I know you must be tired of hearing me rave about Virginia Woolf and her novel “The Waves” in particular. When the #ThisBook challenge came around asking people to name the book by a female author which most influenced them it was the one I instantly picked. I first discovered the novel at university (not a text on my syllabus) and have read it on many late nights. Walking to work through London on warm summer mornings listening to an audio recording of “The Waves” is one of my favourite things to do. The intensity of emotion, journey through the stages of life and inventive language have made an indelible impression upon me.
So this morning I was thrilled to attend a preview of a major new exhibition focusing on Woolf at the National Portrait Gallery. The exhibit is curated by Frances Spalding who has just published a tempting new biography of Woolf. It combines painted portraits of Woolf by Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant & Roger Fry; photographs of Woolf by Beresford, Man Ray & McGregor who photographed Woolf for Vogue; intimate letters & diary entries to and from Woolf; and first editions of books by Woolf and other major Modernist writers. The collection creates a journey through Woolf’s life with moving insights including a haunting photo of Virginia at 13 in mourning dress for her recently deceased mother, copies of her first publications in the Stephen children’s ‘The Hyde Park Gate News’ & memoir about her father in a biography of him, photos of very young Virginia playing cricket in both 1886 & 1894, letters to Katherine Mansfield & Vita Sackville-West and a stately bust of the author by Stephen Tomlin. I particularly liked a mushy love letter written from Leonard to Virginia in 1912 while the couple were still courting.
In addition to representations of Woolf and her work the exhibit also includes many photos of the family, authors and acquaintances most closely associated with her. There is a domineering photo of Sophie Farrell who was the Woolf’s cook immortalized in Virginia’s essay ‘The Cook.’ A photo of handsome & debonair elder brother Thoby Stephen who died at the young age of 26 gives an insight to Woolf’s novel “Jacob’s Room” and the character of Percival in “The Waves.” Chillingly there is a photo of Virginia with her step-brother George Duckworth – the man who Woolf famously derided as showing her unwanted “profuse, voluble affection” when she was young. There are a number of paintings by sister Vanessa Bell and other artists of the time demonstrating the comingling art, style and practice amongst the groups of writers at the time. A stark portrait of ‘The Memoir Club’ by Bell shows Virginia reading her work before a group of stately looking men. The grouping of these works of art and artefacts is a testament to how Woolf was both influenced by the artists of the time and a major influence upon others.
The exhibit provides insights into Woolf’s recurring mental illness as well as her strong political views (not often commented on in relation to her highly stylized writing). In the commentary provided in the text accompanying the exhibit there is also a sense of Woolf self-consciously creating her image as a writer. From early photos of (an already mature looking) Virginia at 20 with her domineering nose to Gisèle Freund’s photographs of Woolf elegantly dressed and poised with cigarette holder, there is a sense of Woolf presenting herself as a highly serious artist and intellectual. It was an image of someone you would feel intimidated about approaching, but this fantastic exhibit gives her fans access behind that forbidding façade. It traces the trajectory of her life, influences which informed her writing and development as an artist. Go see it!
Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision is on at National Portrait Gallery from July 10- October 26.