Saturday, 27 June 2009

Bloomsbury at work: The Omega Workshops

33 Fitzroy Square: home of the Omega Workshops

Last Thursday I went on an exclusive behind the scenes visit to 33 Fitzroy Square. The day was hosted and organised by the Events Manager and Curator of Charleston. It was fabulous to look inside the building - now a private house. Recently owned by the NHS, the building was in an unrecognisable state when the present owners bought it. For the past three and a half years they have been lovingly restoring the house to its former glory. Unfortunately, not too much remains of the Omega Workshops but the owners are replacing original features and are researching and using the Bloomsbury colours - Charleston grey being one of them.

The house is completely filled with light and you can gain a real sense of the artistic activity that took place there between 1913-1919 when the workshops were in operation. The present owners intend to open the house within the next couple of years as an events venue so we could all have our wedding receptions, birthdays and bar mitzvahs in rooms where Grant, Fry, Bell and numerous others were hard at work designing furniture, textiles and ceramics which have informed so much of 20th century design.

The picture above was taken some time ago as all the layers of magnolia paint have been removed from the exterior, exposing the wonderful portland stone facade. Fitzroy Square is a short walk from Bloomsbury 'proper' and is a must-see for anyone interested in the Bloomsbury Group.

Monday, 22 June 2009

J.W. Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite at the Royal Academy

The Lady of Shalott, J.W. Waterhouse, 1888
On 27 June, J.W. Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite opens at the Royal Academy. I have loved his painting of The Lady of Shalott since I was a teenager. It is perfectly evocative of Tennyson's poem of the same name - a wonderful poem to lose yourself in. The following stanza is captured by the painting:
Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right -
The leaves upon her falling light -
Through the noises of the night
She floated down to Camelot:
And as the boat-head wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard her singing her last song,
The Lady of Shalott.
Here is my favourite:
Heard a carol, mournful, holy,
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darkened wholly,
Turned to towered Camelot;
For ere she reached upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
The Lady of Shalott.

The poem was also the inspiration for the title of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple novel The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side:

She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces through the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She looked down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror cracked from side to side;
"The curse is come upon me", cried
The Lady of Shalott.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Beyond Bloomsbury Private View

Roger Fry in the Omega Studio

Last Wednesday I attended the Private View for Beyond Bloomsbury: Designs of the Omega Workshops 1913-19 at the Courtauld Gallery.

The exhibition is extremely well curated and provides a rare chance to see sketches of the designs from the workshops. A positive Bloomsbury treasure trove - the rooms are crammed with drawings, paintings, ceramics and rugs. The exhibition highlights just how varied and dynamic the creative output from the workshops was in such a short time.

It is fascinating to see the sketch and the finished piece side by side. The rug for Lady Ian Hamilton, designed by Vanessa Bell, is placed next to the preliminary design offering a unique chance to draw comparisons. This is also true of the painted silk with peacocks by Roger Fry; the Peacock Stole - the silk is brighter and less concentrated whereas the sketch is actually more dynamic.

The wonderful, messy structure of White the furnishing fabric designed by Vanessa Bell, is not to be missed and a true gem within the exhibition is the Omega signboard, designed and painted by Duncan Grant. A glossy mess of colour and intense design, the signboard articulates the liberation through abstract design that defined the work of the designers.

The exhibition paves the way for further exploration of the designs of the Bloomsbury Group and their influence over modern creative practitioners.

The following, characteristically pertinent, quote from Virginia Woolf is as meaningful today as it was during the uncertain early 20th century: "[Omega is] a beacon of civilisation in the midst of chaos" - for us in the midst of global recession we need 'beacons of civilisation' in our lives, so go to the Courtauld Gallery for a reminder that civilisation was and still is, in operation.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

'Recession busting nostalgia'

Nostalgia for propaganda, A war poster by Frank Newbould

In the last post I mentioned that Bloomsbury publishers are reprinting a series of nostalgic reads to be collectively known as 'The Bloomsbury Group'. This brought to my mind the following extract from E.M. Forster's Howards End

'England was alive, throbbing through all her estuaries, crying for joy through the mouths of all her gulls, and the north wind, with contrary motion, blew stronger against her rising seas. What did it mean? For what end are her fair complexities, her changes of soil, her sinuous coast? Does she belong to those who have moulded her and made her feared by other lands, or to those who have added nothing to her power, but have somehow seen her, seen the whole Island at once, lying as a jewel in a silver sea, sailing as a ship of souls, with all the brave world’s fleet accompanying her towards eternity?'

Forster’s vision of England ‘lying as a jewel in a silver sea’ is inherited from Shakespeare’s Richard The Second. In a long speech, John of Gaunt presents an exalted vision of England, ‘This happy breed of men, this little world, This precious stone set in the silver sea, Which serves it in the office of a wall.’ In using the image of ‘This precious stone,’ Forster is demonstrating the importance of cultural inheritance; he is emphasizing continuity by re-using established cultural sources.

Cultural inheritance is important in any art form. It seems that publishers are looking back to literature from a bygone age to reprint - it will be interesting to know how the sales for 'The Bloomsbury Group' will compare with some contemporary authors on their list. Writers already look back to other authors, Ian McEwan looked to Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway as inspiration for his novel Saturday as he charted one day in London. In fact he went further, into the realms of Matthew Arnold and the belief in the transformative power of culture.

In a time of such economic uncertainty and change this extract from Howards End is extremely poignant as Forster questions who 'owns' England. Those who 'moulded her and made her feared by other lands' or those who are part of the rich and diverse cultural make up of Britain who are not the politicians or bankers who 'added to her power'?

Nostalgia has its place but society changes and that is what makes it exciting, as McEwan achieved in Saturday, readers and writers should look back only in order to move forward and explore current issues. With this in mind, I will be reading 'The Bloomsbury Group' as well as contemporary fiction which may expose the grittier aspects of the way we live now. As much as I may want to, I can't bury my head.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Persephone Books

Persephone Books is the most heavenly bookshop. The company reprints neglected 2oth century novels mostly written by women. In a time of economic meltdown nothing is more reassuring than sitting down with a good book and a cup of tea. The books printed by Persephone are ideal for those seeking a nostalgic read. You can order online but a trip to the bookshop on Lambs Conduit Street in Bloomsbury is well worth it. The shop is decorated with old WW2 posters, soft furnishings and lashings of books all over the walls, floors and tables. Persephone Books is what a bookshop should be.

One of their key authors is Dorothy Whipple. They have reprinted five of her wonderful books, so far. I have been reading my way through and I really do recommend all of them but particularly Someone at a Distance. Whipple's observations of human character are both astute and piercing. Someone at a Distance probes the great theme of love and portrays an ordinary family trying to cope with the apparent mid-life crisis and betrayal of the husband. For a searing account of human nature at its worst I recommend They Knew Mr Knight. Another family and another betrayal but of a very different nature.

I recently read an interesting blog posting on the impact of economic recession on fiction which supports the theory that we are looking for escapism through literature in these credit crunch times. It seems that Bloomsbury publishers have realised this and joined the Persephone bandwagon as they are publishing out of print titles that come under their term "recession-busting nostalgia". These will be published from July this year and they have called the collection of books 'The Bloomsbury Group'. I look forward to reading these.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Bloomsbury inspires Burberry

My favourite fashion house Burberry has unveiled its new advertising campaign featuring the Harry Potter star, Emma Watson. The new collection has been inspired by Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group. Emma is pictured above modelling the Woolf Bag which is a 'must have' for all Bloomsbury lovers. An ideal bag for carrying around plenty of reading material, it will set you back a hefty £1,095.

Read more about the new collection

Browse Burberry

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Beyond Bloomsbury: Designs of the Omega Workshops 1913-19

Design for a screen depicting Adam and Eve. Image courtesy of the Courtauld Gallery

This exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery opens on 18 June and is a major event for those interested in the Bloomsbury Group.
The Omega Workshop was established in 1913 by Roger Fry and was a progressive design collective with the intention of introducing the avant-garde into the modern Edwardian home. No artist was allowed to sign their work, instead they marked everything designed and produced with the Greek letter omega Ω. Members of the Omega Workshops included the Bloomsbury artists Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell.
I am attending the Private View for Beyond Bloomsbury, which I am very excited about, so I will post a sneak preview review of the exhibition.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Much Ado Books - for true Bloomsbury lovers

Much Ado Books is a lovely independent bookshop in Alfriston, East Sussex, run by a very friendly and helpful couple from America. They sell both new and second hand books and have a great collection of books by and about the Bloomsbury Group.

I found several first edition Iris Murdoch's in there (I bought them all!) and they currently have a first edition copy of Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts; all reasonably priced. The decor is comforting, bookish, homeliness and the shelves have been decorated with patterns inspired by the work of the Bloomsbury artists, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell.

Alfriston is a quaint Sussex village nestled in the South Downs and is packed full of tea shops and little independent boutiques. It also boasts the first property acquired by the National Trust, Clergy House, which is a beautiful house with a cottage garden and Medieval Hall.

Alfriston, Clergy House. Image courtesy of the National Trust.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Mrs Dalloway, London and June

The month of June always brings Woolf's Mrs Dalloway to mind.

"[...] the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June."

Clarissa Dalloway drops into the stream of life as she steps out into ‘the triumph and the jingle’ of London. She is getting ready for a party to be given in the evening with the hope of an appearance from the Prime Minister. As she walks through the streets of London on her way to buy flowers we watch the character respond passionately to her surroundings, ‘I love walking in London.’ The description of London’s streets associates the major characters with the places in which they currently live or in which they walk resulting in a cinema-like quality to the novel. The chaos of life is explored through Woolf’s ability to produce a cross-section of one day in London.

London is incredibly vivid and Woolf captures a reality that incorporates us all in the streets. The main characters work side by side whilst other people, such as Sir William Bradshaw, interweave and create the visible links. As Clarissa buys her flowers, Septimus is just outside on the pavement unable to pass, these faint overlaps create a lucid and flowing cross-section of London life.

This is a stunning piece of literature that has been imaginatively written and successfully executed. We skip along through the short time span whilst characters precipitate moods in which we explore early twentieth century society and ourselves. The reader is left wanting to drop a part of themselves in the continuous stream of life in order to experience the ‘lark’ and ‘plunge’ that is Clarissa’s fine June day in London.

You can buy a poster of the original Mrs Dalloway dust jacket, designed by Vanessa Bell, at the V&A Shop - which is where I took the above image from.

Charleston Festival 2009

The Charleston Festival is a wonderful literary festival held at the Bloomsbury Group's country home in East Sussex. It is such a magical setting with the rolling South Downs overlooking the untainted farmhouse where the Bloomsbury Group used to paint, write, read, debate and, ultimately, work.

It was the topic of work which led me to sit in a bustling marquee to listen to Alain de Botton talk about his latest book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work Alain never seemed to draw breath as he held the audience captive with tales of shipping goods across the world and the workings of a biscuit factory. For anyone who ever feels bored, frustrated or even numb in the workplace - this is the book for you. Alain does not provide the answers, instead he explores the modern workplace with all its complexities and absurdities and he presents it back to us in a digestible form - the lasting message? It is ok to turn off the Blackberry; work does not have to define who we are.

I also went to see Debo Mitford, otherwise known as, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire. She is a stunning, bright and inspirational eighty-nine year old with a quicker wit than I think I have ever encountered before. Hearing her talk about her life is both hilarious and awe-inspiring. Having attended major events of the 20th century, such as Kennedy's inauguration and funeral, she is a true witness to the mind-boggling change that took place during the last century.

Lastly, the Charleston Festival is one of the best places in the known universe to get a cup of tea and a slice of lemon drizzle cake. The Charleston Tea Tent is situated in the orchard overlooking the Sussex countryside; peppered with cow parsley that skirts around the trestle tables and knarled apple trees, the orchard is where tea was made for drinking.