Charleston Farmhouse have an exhibition about Omega Workshops with a small collection of rarely seen items. The painted box above (maker unknown) illustrates the way they brilliantly expressed Post-impressionism in their output.
Without context it’s hard to appreciate how radical their designs were. The Arts and Craft style was dominant. All the art schools in Britain were teaching it in their design departments. Roger Fry was understandably frosty. The leaders of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society were getting old and he found them to be precious and moralistic. Nevertheless, for commercial reasons, he negotiated a stand for Omega in their 1916 exhibition.
Omega had an impressive unity of design. They embraced colour, abstraction and a narrow range of motifs that makes everything hang together. Charleston itself developed a coherent palette of grey, black, slate blue, dusty pink and mustard yellow, which you can see in embryo in this rug designed by Duncan Grant and executed by Vanessa Bell in 1913.
Omega differed from the Arts and Crafts not only in design but also in their indifference to execution, which was cheerfully amateurish. The Workshops were set up to provide employment to artists, not to advance industrial design or to elevate craftsmanship. They bought furniture to decorate and did not make it. Their surface decoration was startling but their products were shoddy. The best are their textiles, designed by them but manufactured in France. Omega was not part of the design movement emerging from the Arts and Crafts. They had no connection with the Design and Industries Association in Britain or the Werkbund in Germany. They led nowhere. They carried out impressive house design contracts for friends of Bloomsbury but they had no followers or influence and, artistically, Omega, Bloomsbury and Charleston were out of the current of 20th century design and were uninterested in it.
I’m co-ordinating the mentoring programme of the Society of Designer Craftsmen, which we run to help our new young members develop their professional careers, and as I don’t believe in reinventing the wheel I’m talking to organisations that run similar programmes. I’ve always worked this way, believing that standards are raised by sharing good practice.
So I was surprised to find that a few publicly-funded bodies were unwilling to talk to me. Their curt replies mean I can only guess why they are so unco-operative and my conclusion is that, now that such bodies regard themselves as businesses, some treat what they do not as a public service but as a commodity, and they treat other organisations doing the same thing not as colleagues but as competitors.
Tidying up my papers, I came across this old postcard, which I’d picked up at Gary Grant’s shop in Arlington Street behind Sadler’s Wells. The shop has been closed for many years, but I liked to pop in when I was going to the theatre to look at his excellent collection of mid-century pottery, especially his collection of Rye Pottery. These are Rye butter dishes.
The Rye Pottery was set up by Wally and Jack Cole and thrived after the war, capturing in their bright, whimsical ceramics the spirit of he Festival of Britain. They made tin-glazed tableware and decorative figures, which were very much of the time. The same spirit was expressed in the contemporary pottery of the Bayswater Three, William Newland, Margaret Hine and Nicholas Vergette, who made a good living decorating the interiors of coffee bars. This sort of pottery ran against the Leach current of Chinese-inspired stoneware. Newland found Leach’s dominance irritating but the Coles just got on with it. Their pottery still exists in Rye, still making tin-glazed wares.
Walter studied at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in the 1930s, when Dora Billington was teaching there and at a time when she was making exquisite tin-glazed ceramics, and he was subsequently a member of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, of which she was a leading member. Rye was a rare example of a commercially successful craft pottery. Kenneth Clark and Ann Wynn-Reeves ran a similarly successful enterprise, concentrating on tiles but also making use of decorated tin-glaze; and they were also graduates of the Central pottery course.