I was sitting in the local Italian restaurant (they serve half-price pizzas on Monday) reading an article about Helmut Ruhemann, when a man came in with a delivery slip, looking as if he wanted to speak to the proprietor. I explained that I wasn’t the proprietor and he left. As the door closed, I realised that my mobile phone was gone. I said to a waiter that I thought that the man might have taken my mobile phone, so we both went out into the street and asked him. He had, and handed it back as if he was doing me a favour. He was.
I have been reflecting on the exhibition at Charleston about the Omega Workshops. The traditional view of the Omega Workshops is that it was somewhat amateurish – a group of well-to-do artists experimenting with the decorative arts and interior design in a way that was commercially unsuccessful. But what comes across is that it was a big and ambitious enterprise, occupying Roger Fry in the middle phase of his life and offering a bespoke service across the full range of household goods – carpets, screens, chairs, ceramics. The exhibition makes one adjust one’s view not just of the Omega Workshops, but of the role of Fry in making it happen, even if it ended, as it did, in commercial failure.
I was asked to speak to a large group of Chinese museum professionals on the subject of ‘How to be Creative and Successful Internationally’. I wish I knew. I ended up talking about the virtues of irrationality. In retrospect, I don’t think that success is made possible by financial analysis, by systems, but much more by intuition and belief. But then it was politely pointed out, I am a dinosaur. The other thing in which I realise I am a dinosaur is that I think that success in an organisation – any organisation – is dependent on having and developing good relations with staff. When I started at the NPG, someone said, ‘make sure they hate you’. I have never thought that this is sensible. So, I am indeed, and proud to be, a dinosaur.
The concert itself was highly atmospheric. Janáček’s String Quartet no.2, ‘Intimate Letters’, written right at the end of his life when he had fallen tragically in love with Kamila Stösslová, who singing voice he had heard in the café of a Moravian bar. Movements from the quartet were interspersed with readings by Joely Richardson from the 700 letters he wrote her. Then a piano quintet by Erich Korngold a Moravian, who migrated to Hollywood and wrote the sound track for The Adventures of Robin Hood, with readings from Oscar Wilde, Franz Kafka and Stefan Zweig: all the spiritual and psychological torment of writers in central Europe in the early part of the last century made Bloomsbury seem much less tortured.
We arrived at Charleston just in time to catch its new exhibition on the Omega Workshops, set up in 1913 after Fry’s Post-Impressionist exhibition to provide work for artists.
Duncan Grant, c.1910:-
Invitation card to an exhibition:-
An illustration to Roger Fry’s ‘The Artist as Decorator’:-
The advert for their pottery:-
A (beautiful) teacup designed by Roger Fry, made at Carter, Stabler & Adams:-
A pair of cupboard doors from Charleston after Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell moved their in 1916:-
Book covers in block printed paper:-
It closed in 1919.
Nothing could be nicer than tea at Charleston in the early autumn sun in the new courtyard next door to Jamie Fobert’s exhibition building, with Melvyn Tan and the Škampa Quartet practising a Janáček String Quartet in the barn:-
I went to the start of the Twentieth Century Society’s memorial event for Gavin Stamp, sadly only just long enough to hear Jonathan Meades’s magnificent, vehement paean, delivered in absentia from the Unité d’Habitation and to see unlikely films of Gavin singing the praises of the Birmingham New Street Signal Box, built in the heaviest brutalist style in 1964 and Ralph Erskine’s Byker Estate, which was perhaps a more likely place for him to admire for its communitarian principles. What came across from Ken Powell was the unpredictability of his taste, hating everything by Norman Foster and Jim Stirling, excoriating the work of Quinlan Terry at Downing, but admiring the work of Caruso St. John at Walsall and Nottingham. Most of all, he liked championing the underdog with robust and unpredictable independence.