Virginia Woolf in exhibition…

The current main exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), Virginia Woolf, Art, Life and Vision,  combines portraiture with biographical and archival information.  The NPG has used this fruitful approach in the past for its 1994 show on the Sitwell family and its 2004 exhibition focusing on Lord Byron, which explored the poet’s literary and social fame and his influence upon cultural figures of the 19th and 20th centuries, such as Mick Jagger.

Th exhibition features portraiture of those who influenced or were involved with Woolf’s life and achievements, such as a painting (1904) by Simon Bussy of biographer and art critic Lytton Strachey, a close friend of Woolf’s, and a painting (1926) by Edward Wolfe of Vogue fashion editor Madge Garland: ‘the woman who dressed Virginia Woolf’. Several colourful and expressive portraits of Woolf (1882–1941) by Vanessa Bell, her sister, are particularly revealing. Exhibits include letters, manuscripts, enchanting dust jackets designed by Bell, Woolf’s walking stick and posters, such as the one for the exhibition of Picasso’s Guernica (1938) at the New Burlington Galleries, for which Woolf was a patron and sponsor.

The exhibition mostly follows the timeline of Woolf’s life. Her background was what historian Noel Annan describes ‘an intellectual aristocracy’. The photographs, especially, help to illuminate people and places, establishing Woolf’s sense of identity and her involvement with the Bloomsbury Group and modernist artistic and literary movements.

Woolf described herself as:  ‘Adeline Virginia Stephen, the second daughter of Leslie and Julia Princep Stephen, born on 25th January 1882, descended from a great many people, some famous; others obscure; born not of rich parents but of well-to-do parents, born into a very communicative, literate letter-writing, visiting, articulate late nineteenth-century world…’

Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen (1832–1904), was the first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography; and author of the History of English Thought in the 18th Century (1876). His father had been the colonial undersecretary during the British Empire.  The portrait photographer Julia Margaret Cameron was a great-aunt of Woolf’s. Some of Cameron’s portraits, such as those of Robert Browning and Charles Darwin, are included in the exhibition. Both Woolf’s parents had been widowed, with children, before they met, and had four children together: Vanessa, Thoby, Virginia and Adrian.

The first family home was in Hyde Park Gate, Kensington. The family enjoyed summer holidays at Talland House in St Ives, Cornwall, the setting for Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse (1927). Woolf suffered her first mental breakdown when her mother died in 1895, and thereafter suffered from severe bouts of mental instability throughout her life, resulting in her suicide by drowning in 1941.

Although Woolf never went to school, she read extensively, educating herself. Vanessa trained to become a painter. At Cambridge University their brothers befriended Leonard Woolf (later to be Virginia’s husband), Clive Bell (later to marry Vanessa), Lytton Strachey, and the economist John Maynard Keynes. These were the nucleus of the Bloomsbury Group, which met weekly in the Stephens’ family house in Bloomsbury, central London..

Woolf began her writing career with reviews for the Guardian (a clerical paper), and the Times Literary Supplement. Her stepbrother Gerald’s publishing house, Duckworth, published her first novels, The Voyage Out (1915) and Night and Day (1919).

In 1910 Woolf befriended Roger Fry, who drew the Bloomsbury group into the public eye through his involvement with modernist art and his ground-breaking exhibition in London of Manet and the Post Impressionists. Fry inspired the establishment of the Omega workshops for which Vanessa Bell and others created murals, furniture, stained glass and textiles for home interiors.

In 1912, Virginia married Leonard Woolf. In 1917, the couple founded the Hogarth Press; its first publication was their own Two Stories. Other publications included Katherine Mansfield’s Prelude, and T.S. Eliot’s Poems andThe Wasteland. In 1919 the couple bought Monks House in Rodmell, West Sussex, not far from Vanessa and Clive Bell’s Charleston Farmhouse.

Throughout the next two decades, Virginia’s novels were published by the Hogarth Press. Mrs Dalloway (the inspiration for Michael Cunningham’s book and subsequent film, The Hours) appeared in 1925.  Orlando: A Biography (1928) followed in 1928, inspired by her friendship and love affair with Vita Sackville-West. In the mid 1920s Virginia began writing for Vogue magazine and images of her, which feature in the exhibition, appeared in Vogue. She published Flush, a biography of Elizabeth Browning’s dog (1933), Three Guineas (1938), about how war could be prevented, and a biography of Roger Fry (1940).

Links can be drawn between impressionist and expressive art and Woolf’s writing style; she was sensitive to aesthetics in a literary context. After reading one of Woolf’s short stories Roger Fry wrote: ‘You’re the only one now Henry James has gone who uses language as a medium of art, who makes the very texture of the words have a meaning and a quality really almost apart from what you are talking about.’ In the book accompanying the exhibition, the curator Frances Spalding observes that as a writer Virginia was ‘teased and provoked in the silent language of paint’. Spalding quotes the thoughts of artist Lily Bristoe about painting in To the Lighthouse (1927): ‘Beautiful and bright it should be on the surface, feathery and evanescent, one colour melting into another like the colours on a butterfly’s wings; but beneath the fabric must be clumped together with bits of iron. It was to be a thing you could not dislodge with a team of horses’.

The exhibition could have provided more information about Leonard, who had a deep influence on Woolf’s development as a writer and commentator, and their companionship was so fruitful. Would Virginia have been as productive without Leonard? Indeed, Leonard’s intellectual and literary world is interesting in itself.

The exhibition tells its story with sensitivity and eloquence and presents a range of imagery and archival material. It makes history come to life, providing insight into why we write, read and create the way we do. Interior monologues and impressionistic fiction are now the stuff of post-modernist fiction; the expressionist and conceptual are revered in the art world.  Woolf sparked changes that planted the seeds of contemporary culture. The National Portrait Gallery has chosen well.


The exhibition is accompanied by a book Virginia Woolf, Art, Life and Vision by Frances Spalding, published by the National Portrait Gallery, 2014.

This article first appeared in Cassone: The International Online Magazine of Art and Art Books in the September 2014 issue.