideas in a setting that vibrates with colour, freshness, and joy.

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*For the Bloomsbury Group and its contributions to the arts, start here.

†The Omega Workshops, of which the three artists were directors, designed murals, painted furniture, textiles, and other products, as well as decorating whole rooms. The company was founded in 1913 and closed in 1919, but for Fry, Bell, and Grant, the ethos lived on and Bloomsbury artists continued to produce objects in the Omega tradition for years afterwards. Vanessa Bell (1879–1961) was one of the Bloomsbury Group’s most prominent painters and the sister of the writer Virginia Woolf. Duncan Grant (1885–1978) was a painter of portraits and landscapes and a designer of textiles and pottery, and also a theatre designer. Roger Fry (1866–1934) was a prominent critic as well as an artist, wrote influential essays on art, and was responsible for introducing Post-Impressionism to Britain.


Stephen Barker said...

My memory of an exhibition on the Omega workshops in London some years ago was that they were a bit aloof as if engaging in "trade" was vulgar. They did not have a sign outside to mark the existence of the shop. Some of the products produced such as textiles were very good, some on the other hand were amateurish in execution.

Compared to what was happening on the continent at the same time, it can come across as rather provincial.

LeeAnn at Mrs Black's said...

I really enjoyed this post, thank you. I must visit.