It should have been done a hundred years ago. But, better late than never, rug-maker Christopher Farr has realised designs that have been tucked away in the Courtauld Gallery’s archives and brought them to life at last.
The designs were the product of the Omega Workshops, founded in the heart of Bloomsbury in 1913 by the influential art critic and painter Roger Fry as a kind of artists’ co-operative, selling furniture, ceramics, wall decorations and textiles direct to the consumer. Artists involved included the younger, more adventurous spirits of the age, led by Fry’s co-directors, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell. The aesthetic preference was for simple linear designs and bold colours in reaction to fussy, fusty Victorian taste.
As Fry said at the time: “We have suffered too long from the dull and stupidly serious. It is time that the spirit of fun is introduced into furniture and fabrics.”
Nowhere was the modernism of Omega more apparent than in the rugs and textiles, where the geometry required for each knot and weave in the design was just a short step away from abstract painting. Thus it was that Grant and Bell have often been cited as the first abstract painters in Britain.
However, although plenty of designs were drawn, few rugs were manufactured.
The outbreak of war in 1914 was hardly conducive to a boom in the interior decorating business, and by 1919, the Omega had ground to a halt. The designs were kept by Fry, and after his death some were given to the V&A Museum by his sister, the penal reformer Margery Fry, while a much larger corpus of Omega designs was given to the Courtauld by Fry’s daughter, Pamela Diamand.
With such a rich reservoir of material, the Courtauld mounted an exhibition in 2009 of these designs, Beyond Bloomsbury, which was organised by its curator of sculpture and decorative arts, Dr Alexandra Gerstein. While she was researching the exhibition, Gerstein looked for the opinions of a professional rug-maker on the meanings of certain markings and annotations on the designs, and called in Matthew Bourne, a director of specialist rug dealer and manufacturer Christopher Farr. He was so inspired by the designs that he asked if Christopher Farr could create new rugs from them.
Farr and Bourne’s credentials for undertaking such a project were second to none. Originally dealers in antique oriental and decorative tribal rugs, they began making rugs with contemporary artists in 1991, when they got involved with the Royal College of Art to mount the exhibition Brave New Rugs. Later, they created rugs for the young British artists Gary Hume and Gavin Turk. One of Turk’s rugs, which is based on his blue heritage plaque Gavin Turk Sculptor Worked Here, sold to the British Council, and another to a contemporary art museum in Istanbul.
But it was their experience in recreating early-20th-century modernist rug designs which was most appropriate for the Courtauld project. With the approval of the artists’ estates, they had recreated rugs conceived by the Bauhaus designers Anni Albers and her teacher Gunta Stölzl, as well as the 1930s British designer Marian Pepler. They also had links with Bloomsbury, having commissioned work from Cressida Bell, a granddaughter of Vanessa Bell, and exhibited rugs at Charleston House, the Sussex home of the Bloomsbury group. Satisfied that the new rugs would not discredit the designs, and with the promise of some financial reward as the rugs would be for sale, the Courtauld gave the project the green light.
Bourne and Farr insist that their rugs are not reproductions, but reinterpretations. Where the gouache colours of the original designs are faded, or a design is incomplete because of paper loss, they have taken advice and used their imagination. But even with those imperfections rectified, the new rugs are essentially different from how the originals would have looked. For economic reasons, First World War carpets had to be made inexpensively, with reduced colours and inferior quality yarn. Like the few originals we know of, Christopher Farr’s rugs are hand-tufted, but made with superior dyes and Anatolian wool and mohair, so of a far higher quality.
The results are to be exhibited at Somerset House from May 3 alongside facsimiles of the original designs (which are too fragile to be shown). Five carpets, each available in a limited edition of 15, are mostly between 10 and 12 feet long and, depending on the width, are priced between £5,000 and £15,000. A less expensively produced Stölzl rug recreated by Christopher Farr in an edition of 145 will be on sale in the Barbican shop during the forthcoming Bauhaus exhibition, priced at £695.