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Art in Strange Places

Heritage and Legacy: the Use of Omega Workshops Prints in Bloomsbury Group “Merch”

Nina Eldridge


This article explores the use of prints from the Omega Workshops in the creation of commercial by-products for heritage sites associated with the Bloomsbury Group. The Omega Workshops were an experimental design collective, active from 1913 to 1919. Largely the project of the art critic Roger Fry, the painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant also played important roles. The latter two then moved to a house in Sussex, Charleston Farmhouse. The house is now a heritage site maintained by The Charleston Trust. This article begins by establishing the differences between the Omega Workshops, Charleston, and Bloomsbury more generally. The article then considers the visitors’ relationship to by-products as objects and the spatial considerations involved, before finally looking at the items currently available for purchase in the Charleston gift shop and the meaning they hold in terms of heritage and legacy.

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1As museum gift shops have become a regular feature upon exiting a museum, finding paintings on everyday items has become less a question of “art in strange places” and almost one of “art in expected places.” Having a Monet or a Van Gogh on the cover of a notebook may serve as a conversation starter or as a signalling process indicating one’s cultural capital, but their presence on an everyday item outside of the museum is hardly surprising. Nonetheless, observing these objects begs the question of whether the work of art, reproduced on a souvenir item, retains the same resonance as when observed within the gallery in its original form. Much work goes into curating the visitor’s experience of the gallery space and their coming into contact with the work of art. Opinions may diverge on whether this organization of space is respectful of the works or causes an artificial elevation of them. A happenstance encounter with a painting reproduced on an everyday item may not deliver the same resonance for the work in the viewer’s eyes—but some would argue that cultivating such an aura around the work of art is not desirable to begin with. The motivations of contemporary gift shop item manufacturers may be more financial than ideological, but the question of art entering everyday life nonetheless becomes a part of the discussion.

2One such interaction between art and everyday life can be observed at Charleston Farmhouse in Firle, East Sussex, in South-East England. While not a museum, the house may be visited in order to absorb the atmosphere that was created by members of the Bloomsbury group who lived there. Visitors to the house may indeed observe the paintings hung on the wall but these are almost camouflaged by the overflowing abundance of painted walls and objects: “Painted decoration was applied not only to doors, shutters, tables, chairs, cupboards and beds, but also to screens, boxes, chests, cups, plates and tiles” (Morphet in Rosenbaum 433). Paint, materialising artistic intention, expands beyond the canvas and lays its claim upon the quotidian household objects, thus offering an immersive experience of the artists’ ideals regarding the place of art—that it should not be limited to its traditional spaces, that it is a way of life, and that there should not be a firm distinction between the fine and decorative arts. Christopher Reed, in his work Bloomsbury Rooms: Modernism, Subculture and Domesticity (2004), shows that such spaces were inspired by modern thought but also offered a space in which one might feel and be modern.

3Charleston Farmhouse is preserved and open for visits today thanks to the efforts of the Charleston Trust, set up in 1980, shortly after the death of its final inhabitant, the painter Duncan Grant:

Until Duncan Grant’s death in 1978 Charleston was a place of continuing creative activity. It offers the only surviving example of the domestic decorative art of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant and stands as a monument to a way of life. (Lee 191)

4While creative activity may have stopped within the walls of the farmhouse, the Charleston Trust organises an annual festival and also “presents a variety of applied and fine art in its shop and gallery” (Lee 191). Within the shop, however, visitors could also previously encounter mass-produced gift shop items, such as coasters and notebooks, some bearing designs from the Omega Workshops, a design collective that Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell were a part of, along with Roger Fry. Though short-lived, the Omega Workshops were a culturally influential project. Their history is well-documented in Judith Collins’s The Omega Workshops (1984) as well as in first-hand accounts of those who took part in the project and those of family and friends. A number of exhibitions have been dedicated to the Omega designs, notably during the 1980s when there was a resurgence of interest. Today, designs can be found at the Courtauld Institute of Art and at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

5Though there are many connections between Charleston and the Omega Workshops, they cannot be thought of interchangeably. This article was inspired by two gift shop items, a coaster and a notebook, bearing the Omega designs and bought from the Charleston gift shop in 2016. These items were produced by the publicly traded company Customworks, which specialises in manufacturing gift items for international heritage and museum markets. The items were part of a now-discontinued “Bloomsbury” line of products. Other “Art & History” product lines include works by artists such as Cézanne or Klimt; the products therefore usually bring a canonised work not meant to appear on objects onto an object. Conversely, the Omega designs were meant to be found on objects though not in the way Customworks delivered them. The designs are gouache mock-ups made to be part of a catalogue: the Omega client was to pick, from a collective “bank,” the design they wished to have painted on a piece of furniture or woven as a rug. The designs were not intended as works of art in themselves.

6This article explores the shifting relationship between the viewer and the work of art, looking at how the placing of Omega designs on gift shop items may bring them to be seen as static, canonised works, rather than as designs evocative of a lifestyle. It also questions the role of these choices in Omega’s artistic and historical legacy. The study begins by establishing the convergences and divergences between the Omega Workshops and Charleston, before considering in more detail the visitor’s connection to the gift shop objects on which the gouache designs are reproduced. Finally, it looks at the items currently available at the Charleston shop and their connection to the Omega legacy.

Charleston or Omega?

7The Bloomsbury interior style has its roots in homes of members of the group when they all still lived in the Bloomsbury district of London (hence the group’s name), but perhaps found its most accomplished expression at Charleston.

8Visiting the Charleston Farmhouse offers an immersive experience within a certain “Bloomsbury style,” though, as Maggie Humm points out, “Any practices like Bloomsbury’s, which expand beyond conventional art confines, face problems of definition” (Humm 46). There is an obvious overlap between this style and the products of the Omega Workshops, as the former often included pieces of the latter and the creative forces behind each were largely the same people. Choices in home design were entangled with broader artistic and aesthetic principles, despite not being consciously executed as practices within a defined movement:

Bloomsbury was imaginary as an art movement in the sense that it did not publish a manifesto as did Futurism, but like other avant-garde art, such as Vorticism and Cubism, it did have an innovative, radical aesthetics; and it was the arts, as Vanessa pointed out, which generated “the great expansion” of Bloomsbury “with a life full of interest and promise”, particularly with the entrance of Fry and his 1910 Post-Impressionist Exhibition. (Humm 47)

9Within this way of thinking, the home was seen as an important space for expressing one’s artistic vision and, through it, one’s vision of life more generally. Katie Roiphe, in her work on the uncommon domestic relationships of the Bloomsbury group comments on this in regard to Vanessa and Clive Bell’s first home at 46 Gordon Square:

The young were tired of the sentimental clutter and velvety darkness of the Victorian interior, and they defined their own homes against it: they wanted light, air. They wanted the physical spaces they inhabited to unambiguously reflect their aspirations to create new kinds of homes. (Roiphe 150)

10Every aspect of life—home, relationships—was to reflect a break with the older generation. Indeed, as Reed writes, the group “made the conditions of domesticity its standard for modernity, projecting the values of home life outward onto the public realm in both its aesthetic and socio-political initiatives” (Reed 5). This general aspiration found an expression specific to interior design in the emergence of the Omega Workshops, as Roiphe also writes in discussing Bell’s presence in the Omega:

One of the missions of the Omega was to allow whimsical human art to animate the surfaces of everyday things; to bring bold colours, like the salmons and emerald greens and lemon yellows Vanessa adored, into the home. The Morning Post had referred to a set of their scarlet chairs as “immoral furniture”. Their radical ideas would literally furnish a new world. (Roiphe 161)

11The workshops were based in Fitzroy Square and even the building itself conveyed this contrast with the old world, as Virginia Woolf wrote in her biography of Roger Fry:

The house in which Roger Fry set up his workshop is still there today—a house with a past of its own, a Georgian past, a Victorian past [...]. But now the Georgian and the Victorian ghosts were routed. There were bright chintzes designed by the young artists; there were painted tables and painted chairs; and there was Roger Fry himself escorting now Lady so-and-so, now a business man from Birmingham, round the rooms and doing his best to persuade them to buy. (Woolf 190)

12Roger Fry was the director and driving force of the workshops: their functioning and methods thus reflected many of his ideals. For instance, Fry believed that “the greatest art has always been communal, the expression—in highly individualised ways, no doubt—of common aspirations and ideals” (Fry 43). Furthermore, Fry’s art criticism also discusses the role of art beyond the creation of “purely ideal and abstract works” (Fry 46) and the role the artist’s work might play in more quotidian settings. He asks his reader to consider “a state in which all the ordinary objects of daily life—our chairs and tables, our carpets and pottery—” hold a certain degree of artistic sense and he argues that this state would mean that “the artist as pure creator might become, not indeed of less importance—rather more—but a less acute necessity to our general living than he is today” (Fry 46). Artistic sense would not be limited to the artist but instead be infused into the experience of daily life.

13Fry made Vanessa Bell a co-director alongside Duncan Grant whose London home also illustrated their ideals, as shown by a description supplied anonymously for a 1927 society column in The Westminster Gazette:

His Gordon-square home is, of course, unique. On entering, the first thing one sees is a Segonzac, and from that point on there is not a square inch of wall in the place without interest. In addition to the frescoes and pictures there is every sort of other decorative work to be seen: tiles round the chimneys, rugs designed and worked by the Bloomsbury people, and statues of some of them by others of their number. (Quoted in Rosenbaum 111)

14The label “Bloomsbury interior” is also applied to country homes outside London’s Bloomsbury neighbourhood. Charleston, being a house of painters, offered a much more palpable vision of its inhabitants’ world-view, a characteristic that Roiphe describes as follows:

The house itself reflected the unusual, frenetic aspirations of its inhabitants. Every surface was painted with nudes, swimmers, nymphs, flowers in vases, still lifes of fruits, paisleys: tables, door panels, fireplaces, mantels, screens, lamps and vases were decorated, doodled over, drawn in. Chairs and couches were draped in patched, vibrant fabrics, in great mélanges of stripes and flowers: the gestalt was artful shabbiness, a highly thought-out disorder. It was as if the paintings had spilled out of their canvases all over the house and everything in it. The visual effect was abundant, beautiful, bursting, chaotic: there was no place for the eye to rest. (Roiphe 146-7)

15On visiting Charleston in 1967, Richard Morphet described the painted walls:

Repeating patterns applied with stencils and covering the walls give certain rooms an unexpected appearance. […]. In the garden-room, soft grey paisley shapes, set against a lighter grey and scattered with small white flowers, float to and fro with infinite gentleness. In contrast, the atmosphere in the dining-room is staccato, its effect vigorous and empathetic; between grey lozanges, angular flashes of yellow jerk and jump in alternate directions against dense black. (Morphet in Rosenbaum 433)

16The house indeed lent itself as a canvas for a continuation of ideas explored in the Omega Workshops in preceding years. As Fiona MacCarthy states in her introduction to the catalogue for the 1984 Crafts Council Gallery’s Omega exhibition: “The Omega was very much Bloomsbury in character: sophisticated, humorous, original and louche” (MacCarthy 9). She continues:

For it was to Bloomsbury, as I have mentioned, with mischievous insistence on freedom of expression, that the Omega belonged. And it was from Bloomsbury circles that the Omega acquired its most regular clients. Other prominent cultural figures of the time are recorded as having at least visited (though not necessarily buying from) the Omega Workshops, including Ezra Pound, Arnold Bennett and Gertrude Stein. (MacCarthy 18)

17Though he painted throughout his life, Roger Fry was also known as a curator and art critic. Much of his fame (or infamy in some cases) came from organising the first Post-Impressionist Exhibition at the Grafton Galleries, which included works by Matisse, Gauguin, Cézanne, and Picasso and was greeted by “uproar in Britain” (Marcus 167) and created a “general sense of an overturning of social as well as artistic values” (Marcus 166). Fry also featured works by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant in the exhibition. The trio’s lives were entangled both artistically and romantically, as Roiphe writes of Vanessa Bell’s attitude toward Fry in 1911:

Roger was not just her lover but a vital critic and muse […]. Under his encouraging influence, her painting had spread from the confines of canvas onto pottery, furniture, and handblocked fabrics and wallpapers. (Roiphe 161)

18However, Bell then found herself more drawn to Grant. A domesticity developed between Bell and Grant as Clive Bell, Vanessa Bell’s husband, often remained in London: “Over time, Vanessa’s attraction to [Duncan] deepened. Slowly, she began to turn away from Roger and devote more time to her ambiguous, charged friendship with Duncan” (Roiphe 162). It was Grant that Bell then lived with at Charleston, “the two became companions, who both were and weren’t together, and both were and weren’t lovers” (Garnett 32).

19Despite this shift, Fry remained a strong fixture in Bell’s life for many years, as Bell and Grant’s daughter, Angelica Garnett, wrote in her autobiography: “For the rest of his life there remained between them the flavour of a past love affair, as though neither of them would quite admit that it was over” (Garnett 32). Fry was nonetheless a frequent visitor at Charleston and remained a strong presence and influence in Bell and Grant’s lives. He was a favourite of their daughter:

There was however one man about whom I had no reservations, and that was Roger Fry. Equally welcome to both painters and writers, his arrival at Charleston was always an occasion for joy and sometimes amusement. (Garnett 100)

20Fry strongly believed in art’s potential for social and cultural change, and he called art the “symbolic currency of the world” (Fry 50). Backed by his interest in formalism, Fry held a strong belief in the unity of art and design, defending the idea that principles of balance and composition were applicable to both fine and applied arts. In his essay “Art and Socialism” Fry concludes with his belief that it would be by bringing elements of the fine arts to the everyday that artistic cultural renewal might occur:

Ultimately, of course, when art had been purified of its present unreality by a prolonged contact with the crafts, society would gain a new confidence in its collective artistic judgment, and might even boldly assume the responsibility which at present it knows it is unable to face. (Fry 54)

21Fry believed himself to be in a position similar to William Morris regarding the societal dismissal of the applied arts, but believed the problems of his own time to be greater obstacles and thus set about a less ambitious project, not concerning itself with societal problems of production (Collins 30). Moreover, Fry imagined his workshops as:

a form of patronage for painters so that they could continue first and foremost as painters, professional artists who supplemented their modest incomes by turning to the applied arts for part of the time. (Collins 30)

22The artists included, of course, Bell and Grant, but also others such as Wyndham Lewis and Frederick Etchells.

23The Omega Workshops opened on 7 July 1913 and by early 1914 showed signs of becoming a success. Woolf documents how they “flourished” (Woolf 195): “Orders were coming in. The public was amused and interested. The papers devoted a great deal of space to the venture” (Woolf 194). Unfortunately, the early success did not last and the workshops were only a short-lived project lasting from 1913 to 1919, due to both internal issues and the war. The closure was made all the more difficult by a clearance sale at which a number of regular visitors returned to buy at half-price the Omega objects they had only recently rejected as being too expensive. Financial difficulties and high costs are not surprising difficulties faced by a fine arts workshop, whatever the time period. The Omega Workshops experienced the issue of scale costs in sourcing already expensive materials, the lack of a stable flow of orders, and lack of familiarity with the extra-creative aspects of the business (marketing, management, etc.). As MacCarthy explains: “Such problems were endemic in experimental workshops” (MacCarthy 20). Fry had always expressed distaste for, and difficulty with, all the necessary tasks that were not the actual creative work, including dealing with difficult customers (Woolf 208).

24In March 1919, Fry decided to close down the Omega Workshops. The business had survived the war but was not in good shape, a situation that Woolf summarises as follows: “The Omega flourished, then flagged. It would not die, and it would not live” (Woolf 212). The brief renewal of business that had arrived after the war was not enough to overcome deeper structural issues within the company (especially book-keeping and staffing.) Vanessa Bell admitted that “it was a difficult venture, with not enough money or experience behind it and temperamental artists to be driven the way they should go by Roger” (Bell in Rosenbaum 111).

25The difficulties Fry encountered were aggravated by the absence of Bell and Grant who had moved to Sussex in 1916. Grant was a conscientious objector and worked on a farm a few miles away from Charleston. Before the closure of the workshops, Bell and Grant shared their time between their own projects and commissions for the workshop from their studio at Charleston:

Vanessa and Duncan painted and smoked under the vaulted ceiling of their shared studio. Their paintings were going in similar directions. At the same time, both of them were working on designs of printed fabrics, and tiled vases, and furniture for Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops and continuing their development of a mutual aesthetic vision. (Roiphe 164)

26Bell and Grant’s new ideas that would generate their future personal projects thus emerged alongside Omega creations. Charleston was inhabited by an Omega spirit from the start. Indeed, MacCarthy explains that while the Omega never did manage to resurface despite various plans for revival, it still generated a creative wave of energy that survived it. This energy was to be found in Fry’s “almost obsessive attitude” to decoration as well as in the further decorative works of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. MacCarthy sees their style as having developed out of their Omega experience, describing it as “very eclectic yet peculiarly English” (MacCarthy 20). In fact, they created commissions out of this style in the years that followed the closure of the Omega Workshops. Finally, their home itself was part of these artistic explorations: “Charleston was not only a repository of their artistic work, but was art in process revealing changing pictorial styles and artistic experiments in interstice art” (Humm 46). The principles and aesthetics therefore lived on and the place they were most present was of course Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s shared home.

27Despite the Omega’s early success as an experimental design workshop, the Omega interior—or more largely, the Bloomsbury interior—remained unconventional and did not achieve widespread popularity or recognition in its time. While the aesthetic experiments influenced later design movements, the main clientele were members of the Bloomsbury group and their social circles. The financial success depended upon their influential patrons, as MacCarthy explains:

without such customers as Lady Cunard and Lady Ottoline Morrell, and the fashionable interest they generated, Post-Impressionist décor might well have proved unmarketable. These were the sort of patrons on whom Fry depended the most. (MacCarthy 18)

28The Omega and Bloomsbury lost cultural relevance in the decades that followed but have often experienced renewed interest (throughout the latter half of the twentieth century and in the twenty-first century) when there has been nostalgia for the artistic and intellectual milieux of the early twentieth century. The Omega/Bloomsbury aesthetic also attracts individuals and movements who appreciate its unconventional and bohemian qualities. Both this attractiveness and an interest in the past have made Charleston a notable destination.

Visitor relationship to space and objects

29In his 2018 article “What Do We Want from Artists’ Houses? A Reflection” Christopher Reed writes: “What modern visitors look for in artists’ houses is ‘interiority’—interior spaces are read psychologically, as indices of an idea of creativity manifested through perpetual struggle” (Reed). Visiting Charleston is indeed often done in the hope of finding and recapturing some creative spirit from the past. On their website, the Charleston Trust presents the house as follows:

Almost as soon as they moved in, Bell and Grant began to paint every surface in the farmhouse, transforming it into a living, breathing work of art. Over the following decades, Charleston became a gathering point for some of the 20th century’s most radical artists, writers and thinkers known collectively as the Bloomsbury group. It is where they lived out their progressive social and artistic ideals. Today, it continues to be a place that brings people together to engage with art and ideas. (“House visit”)

30The aesthetics are presented as closely connected to the ideas behind them. More than a simple expression of these ideas, they have become symbolic of them. Furthermore, the close connection between past and present is also felt in the gift shops, as items available for purchase bear both historical and contemporary designs.

31In his work on museums, Tony Bennett argues that “the museum bestows a socially coded visibility on the various pasts it organizes” (Bennett 105). Much historical work encounters this issue of organising the past, of selecting and articulating information. Creating an exhibition or any interface with the public brings added concerns of accessibility and reception. In discussing the museum’s narrative machinery and the building of museums in the 19th century, Bennett writes: “Where museums were custom built, however, the commitment to provide the visitor with a linear route within which an evolutionary itinerary might be accomplished was a strong one” (Bennett 105). The spatial arrangement of the museum, and the way in which the visitor is invited to walk through it, create a narrative. Galleries and museums whose routes fall into the infamous “exit through the gift shop” paradigm run the risk of presenting the gift shop—and potential purchases—as a culmination of the prior journey. This layout risks presenting the intangible experience of the visit as needing to be tied to a tangible object before leaving, as if possession of an object could retain the sensations evoked during the experience.

32The Charleston shop is not placed at the exit of the visit. Instead, the site as a whole is experienced in a more lateral organisation. The shop is a separate building to the house itself. It is a part of the broader grounds, along with the gardens and café, that are freely accessible. Furthermore, as a historic home to be visited, rather than an exhibition, Charleston does escape some of the issues that arise from constructing an authoritative itinerary through an exhibition space. Tours of the home invite visitors to immerse themselves in the atmosphere created by its unique interior. Restoration and maintenance efforts make the interior look as it did in the 1950s and visitors are invited to imagine the artists and intellectuals of the Bloomsbury group interacting with the space as they would have done nearly a century ago.

33However, any tour will still have its narrative, depending on the information selected for the visitor and the order in which it is presented. The house itself is the only element on site where free circulation is not possible (or is limited to only one room at a time). Once the tour is finished, visitors may not return into the atmosphere they have just been immersed in. Remnants of the atmosphere will be accessible in the gift shop, however.

  • 1 The shop also used to sell a cushion in the fabric.

34The shop thus offers a transitory space between a delineated space recognised as “cultural” and a return into “ordinary” life. Because Charleston is defined not just by the paintings in the house, but also by the actual objects and overall atmosphere, the line between authentic/original object and gift shop/reproduced object is much more blurred than in the case of paintings in a gallery being reproduced onto by-products. This peculiarity can be illustrated by the fabrics available for purchase by the metre. One such fabric is from a pattern named “Maud”. The pattern was designed by Vanessa Bell in 1913 for the Omega and was named “Maud” for Lady Cunard, a fashionable socialite and patron to the Omega. In 1917 Roger Fry painted a portrait of Welsh painter Nina Hamnett. In the portrait, she is at Charleston and wearing a dress with a pattern also by Vanessa Bell and a “Maud” cushion can be seen behind her.1 The immersion in Omega and Bloomsbury interior objects, and the aesthetic they convey is continued in the shop. Visitors are presented with the opportunity to export the meaning and the ideas that Charleston embodies beyond the cultural site it occupies—via monetary exchange. The commercial aspect is not a problem in itself; after all, the Charleston Trust is a charity whose income depends on donations and government grants. The gift shop, as with many cultural and historical sites, is an important source of income to ensure continued activity. However, the question remains as to whether the purchasing of an object can bring with it the intangible atmosphere experienced during the visit and that people are anxious to take home with them.

35This is a question that arises notably when considering the issue of mechanical reproduction. With the possibility of replicating artworks or of more easily creating multiple craft objects, the question of our relationship to those objects is raised. As Walter Benjamin writes in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”: “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (Benjamin 5). Though buying and bringing home “a piece of Charleston” may create the illusion that our own home is connected to the artists’ home in a unique aesthetic, the reality is that the same objects are just as easily bought by other admirers—our home perhaps ends up closer to the homes of other gift shop patrons than to the original decor we seek to imitate.

36Transporting these objects home therefore raises the question of how the meaning of the original is retained. Benjamin evokes a reactivation, or “actualisation”, of the object:

what shrinks in an age where the work of art can be reproduced by technological means is its aura. The process is symptomatic; its significance points beyond the realm of art. Reproductive technology, we might say in general terms, removes the thing reproduced from the realm of tradition. In making many copies of the reproduction, it substitutes for its unique incidence a multiplicity of incidences. And in allowing the reproduction to come closer to whatever situation the person apprehending it is in, it actualizes what is reproduced. (Benjamin 10)

37Similarly, in Ways of Seeing, John Berger discusses the example of a painting being shown on television:

The painting enters each viewer’s house. There it is surrounded by his wallpaper, his furniture, his mementoes. It enters the atmosphere of his family. It becomes their talking point. It lends its meaning to their meaning. (Berger 19)

38Rather than fully retaining its original meaning, the artwork and designs reproduced onto gift shop items are first granted new meaning by this commercial transformation, and meaning then further shifts over time as they become a part of the buyer’s home. In his work on aesthetics, Fry establishes a typology of what he calls “the emotional elements of design” (Fry 23). Among these, he studies the question of space: “The same-sized square on two pieces of paper can be made by very simple means to appear to represent either a cube two or three inches high, or a cube of hundreds of feet, and our reaction to it is proportionately charged” (Fry 24). The aesthetic dynamics at play within the composition of a piece also hold true for the placing of a piece within its setting. The emotional reaction to a work of art is influenced by its relationship to the space around it (whether the parameters of this relationship are intentional or accidental).

39In the context of Charleston, the methods of production behind the item may also bring supplementary queries. Roger Fry cared deeply about using artisanal and hand-crafted methods; he defended the idea that the “mistakes” or small variations that came as a consequence were to be embraced. All of the Omega products were not necessarily created on site but Fry showed a lot of care in outsourcing and in choosing partners, as can be seen in this excerpt from a personal correspondence: “Our stuffs are being printed and the French firm that’s doing them is full of enthusiasm and are altering all their processes to get rid of the mechanical and return to older simpler methods” (Woolf 191). The French firm in question was Charles Besselièvre, which was in Maromme, near Rouen (they had an English office in London). Fry wanted to work this way despite supplementary time and costs. The methods used in the production had to be consistent with the artistic vision behind it. The contemporary purchase of items which use Omega designs but rely on mechanical reproduction is thus at odds with Fry’s ideals.

40Among the items available for purchase, this notebook and coaster could be found in 2016. [Figure 1]

41The items show the following pieces: Abstract Design (1913-15) attributed to Duncan Grant and Rug Design (1913-14) attributed to Vanessa Bell. Today these pieces can both be found at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. They are among the Omega pieces gifted by Pamela Diamond, Roger Fry’s daughter, in 1958. The products were available from Customworks, a UK manufacturer specialising in, as they currently indicate on their website, “creating bespoke products for museums, galleries, zoos, visitor sites and many more” (Customworks homepage). The manufacturer’s name can be spotted on the back cover along with other pieces of information. [Figure 2]

42A clear divide can be seen between where the design stops and a different space begins. The colour choice fits the design but its contrasting uniformity signals to the viewer that it has a different purpose. The design does not cover the object as a whole, since this adjacent space is kept for information about the design. Its presence influences the way the object is seen. As John Berger points out:

The meaning of an image is changed according to what one sees immediately beside it or what comes immediately after it. Such authority as it retains, is distributed over the whole context in which it appears. (Berger 29)

43The authority in this case is akin to that of a museum label, turning any interaction with the object into a curated experience. The text printed on the back reads as follows:

This journal is from The Courtauld’s uniquely important collection of Omega Workshops drawings. Established in 1913 by the painter and influential art critic Roger Fry, the Omega Workshops were an experimental design collective, whose members included Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and other artists of the Bloomsbury group.

  • 2 Furthermore, the finished productions were never signed by the artists involved. They only bore the (...)

44And in the bottom left-hand corner are the logos for The Courtauld Gallery and for Customworks. This corner also shows that the design’s copyright is to the estate of Duncan Grant. The design is explicitly identified to Duncan Grant and contextualised in a way that lends it cultural and historical relevance. Yet Customworks uses this same format of notebook for many famous works easily identified as belonging to the larger international visual arts canon. This association undermines several principles that Fry held dear and from which he originated his Omega project. Fry believed artist anonymity was an important part of making sure a design was judged on its own merit.2 The design itself was not painted with the intention of being exhibited as a finished work. As previously stated, these gouache mock-ups were merely part of a catalogue of designs that customers chose from. Grant’s gouache painting is more akin to a preliminary sketch than a finished work but the design of the notebook does not reflect this aspect.

45Furthermore, as previously explained, part of the motivation for the workshops was to question the divide between the fine and decorative arts. Showing a miniature of the design, identifying the artist, offering a cultural and historical framing, all these elements frame Grant’s design as a canonised work from the fine arts rather than as a design to be worked from. Paradoxically therefore, it is by being grouped together with works from an international “high canon” that the Omega designs were—as intended—able to find themselves on objects of everyday use. Being treated as canonised works allows for an indirect accomplishment of their original goal from over a century ago… but at the cost of many of Fry’s principles.

46While an enjoyable souvenir, this previously available journal presents a paradox for the buyer as it does not reflect the ideals of the context behind the design that it presents on the cover. This Customworks line has since been discontinued and today new options are available to visitors of Charleston.

Imitation versus innovation

47Current interest in the Bloomsbury group has allowed for an expansion of available Bloomsbury-inspired items. Writing in 1983, regarding the Crafts Council exhibition of Omega works, Ralph Turner noted that “[t]heir desire to provide people with household interiors which had life, colour and modernity, which looked forward rather than backward, is shared by many craftspeople today” (MacCarthy 7). This statement still applies today, another forty years later, for small businesses.

48For example, the Charleston shop currently stocks items from the company Cambridge Imprint. As a small business that follows the tradition of English art and design, they seem to embrace this heritage whilst never being overshadowed by it. Available items include notebooks and other stationery, which can be bought in several designs. One design is called “Charleston stripe”. The name is more than a simple acknowledgement of their inspiration. They were specifically invited by the Charleston Trust to launch, in 2017, a collection inspired by the house and to be sold in the shop.

49Comparing this notebook to the notebook discussed above allows us to consider the different potential relationship the buyer can have to a similar object. Functionally, the two objects are to be used in the same way but their aesthetic qualities—and the behaviours that these may inspire—diverge. With the first notebook, from Customworks, the buyer does not escape the curated authority of the museum label; whereas the second notebook, from Cambridge Imprint, is more able to function as an autonomous object. The design, while still holding some of the resonance from the setting in which it was purchased, is better able to function on its own merit.

50Another key difference between the two notebooks is the manufacturing process. Cambridge Imprint pride themselves on being a small company who make their products in England. They both design and print their products in the same place, emphasising the link between vision and crafting. In production they use methods such as hand-stencilling, just as the Omega artists did, as well as spot-colour lithography. Such methods produce objects which, while having the same design, show slight differences. Different notebooks will have patterns not quite aligned the same way and the labels sometimes have different patterns. Such variations return a human element back into the object produced.

51This aspect of the handmade craft was emphasised in Omega productions, as Fry believed that crafted objects should still retain something of the artist’s individual creative force, as Morphet writes:

To counter the dreary lack of vitality of form or material of many manufactured objects in ordinary use [Fry] passionately urged the practising artist’s enjoyment in producing objects which would directly reflect their individual feeling. The protruding altar-like fireplace in the garden-room [at Charleston] and a graceful niche in the dining-room chimney-breast are Fry’s own work; both are characteristically simple and direct. (Morphet in Rosenbaum 434)

52The emphasis on the handmade shows a human element not just in the potential variations, but in the possible experimentation and expressiveness.

53The Charleston shop also offers rugs for purchase—these are hand-tufted by artist and designer Christopher Farr in collaboration with the Courtauld Institute of Art. As the shop website states, “Every rug is fabricated to the highest standards and delivered directly from the manufacturer with a label referencing the respective Omega design from the Courtauld archive” (“Omega Rug”). The crafting honours the handmade aspect of the Omega legacy but does not honour the spirit of innovation. The shop thus offers a balance between the different ways the legacy can be honoured.

54The inverse situation can be seen in another type of product: ceramics. The shop offers a selection of ceramics from a local East Sussex studio, Common Clay. The shop website presents it as “a shared, open and experimental making space for artists working with clay, whilst developing a contemporary range of ceramic tableware”, thus showing a similar dynamic to Fry’s desires for the Omega. The website presentation continues:

Inspired by the playful and dynamic nature of the Charleston artists, Carla [Wright] used certain motifs and patterns from the house’s interior and sculptures from the garden that she thinks portray their freedom and fluidity. Each piece is hand-built and decorated with coloured slips, wax resist and glazes at the Common Clay studio. (“Teal Cup”)

55Unlike the rugs, the designs used are not Omega designs and there is no collaboration with the Courtauld Institute. However, the aesthetic continuation and inspiration taken are fully acknowledged and even put forward as a selling point. The description emphasises the attraction that can be felt for Bell and Grant’s lifestyle and their creative processes. Proposing these items in the shop plays into the mythos created in visiting the site via the proposed tour. The description emphasises the attraction that can be felt for Bell and Grant’s lifestyle and their creative processes. Both the style and the descriptions of the ceramics strengthen the mythos that is associated with the Bloomsbury Group.

56An interest in creative expression is also encouraged by selling craft sets. The inspiration that may arise from the visit can be channelled into one’s own creative pursuits. Frances Partridge speaks of her experiences of Charleston thus:

I shan’t describe the next house I went to, which was Charleston. I can only try to evoke the impression I got on first entering the hall as a visitor—the strong feeling of life being intensely and purposefully lived, of animated talk, laughter, brilliant colour everywhere, youth. I don’t think I ever felt shy there—there was so much going on, and I soon began to discover what fun it all was. (Partridge, in Rosenbaum 427)

57Rather than simply returning to one’s life with a static object, visitors might be inspired by this “strong feeling of life being intensely and purposefully lived” and attempt to pursue it in their own way. The decorated objects and walls become symbols of a way of life. As Roiphe writes:

In these trompe l’oeils lay their philosophy of everything: a table was not a table; a door was not a door; a husband was not a husband; everything under the sun was an opportunity for self-expression, a uniquely crafted venture with no known rules. (Roiphe 147)

58Works from the Omega and from Charleston were indeed invested with so much meaning by the artists. Detaching a reproduction from its context removes it from much of its artistic interest as so many aspects are intertwined. As Morphet writes, “The decorations are as it were distilled between painting and life, with an impassioned involvement in both which decorative art as a genre often seems to lack” (Morphet in Rosenbaum 434). The tension between painting and life shows the difficulty of adequately categorizing why Charleston is a place of interest. As Morphet also writes:

In an exceptional degree this house, curious and individual in its decoration and mood, expresses both a pattern of life and a visual style; it makes especially evident, in a way that a museum or book cannot, the fusion of these two characteristics into a single sensibility. (Morphet in Rosenbaum 430)

59The success of the site comes from its evocation of an intangible quality of lifestyle. The same difficulty of categorisation is also evoked in describing the Omega:

The Omega has always been a puzzle, an anomaly, and this is one reason perhaps why its achievement has often been so misunderstood and undervalued. Should it be seen as art, craft, or industrial design? (MacCarthy 22)

60The difficulty in identifying the point of interest in the legacy of the Omega, via Charleston, complicates the visitor’s relationship to the objects, whether those are the authentic objects, reproductions, or contemporary Omega/Charleston-inspired creations. The objects of the period were deeply symbolic of a way of life and the contemporary shop items are also invested with meaning—hence visitors’ reasons for purchasing them. However, objects housing meaning cannot be a replacement for one’s embodying of meaning. The artistic process, and the creative spirit that is of such interest, cannot be summed up by the results of its expression. Whatever products may be available, whatever level of loyalty to the legacy may be observed, some intangible quality will always be beyond what can be materially possessed.


61Contemporary items available at gift shops offer an insight into the contemporary cultural understanding of the associated cultural and/or historical site and of its legacy. While the original Omega designs are mostly now found at the Courtauld Institute, the presence of certain pieces in the Charleston Farmhouse—their “strange places”—and the significant presence of new designs on shop items show that Charleston and the Omega are intertwined both in the past and in their current legacies. The historical importance of the Omega is captured in reproductions while its artistic legacy has been filtered through the atmosphere that was created at Charleston. The Charleston shop has made a conscious effort to offer original pieces and is a suitable place for the selling and promotion of contemporary local artists’ work that shares the original principles behind the creation of the workshops.

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1 The shop also used to sell a cushion in the fabric.

2 Furthermore, the finished productions were never signed by the artists involved. They only bore the Greek letter omega.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1
File image/jpeg, 133k
Title Figure 2
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Electronic reference

Nina Eldridge, Heritage and Legacy: the Use of Omega Workshops Prints in Bloomsbury Group “Merch”Miranda [Online], 29 | 2024, Online since 18 April 2024, connection on 21 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Nina Eldridge

Université Bordeaux Montaigne

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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