I find Virginia Woolf fascinating. It took me a few years to appreciate her novels, though I read and loved her non-fiction much younger, but I’ve been rereading her novels over the last year or so and am finding it a wonderful experience. Not only do her feminist views and approaches to women’s writing appeal to me, I find her novels give the best perspective of the way I (and presumably others) think that it’s the most immersive reading. I like how engaged she was with history, art and music, and I like that she was interested in clothes, too, as a way of representing ourselves (particularly apparent in Orlando) – and she appeared in Vogue, ‘merging high fashion with high culture’. Now, thanks to the exhibition Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision at the National Portrait Gallery, I discover she crocheted, too.
The exhibition, accompanied by an excellent catalogue by Frances Spalding (which I had to buy) explores the complex web that was Woolf’s life, through paintings of her and by those around her (in Bloomsbury), photographs, books, letters etc. The introductory panel points out the privacy Woolf wished to maintain in order to live a writer’s life, which contrasts with our desire to ‘know’ writers, and the fascination we feel for those whose books we love. But there seems little prurience here, and the focus is on the public, writerly side of Woolf, though it is also a pleasure to see pictures of her home (published in Vogue) and portraits of herself and her family and friends.
‘Who was I then?’ she asked, and we are still asking exactly who she was, and trying to understand how her mind worked and produced such delicate, radical and absorbing novels and essays. From the ’eminent Victorians’ who dominated her young mind (including her father, Leslie Stephen, as well as Tennyson, Browning et al) to the influence of the Bloomsbury set, including her husband, Leonard Woolf, painters including her sister Vanessa Bell and her husband Duncan Grant, Lytton Strachey and the modernist critic Roger Fry. Well-connected throughout her life, this exhibition highlights how her circle grew from her family and those around her, and offer a tranquil picture of her life. But there is much more to it than that: the daily absorption in literature, art and music created Woolf’s own unique vision (perhaps contributing to the accusation that her work is ‘elitist’) is imagined here through the exhibits.
In fact, rather than elitist, the exhibition suggests that the Woolfs were intentionally practising ‘cultural inclusiveness’ through the Hogarth Press, with works which ‘promoted democracy, anti-imperialism and anti-war arguments, publishing books that cut across the divides created by class, education and nationality.’
One of my favourite twentieth century paintings is here: Vanessa Bell’s A Conversation, which balances the mood between gossipy and serious, and contains echoes of how we (think they) lived at Charleston. In fact the exhibition is also illuminating of the changing forms and styles of Bell’s and Grant’s work, as well as demonstrating their ability to capture characters. There are also many delightful books from the Hogarth Press which the Woolfs set up, with eye-catching covers very resonant of the period, and including not only Woolf’s own work but that of her contemporaries. She seemed to know everyone – from TS Eliot to James Joyce; there are also letters here to Katherine Mansfield, with whom she seems to have had a volatile friendship. Another little bit of information: I was fascinated to find out that the Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner proposed to Woolf’s mother, who was connected to Pre-Raphaelite circles through her family. Woolf was photographed for Vogue in Woolner’s house, and wore her mother’s gown for the occasion.
Her last letters to Vanessa and Leonard are here, and the final item is a painting by Duncan Grant in 1960, Still Life with Bust of Virginia Woolf, Charleston. Now, the beautiful woman with the soulful eyes of the earlier paintings and photographs is replaced with a more severe representation; she is doubly memorialised here, the eyes blank but surrounded by books and the reminders of her life’s work.