Potted Histories: the Omega Workshops adverts campaign in The Burlington Magazine, 1913-1919

Alexis Clark, Visiting Assistant Professor of Art History and Visual Culture at Denison University (Ohio), is currently researching on Fry and the Omega Workshops. This fascinating and thoroughly researched piece is an excerpt from her forthcoming work, and it has been written exclusively for the Burlington Index Blog. 

Clark’s discussion of the Omega Workshops’ advertisements in The Burlington Magazine stems from her 2016 talk at this past summer’s ‘Creating Markets, Collecting Art: Celebrating 250 Years of Christie’s’ conference. There, she examined connections between the Workshops’ promotions, the gender politics of interior décor, and the suffragette cause.

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I rejoice in the Omega because it is not beyond the wit of man to make a decent plate or a decent stuff.[1]

From its launch in 1913 until its demise in 1919, Roger Fry rarely advertised the Omega Workshops in the Burlington  or elsewhere—a fact frequently cited in literature on the Workshops. The Burlington online database lists a mere twelve advertisements under the ‘Omega Workshops’.[2] In her biography of Fry, Frances Spalding has summarily noted that ‘apart from the signboard by Duncan Grant that hung over the front door and the odd notice in The Burlington Magazine and The Art Chronicle, Fry made no attempt to advertise’.[3] Judith Collins’ survey of the Workshops has offered that what few ads Fry placed in the Burlington may be attributed to editorial pragmatism: ‘when there was space on a page, he offered to fill it. Certainly in 1913 and 1914 there was no aggressive attempt to inform an interested public’.[4]

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In addition to some text ads, Fry issued two illustrated ads for Omega that were repeated in the Burlington. The first type adapted the Workshops’ letterhead with its ‘primitivist’ decorative motifs. In these instances, Fry did work to make the slender, banner-like ad fit awkward spaces, even allowing it to be printed sideways when needed (illustrated above). It’s, however, the second type that interests me: illustrated by three examples of Omega ceramics with a caption referring to experiments in ‘Oriental lustre’, these ads must be read simultaneously across, through, and against Fry’s view of a global history of applied arts and especially pottery, Thorstein Veblen’s contemporary and influential theories of conspicuous consumption, and Fry’s complaints against modern mass-manufactured and mass-marketed ‘opifacts’.[5] Through these different viewpoints and their points of intersection, together with the Burlington ads, we may start to explore the reasons why Fry did not advertise extensively and why he advertised what he did. So, while Fry reluctantly advertised the Workshops in the Burlington—a decision at odds with his position as its editor—he readily broadcast reflections on the imperiled state of the applied arts due to the rise of mass-manufactured and mass-marketed opifacts.

In the seven years before its final clearance sale in 1920, Omega’s male and female artist-workers toiled part-time to design anonymously and collaboratively Post-Impressionist-inspired décor: carpets and cushions, tables and chairs, lampshades, and clothes for women occupying these interiors. Of the work that Omega produced, Fry displayed a particular pride in the workshop’s pottery, possibly because he personally excelled at this medium. This reason, coupled with the sense that pottery had a critical place in England’s history of the applied arts, and that made Omega distinct from more industrial applied arts firms, led Fry to reproduce examples of ceramics in his Burlington adverts.

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At Omega’s outset, Fry partnered with potters in Mitcham, Surrey to produce slipware that the Workshops’ artists Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell could then decorate. Quickly, though, he moved to experiment with making pottery himself (a example from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London is illustrated above). Grant and Bell, who never acquired the same degree of technical skill in this field, continued to paint commercially produced ceramics. In a 1914 letter, Fry described his and Bell’s early foray into the work:

It was fearfully exciting at first: the clay was too stiff and V. [Vanessa] very nearly bust with the effort to control its wobbliness—and in vain; then we got softer clay and both us turned out some quite nice things—little ones only mostly, but they’ll make quite nice little bowls and pots. It’s fearfully exciting when you do get it centred and the stuff begins to come up between your fingers.[6]

Expressing excited satisfaction at his manipulation of the clay—the ‘wobbliness’ and the implicit spontaneity and uncertainty of what would finally form between his fingers—Fry described his transformation of raw material into domestic art-objects. His later letters similarly underscore his satisfaction at making ‘huge soup tureens…vegetable dishes, [and] plates’ in slips of assorted colours.[7] Pottery not only offered him a sense of personal fulfilment, but this work seemed to promise the Workshops a reprieve from its financial woes: customers in such far-flung places as a Sweden and Norway reportedly clamoured for these pottery works.[8]

As much as the ads of ceramics placed in the Burlington marketed the Workshops on the whole, stamped with their collective, anonymous trademark, these products and their ads must be seen as branded with Fry, his vision, and his design. Fry, while dismissing nineteenth-century applied arts, appreciatively turned to techniques and designs of pottery in non-Western cultures such as Japan, Persia, and China. He praised early Chinese artists for their ‘aesthetic feeling’ and ‘sensibility of…expression’ as seen in their ‘remarkable absence of mechanical regularity in spite of rigid stylization’.[9] Whereas English potters had embraced formulaic processes, Fry claimed that Chinese pottery eschewed ‘mechanical uniformity’ to instead reflect artists’ spontaneity and sensitivity to the medium. Insisting that his fellow Europeans should appreciate Chinese art (not least because of their Orientalist status), Fry offered that:

Chinese art appealed to Western nations originally almost entirely in virtue of its technical ingenuity, its brilliant and tasteful execution, and the ‘quaintness’ due to its unfamiliarity. As we get to know it better, as we explore more and more the great classic periods, we are led to treat it with the same respect and the same concentrated attention which we have to devote to our own great masters if we would apprehend the nature of their states of mind.[10]

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Where Chinese ceramic-workers demonstrated the type of spontaneity Fry desired for Omega’s earthenware, he indicted English potters, damning the ‘technical control laid way open to the disastrous innovations of Wedgwood’ that substituted ‘sophisticated and pedantic refinement for the more spontaneous creative energy of earlier potters’.[11] That Fry compared the success of Chinese ceramics against the struggles of recent English pottery works, may be visualised in his March 1916 half-page advert for Omega pottery placed immediately above an ad for Chinese antiquities (illustrated above).

Before Wedgwood, Fry insisted the ‘applied arts in England attained to a high state of perfection.’[12] But Wedgwood had corrupted the English pottery tradition. Fry and his affiliates set themselves in direct opposition to Wedgwood, whose illustrated catalogues had made mass-manufactured pottery that appealed to a middle-class market and thereby transformed artisanal craft into industrialized product and, by extension, opifact. But Wedgwood and his firm had launched nineteenth century applied arts down a course that may be ‘commended as efficient utensils, but…not always endowed with artistic qualities’.[13] With Wedgwood, the artistic and utilitarian had been broken in two—a break that Fry and the Omegas hoped to repair.

In his article ‘Art and Commerce’, Fry outlined the connection of the opifact to commercial advertisement. For Omega, the distinction to be made was not between art and craft but art and opifact. The latter crassly signified social status.[14] Explaining this distinction in relation to pottery, he wrote that

Wherever the machine enters, the nervous tremor of the creator disappears. The creator may adapt himself to this in the case of the potter’s wheel. A pot made entirely by hand without a wheel shows that nervous tremor, that sensibility, in all its dimensions. The horizontal sections may approximate to a circle—none of them will ever be a true circle. It will be the artist’s felt approach to a circle. The vertical section, the galb, will likewise show only an approximation to some mathematical curve. If, however, the potter uses a wheel, the horizontal sections will presumably be true circles from top to bottom, but the galb will still express the artist’s sensibility. In this case we have come to allow for thus much of mechanical exactitude, and we concentrate our appreciation on the subtlety of aesthetic feeling which is shown in the galb and in the general proportions.[15]

This extended section of ‘Art and Commerce’ reveals the criteria with which art and opifact were separated. The mass-manufactured opifact lacked the ‘nervous tremor of the creator’—language that recalls Fry’s description in the 1914 letter of the ‘wobbliness’ of the clay worked to form the bowls and pots. More, this ‘nervous tremor’ can be read as the doubled manual and psychological imprint of the artist on his/her work. The inexactitude, the ‘felt approach’, and the profound lack of formula and perfection, those are the qualities that made a pot a work of art, not an opifact. The use of machines alone did not distinguish art from opifact. Artists could still use tools like the wheel. But a balance had to be struck between the use of such tools and the ‘artist’s sensibility’. Provided that the latter could be discerned somewhere on the piece, Fry indicates that that work would remain within the realm of art.

A particular opifact may have inspired his extended passage on pottery. In 1912, before Omega opened, Fry published an essay as part of H.G. Wells’ edited Socialism and the Great State. Supposedly written whilst enclosed in a garishly outfitted rail coach, Fry described the opifacts surrounding him:

In the centre of each table is a large pot in which every beautiful quality in the material and making of pots has been carefully obliterated by methods each of which implies profound scientific knowledge and great inventive talent.[16]

Similar to his rebuke of Wedgwood’s mechanical and mathematical formula, he determined that this pot’s production had depended on ‘scientific knowledge’ and that that knowledge had been deployed to satiate demands of what he described as ‘display’. Rather than foster contemplation of the aesthetic and the beautiful in his fellow train travelers, Fry lamented that this pot operated as a sign of conspicuous consumption or a ‘symbol of status’.[17] This opifact could not be elevated to Art but ranked as ‘“art” made, bought, and sold for its values as an indication of social status’.[18]

Adverts, then, were understood to function as shameless promotions of the opifact and not Art, which, in turn, I think, resulted in Fry’s reluctance to promote Omega in The Burlington Magazine. Beneath the colorful surfaces of ads, especially the ubiquitous posters plastered on the sides of London buildings, lay ‘hypnotic suggestion[s]’ that falsely claimed to educate or befriend the consumer class, all the while indoctrinating them into an appreciation of the ‘safe novelty’ or of the opifact. While Fry’s reluctance to widely advertise Omega may have been spurred by a wariness that he would be pilloried as a sort of spurious snake-oil salesman foisting ‘fictitious, degenerate, and irrational mode of artistic expression…upon the public by means of advertisement and all those subtle arts of corruption which modern journalism has discovered’, his decision had a wider resonance.[19] Fry’s complaint against the culture of ads as one built upon the embrace of aesthetic safety and eschewal of risk directly contradicted the spontaneity that he and his fellow Omegas understood as critical to the processes, products, and notably pottery they stamped as Art.

After 1916, Fry discontinued the pottery ads in The Burlington. With the exception of a letter to Bell in 1918 about his present of a black pot in which he discusses further experiments in colored slips, his correspondence also drops the topic of ceramics in this year.[20] Still, in his decision to use pottery in the limited marketing campaign in The Burlington, Fry may have meant them as adverts of the intended real break between Omega and industrial applied arts firms that had transformed Art into mass-manufactured and mass-marketed opifact.

If The Burlington ads marketed products acting as any ‘indication of social status’, they were intended to sell products signifying a social status against the reduction of Art as social status. They were to set Art against opifact.

Alexis Clark, October 2016

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[1] Roger Fry, Letters of Roger Fry, ed. Denys Sutton, vol. 1 (London: Chatto and Windus, 1972), 373. Fry penned this letter to Duncan Grant in October 1913.

[2] ‘The Burlington Magazine Archive,’ http://www.burlington.org.uk/archive/index-of-content/search/result, last accessed 15/10/2016. The earliest of the ads in the database dates to August 1913; the latest to May 1920.

[3] Frances Spalding, Roger Fry: Art and Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 191.

[4] Judith Collins, The Omega Workshops (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 129, 132. ‘An advertisement for Omega pottery was inserted in the Burlington Magazine for March, and then again in May and in August. Three pottery advertisements in one year were the most ever seen—they must have had some effect because Fry’s pottery began to be known in much wider circles’. Collins has further detailed how ‘as an editor of the Burlington Magazine, Fry was no doubt able to keep an eye on the range of monthly advertisements carried by that magazine. In August and September 1913 he had placed the Omega Workshops’ letterhead in the pages which carried small horizontal notices. A year was to pass before he ventured forth on a larger scale. Perhaps his motivation to advertise his own private scheme was affected by the paste-ups of the monthly advertisements: when there was space on a page, he offered to fill it. Certainly in 1913 and 1914 there was no aggressive attempt to inform an interested public. Through-out the Omega’s existence, a handful of advertisements in the Burlington Magazine were the only public announcements of its continuing presence. In November 1914 Fry inserted an illustrated half-page advertisement for the Omega’.

 

[5] As I explain below, Fry used the term ‘opifact’ to designate decorative art-objects that acted as a symbols of social status.

[6] Fry, Letters of Roger Fry, 377-378.

[7] Ibid., vol. 2, 394-395.

[8] Ibid., vol. 2, 401-402. No documentation, however, has confirmed this Scandinavian interest in Omega.

[9] Roger Fry, ‘Chinese Art’, in Last Lectures, intr. Kenneth Clark (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1939), 103, 104, 108.

[10] Roger Fry, Transformations: Critical and Speculative Essays on Art (London: Chatto & Windus, 1926), 81.

[11] Roger Fry, et al., Georgian Art (1760-1820): An Introductory Review of English Painting, Architecture, Sculpture, Ceramics, Glass, Metalwork, Furniture, Textiles and Other Arts during the Reign of George III (London: B.T. Batsford Ltd., 1929), 7.

[12] Roger Fry, ‘Art and Industry’ (1932) in Crauford Goodwin, Art and the Market: Roger Fry on Commerce in Art (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1999), 205.

[13] Fry, Georgian Art, 35.

[14] That Fry developed this idea of the opifact from Thorstein Veblen’s tracts on taste and conspicuous consumption has been addressed in the work of Crauford Goodwin. See the introduction to Goodwin’s Art and the Market, 1-65. See also Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), 37. ‘Conspicuous consumption of valuable goods is a means of reputability to the gentlemen of leisure. As wealth accumulates in his hands, his own unaided effort will not avail to sufficiently put his opulence in evidence by this method. The aid of friends and competitors is therefore brought in by resorting to the giving of valuable presents and expensive feasts and entertainments’.

[15] Roger Fry, ‘Art and Commerce’ (1926) in Goodwin, Art and the Market, 119-120.

[16] Roger Fry, ‘The Artist in the Great State’, in H.G. Wells, ed., Socialism and the Great State (New York: Harper, 1912), 265.

[17] Ibid., 264-265. ‘Not one of these things has been made because the maker enjoyed the making; not one has been bought because its contemplation would give any one any pleasure, but solely because each of these things is accepted as a symbol of a particular social status’.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Christopher Reed, ed. A Roger Fry Reader (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 100. This letter is dated May 1911.

[20] Fry, Letters, 441.

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