Exhibition Review: Virginia Woolf


The view of Godrevy Lighthouse (which inspired To the Lighthouse) from the hotel.

Last weekend I went all the way to St Ives in Cornwall with some friends for a fabulous time visiting the Virginia Woolf exhibition currently on at Tate St Ives. It’s the perfect place to explore Woolf’s ideas, landscape and feminist consciousness; St Ives is well known as an artists’ place, with its light and landscape which has inspired so many; and Woolf wrote so fondly of the inspiration and happiness provided by her early summers spent at Talland House (which we sought out, of course). A Londoner by birth, Woolf writes Cornwall into several of her novels, including Jacob’s Room, To the Lighthouse and The Waves. She wrote that

‘I went for a walk in Regent’s Park yesterday morning, and it suddenly struck me how absurd it was to stay in London, with Cornwall going on all the time,’ she records of her sudden train journey from London to Cornwall in 1909. I have been walking along the sands and sitting in the sun… I am so drugged with fresh air that I can’t write…As for the beauty of this place it surpasses every other season.

As someone who frequently feels the urge to hop on the Penzance train instead of going home at the end of a long day, I understand completely. For Woolf, Cornwall offered a kind of freedom from the social life and claustrophobia of London (which, equally, she


Talland House

thrived on), and this and so much more is reflected in the exhibition. Woolf’s life and work are situated in a web of cultural forms, from art to bookbinding, home furnishings to sculpture, and of course she had close ties to the women’s suffrage movement and wrote passionately about women’s creativity and education. This exhibition, then, in the year in which we mark 100 years of women’s suffrage, is particularly significant, and all the more so because it only features women’s work. Over the last decade attention has repeatedly been drawn to studies about the under-representation of women artists, and this has been repeatedly ignored, but here is an exhibition that makes a wonderful attempt to redress the balance.


(c) artcornwall.org

The show offers, consequently, an insight into the changing landscape of women’s lives over the last 100 years. Many of these insights are internal: there are some of Vanessa Bell’s wonderful still lives, which seem to echo Woolf’s novels is so many ways, as well as furnishing fabrics, ceramics and portraits. From Gwen John’s uncompromising stare in her self-portrait to Laura Knight’s The Dark Pool (one of my favourite paintings, but which does not appear in the catalogue, sadly), to photographs of Dora Carrington as a ‘living sculpture’, unconventional creative women are celebrated throughout. There are several wonderful ‘windowsill’ paintings, by Bell, Knight, Wilhelmina Barnes-Graham and others, which transform a woman’s point of view from a domestic centre by looking outwards. Some are almost mocking in their refusal of domestic life (such as Knight’s Cactus, complete with dead flies), and they indicate both the necessity of a ‘room of one’s own’ along with a denial of ‘traditional’ feminine values.

Woolf argued that, as women, we must ‘think back through our mothers’, indicating the need for a strong female tradition in art and literature to rival that of the male tradition. The exhibition offers a way to do this. Judy Chicago’s setting for Woolf from her famous work The Dinner Party (1978) offers a feminist approach to thinking about female creativity and sexuality, while other exhibits such as Claude Cahun’s fascinating photographic self-portraits explore multiple selves and aspects of gender which seem to echo Woolf’s Orlando. Gluck’s marvellous landscapes, meanwhile, so low and with so much sky, position the woman in the landscape itself. The many contradictions of social, personal and cultural constructions of womanhood are explored in their glorious, confusing multiplicity: women both is and isn’t a part of ‘nature’, for example; womanhood means many things and both is and isn’t an ‘essence’. Women are not necessarily mothers, or nurturing, but what we learn is that women are creative, and perhaps all the more so when this is against the odds. Perhaps women’s work looks different when it is not displayed alongside often larger and showier masculine artworks (although some of these are larger and showier, too!) but in some ways I left feeling that gender is perhaps less important to art than I thought: there are some wonderful works here, demonstrating female excellence in a range of media, and though the public and private faces of womanhood are central to many of them, they are not the only thing that matters.


Gluck, Before the races, St Buryan, Cornwall (1924, private collection)



An Adventure in Moominland

MoominsA while ago now, we went to see Adventures in Moominland at the Soutbbank Centre at the weekend, and I can safely say I’ve never been to an exhibition like it before, and also that it’s the most my five-year-old has ever enjoyed an exhibition (and he does like visiting art galleries anyway). I’ve always been fond of the Moomins: from when I first got them out of the school library when I was about 8, I’ve always felt they were admirable creatures: they’re cute and appealing, but also sensible. They deal with life well, enjoying the world around them and building strong relationships – but in a fun way. I love how Moominmama is always in the kitchen, with her handbag and an apron, but is quite happy to just go off on an adventure at the drop of a hat – we should all be a bit more like that. The loner philosopher Snufkin is my favourite, I think, though. So it’s been a delight to introduce my son to the books, and since the exhibition offered a chance to go into Moominland, how could we resist?!

Hero1600x630-22069.35 Moomins new website image-01 -1

No photos are allowed inside, so I can only describe it, but the exhibition is set up as a imagesjourney into Moominland. You begin in a tent, where the Moomins camp out, and there is a tour guide (who refers to the children as ‘My young adventurers’) and also a voice-over with more discussion of the author, Tove Jansson’s life, beautifully done by Sandi Toksvig. You travel through magic forests with “real” snow on the ground, tropical gardens with sand, haze and plants, where the Hemulen collects his botanical samples, the boathouse (which doubles up as Jansson’s studio), and many other scenes, and end up in Moominhouse, where the Moomins are asleep, snoring, in the next room. There’s two interlinking narratives here; the guide presents one suitable for children, and while the children are tampere-art-museum-moominvalley-collection-photo-jari-kuusenaho-2-copy-1001x1024exploring there is also the voiceover which gives more information for adults. I didn’t know much about Jansson’s life but it was fascinating: how she developed the characters of the Moomin family and their friends, how she worked contemporary events during WW2 into her stories, etc. There are not just scenes, of course, but also many, many original drawings by Jansson, and they really are wonderful; the detail (and, often, menace) in them really makes them works of art in their own right. They are in protective cases that appear as suitcases, set in walls, or otherwise presented so that they are at child level but safe from small fingers! It’s an innovative and informative way of exhibiting Jansson’s work which draws on her life and her work, and has equal appeal to adults and children. It was meant to close in April but has been extended until August, giving more people a chance to see it.


Book Review: The Power

9780670919963The Power is Naomi Alderman’s fourth novel, and it won the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction.  Science fiction novels don’t normally appeal to me, but the complex gender dynamics and dystopian vision of a gender-switched future sounded interesting, so I read it on holiday and found it a fascinating read. Firstly, it’s well-written, which is obviously what you’d expect from a Professor of Creative Writing; but more than that, it’s able to switch between subtle and tub-thumping, creating a web of complicated and unexpected threads of a speculative future. Other dystopias by feminist writers (Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercey and The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter spring to mind) are more of a blunt instrument, I think; The Power responds to some of the concerns of the twenty-first century in a way which is not fixed but shifts throughout the novel. Entertainingly, the novel is framed by letters from a (fictional) male author to ‘Naomi Alderman’ asking what she thinks of this novel which purports to tell a ‘new’ version of women’s rise to power; her advice, at the end, is that it’s hard to believe men were ever that strong, and that perhaps, to avoid being pigeonholed as ‘men’s literature’, he might consider using a female pseudonym.

Power corrupts. We are all increasingly aware of this, and politics, social and cultural structures,and everything that builds up most societies is based on patriarchal power, 4000the understanding from time immemorial that men are stronger physically and therefore men have the power; the threat of violence towards women, if not actually violence, underlies the patriarchy. What happens if women have a power which makes them more of a threat? At first, it’s a few teenage girls realising that they have a tingling sensation which becomes greater as they become angry (at men who attack them or their family): there is a direct correlation in the novel between the development of women’s power and their ill-treatment at the hands of men. These pubescent girls begin to realise they can do harm with this power, and from there it grows. The novel traces the development of this female power across the world, as women learn to fight back.

Like all good sci-fi, The Power gives a reason for this electricity (a liquid called Guardian Angel which was put in drinking water during WW2, and became part of the water cycle, intended to protect humans from gas attacks, but with an unintended consequence for women only), but the reason is almost irrelevant (though it does indicate the potential dangers of chemical alterations to the human body). The point is that young women develop a ‘skein’ across their collarbones which is the source of their electrical power which can maim or kill (or light candles, or tickle). Older women’s power can be ignited by younger women, and it becomes clear that ‘the power’ is metaphorical: in the early stages of the book, it seems a feminist trope, an indication of a much needed redress of the balance of power. The growth of female power is accompanied by the development Power-190x300of other social structures, however: despite attempts by masculine powers to repress or control it, women slowly gain political power, in one case setting up a women-only state, or developing a matriarchal religion. These developments are told through the stories of particular figures in different situations across the world, and thrown into relief by the story of a young man, Tunde, whose videos of early electrical attacks go viral and make him a sought-after reporter. At first the women see him as on their side; later, as his fear grows, it becomes startlingly clear to the reader how the balance of power has shifted completely, with men in fear of their lives.

The three main female characters indicate the ways in which individual situations contribute to a global reversal of power, building up slowly until it is an unstoppable tide. Allie has escaped (and killed) her abusive foster-father when the power came upon her, and she reinvents herself as a female prophet, with her own religion of female power. Margot is an American mayor looking for ways to advance her career in a male-dominated, inhospitable political environment, and Roxy is the daughter of a London gangland leader whose mother is murdered in front of her. They s-a3152730912b99a5f04ff88260dbb596194430deall have reasons for using power to their own ends, and at first it’s easy to sympathise when girls who have been victims of male power find their own strength and fight back. Quickly, though, it becomes extreme; and although little here has not been seen in the world before with the gender roles reversed – men are afraid to go out at night, men are considered to be dependent on women, men are inferior, etc – nonetheless it is shocking. And what is perhaps most shocking is the way that this approach explodes myths. Women have to be strong because they need to protect their children, the new argument goes; men aren’t really necessary. Men aren’t built for strength and speed, women are: the ultimate message of the novel is not that men and women are different, but that they are, ultimately, the same – they are corruptible. Power goes to women’s heads in the novel, just as men have been drunk on it for millennia, abusing and repressing women simply because they can.

William Morris and Kelmscott Manor

20170518_142652It is surprising that I’ve never been to Kelmscott Manor before, but this week I went with a group from the Birmingham Midland Institute. I gave a lecture about William Morris while we were travelling, so I spent the preceding week deeply immersed in Morris’s life and work, and it has increased my passion for him. Visiting Kelmscott consequently felt like something of a pilgrimage. The Manor has an interesting history anyway, dating from 1600, and Morris felt that it was “the loveliest haunt of ancient peace”, which seemed to be rooted in the soil and the people who had lived there. The image of Kelmscott is particularly famous for its appearance as the frontispiece for Morris’s utopian novel News from Nowhere, and it was wonderful to see it in the stone, as it were, and to feel the deep peace which the place exudes.'Kelmscott Manor' 1893  (Frontispiece from 'News from Nowhere')

Morris was fascinated by the medieval period, ideas and ideals as well as aesthetics, since his childhood when he rode around on a pony in his suit of miniature armour and made up stories in the woods about knights, ladies and fairies. As he grew up, rejecting the Church as a profession in favour of architecture while he was at Oxford, his thoughts and ideas all seem to stem from this childhood interest. Books influenced him deeply; he’d apparently read all of Walter Scott’s novels by the age of nine, and at University he discovered Thomas Carlyle’s Past and Present, John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice and Charlotte Yonge’s The Heir of Redclyffe. What these books all share, I think, is dissatisfaction with the industrial, self-seeking present, and a desire to revisit the past which is more than nostalgia, but a genuine desire to put right what they felt was wrong with the world. Like the modern-day knight of Yonge’s novel, Guy Morville, Morris’s life demonstrates how he lived out the ideals he developed as a young man.

Morris is mostly remembered as a designer, now, and of course there are many of his designs at Kelmscott Manor, which is perhaps more simply furnished than one might 20170518_144830expect, but in a distinctive style (I’ve now discovered why my parents painted all their furniture dark green) with natural, clear colours. Many of the fabrics and objects there were brought there after his death, but it’s wonderful to see his bed, with the poem he wrote for it embroidered by Jane around it, which begins:

The wind’s on the wold
And the night is a-cold,
And Thames runs chill
‘Twixt mead and hill.

Morris’s poetry, his Norse tales, his Socialist work and his designs all demonstrate a remarkable sense of unity. Though his Socialism developed after he encountered Marx’s Das Kapital, he was always anxious for opportunities for all, and for a fairer system to be achieved in Britain, for which he was quite prepared for violent anarchy – indeed, he felt it was probably the only way, and in News from Nowhere it is apparent that such a revolution had occurred. His desire was 20170518_144819not only for equality but for dignity and respect for all, and that comes in a very Marxist form in News from Nowhere, where all receive the same pay and love their work. The guiding principal of ‘The Firm’ which Morris set up to produce useful and beautiful household objects was that art should be handmade, using the skill of the craftspeople, and that all should have access to it. Of course these things may seem improbable or even impossible, and Morris is nothing if not an idealist, but there is something incredibly appealing about his beautiful, medievalized utopia in which all can share in the beauty of life through art, nature and love. The environment was an important part of this, too: how we connect to what is around us – buildings, places, the natural world – indicates who were are, and it is very clear what he thought of the pollution and destruction of the natural environment in the nineteenth century:

Is money to be gathered? cut down the pleasant trees among the houses, pull down ancient and venerable buildings for the money that a few square yards of London dirt will fetch; blacken rivers, hide the sun and poison the air with smoke and worse, and it’s nobody’s business to see to it or mend it: that is all that modern commerce, the counting-house forgetful of the workshop, will do for us herein.

He is remarkably prescient, I believe: I’ve been reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate recently, and Morris’s views that we have lost connection with the environment, that we are wreaking havoc on the wo20170518_144014rld and there will be ecological payback, and that capitalism in the form of industrialised society is the main driver of climate destruction are echoed vividly in Klein’s arguments. Wandering the beautiful gardens at Kelmscott, and walking beside the Thames where Rossetti and Morris wandered, one can see why he felt so strongly about this, leaving behind the polluted rivers and skies of London.

Morris said that ‘History has remembered the kings and warriors, because they destroyed; art has remembered the people, because they created.’ To be creative was the source of life for Morris, and Kelmscott Manor provided the peace that he needed for this. He wrote in the late 1870s of sitting in the tapestry room one evening, watching the sun set over the fields and hearing the cows lowing in the pasture; there are still cows there, and it is possible to feel very close to the past here.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Wisdom of Trees

Book Review: John Fowles, The Tree (Little, Toller 2016)

61g+LIn61VLJohn Fowles’ book The Tree is unlike any other book on trees I’ve read (and I’ve read quite a few recently). It is also a very beautiful book, with beautiful illustrations throughout by Ed Kluz, and an insightful foreword by William Fiennes. There is little scientific jargon here, attempts to describe trees are hedged with awareness of the limitations of language, and really, trees are just a starting point for what is really a long essay on human nature, society, art, and many other things. Trees, Fowles implies, can tell us everything we need to know – and nothing. That is why they are worth paying attention to. The book opens with the well-tended, domestic trees of Fowles’ father’s orchard, and moves through many wonderful digressions to conclude with the otherness and wildness of Wistman’s Wood:

fairy-like… teeming, jewel-like, self-involved, rich in secrets just below the threshold of our adult human senses. … all words miss, I know I cannot describe it.

Fowles makes some fairly contentious statements along the way, but the more I turn them over in my mind, the more sense they seem to make. He discusses how the Linnaean system of classifying organisms may have damaged our relationship with nature: the desire to own something, tame it and control it by naming, has deadened us to the thrill of not-knowing, the just-being.

These question-boundaries (where do I file that?) are ours, not of reality. We are led to them, caged by them not only culturally and intellectually, but quite physically, by the restlessness of our eyes and their limited field and acuity of vision.

20160402_110433He describes later in the book the finding of a coveted plant specimen, and realising that he has measured and noted and photographed it, but was so much the collector that he couldn’t really see it. There is a smug pleasure in identifying every tree on a stroll, of course, but Fowles has made me wonder whether we should think less about facts, and more about our relationship with trees. How we respond to nature tells us more about ourselves, then, than it does about nature: all the research in the world won’t change the oak, but your silent contemplation of the tree might just change you. There is a mystery in nature which is, Fowles suggests, particularly significant in trees:

I cherish trees because of their natural correspondence with the greener, more mysterious processes of mind – and because they seem to me the best, most revealing messengers to us from all nature, the nearest to its heart.

Likewise, he strongly states that to look for measurable benefits in our relationship with nature is to misunderstand the world around us. It has become ingrained in our society to look for measurable, tangible benefits in everything: what is the financial value of the bumblebee? What is the social significance of dandelions? Such approaches are 20160402_110833becoming necessary as we try to find ways to protect our natural world, but the monetised, jargonistic language used is off-putting. For example, there is no doubt in my mind that trees are good for us, and that time spent in their company has many health benefits, both physical and emotional. Recent research supports this, indicating that mental health can be improved by time spent outside. An article entitled ‘What is the Best Dose of Nature and Green Exercise for Improving Mental Health? A Multi-Study Analysis’ in Environmental Science & Technology (2010) argues that:

Ecosystems provide important services driven by provisioning, regulation, and support functions. It is clear they also provide a health service arising from direct activities in contact with nature. Recognition of the potential contribution of natural ecosystems to human population health may contribute to addressing problems associated with inactivity, obesity, mental ill-health, and other chronic diseases.

Evidence shows that exposure to natural places can lead to positive mental health outcomes, whether a view of nature from a window, being within natural places, or exercising in these environments.

I don’t disagree, exactly, but I find the language of this and many other similar articles anachronistic. Of course, the authors are using the language of those who need to be convinced of the benefits, because if nature isn’t worthwhile to humans, it risks being eradicated (as if we could!) Fowles is well aware of the inability of language – even in the hands of a novelist like himself – to truly describe encounters with nature, but it is the language of utility which seems to destroy something:

To see woods and forests merely scientifically, economically, topographically or aesthetically, not to understand that their greatest utility lies not in the facts derivable from them, or in their timber and fruit, or their landscape charm, or their utility as subject matter for the artist, all this proves the gathering speed with which we are retreating into outer space from all other life on this planet.

20170325_114220_1493756467417_resizedNature is not there for our benefit, nor us for nature: it is a matter of peacefully co-existing and for humans, as sentient beings, to learn from trees – and they have wisdom to impart, as Fowles suggests. What we should do is retreat to the forest, the ‘green chaos’, not in expectation of any personal gain, but for the sake of the trees themselves, and this is something we can only experience individually. Fowles concludes:

It, this namelessness, is beyond our science and our arts because its secret is being, not saying. Its greatest value to us is that it cannot be reproduced, that this being can be apprehended only by other present being, only by the living senses and consciousness. All experience of it through surrogate and replica, through selected image, gardened world, through other eyes and minds, betrays or banishes its reality.

Collecting tree stories for the Tree Charter, I’ve seen so many people’s stories of what 20170402_115122_1493756020795_resizedtrees mean to them, and few of them are about classifying, or explicitly about what they ‘expect’ from trees. Rather, people write in their own way about how the beauty of a tree moves them, how trees console them in grief, or entertained them in childhood. Language may be imperfect for describing trees – we have no real arboreal terms of reference – but the experiences mediated through people’s own words are moving and genuine. And we do have a duty to protect trees, I think, from those whose sights are set more on profit than on wilderness, so please consider reading the Tree Charter Principles and signing the Charter.

The Wind & Trees by John Clare

I love the song of tree and wind
How beautiful they sing
The licken on the beach tree rind
E’en beats the flowers of spring

From the southwest sugh sugh it comes
Then whizes round in pleasant hums

It sings the spirit of the storm
The trees with dancing waxes warm
They dance and bow, and dance again
The very trunks, each branch and grain

Shake and dance and wave and bow
In every form no matter how

In every storm they dance on high
The semblance of a stormy sky
Then sob and roar and bend and swee
The semblance of a stormy sea

I love the song of wood and wind
The sobs before its roar behind

I love the stir of flood and tree
‘Tis all of natures melody
I love the roaring of the wind
The calm that follows cheers the mind

‘Tis like the good mans end of peace
When joys begin and troubles cease

Woolf Works


wwThe Royal Ballet’s production of Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works seems to have been discussed and reviewed everywhere recently, and I was very happy to be able to go and see it at the weekend. Woolf’s novels have been adapted and reframed in different ways before, but none quite like this; it works brilliantly, though. The ballet is divided into three acts, each relating to one of Virginia Woolf’s novels: ‘I now, I then’ is based on Mrs Dalloway, ‘Becomings’ on Orlando and ‘Tuesday’ on  The Waves. The whole experience is dramatic, moving, even playful sometimes, and intertwines Woolf’s life and work. Max Richter’s music both directs and echoes the movement on stage, and in the programme notes he describes the unique ‘musical grammar’ required for each of the three texts.

The programme notes (which can be downloaded online) are helpful in exploring the process of depicting Woolf’s works on the stage; the deliberate obscuring of narrative, for example, and Woolf’s creative exploration of language as a medium to depict experience might seem an unpromising place to start, but in fact her engagement with other art forms, including music, dance, art and photography, and the ways in which these appear in her writing, means that these Modernist texts offer possibilities not otherwise fully explored.

“How can we combine the old words in new orders so that they survive, so that they create beauty, so that they tell the truth?”

For example, in the first section, Mrs Dalloway can be torn apart and displayed on stage as simultaneous Clarissas perform, the contrast of youth and age which the novel explores depicted movingly beside one another (and just the expression of Alessandra Ferri’s legs is emotional!) Equally, Septimus and Clarissa, who do not meet in the book, share the stage here, haunting each other. Contrary to my expectations, I found from the beginning that there are clear links, if often interpretative ones, to the novels, which made it all the more appealing (I’m not sure how the ballet would appear to someone with no knowledge of Woolf’s works). The filmic sequences which play behind the dancers in this section (designed by Ravi Deepres, who is Professor of Moving Image and Photography at Birmingham City University) seemed to me to root the action in Woolf’s concepts of time and place, especially London of the period. The moving frames which appear mid-stage seem repeatedly to offer vistas and remove them, glimpses through into other worlds which seems wholly appropriate.


The second section is based on Orlando, Woolf’s mock-biography of a man who becomes a woman, living over 400 years, and while the complex narrative of the novel would be almost impossible to contain in an act of a ballet, the sense of it is captured beautifully: paired androgynous figures leap and whirl with glee, offering a binary sense of gender that splits further until the concept of gender – along with time and place – becomes meaningless, an effect which the novel itself has. As lasers shoot across the stage and at the audience through billows of smoke, the spotlit dancers appear suspended in the mists of time, identifiable not through the usual means of dress distinguishable by period or gender, but by their movements. This act is the loosest interpretation of Woolf’s text, and it contrasts strikingly with the final, more sombre ‘Tuesday’, based on The Waves. Water imagery saturates both the movement and the stage here, following on from a reading of Woolf’s suicide note (and, of course, she also took her life in water). The watery visuals work well: waves of movement are complemented by waves of music and also the backdrop, and the sadness implicit in life bookended by death is conjured here, the suicide of Woolf echoing Septimus’s suicide in the first act.


I loved this. For me, the intertwining of text and dance provided a wonderful experience (and it seems critics, and audiences, agree; it’s sold out and has been well reviewed, on the whole). Perhaps it doesn’t matter if you don’t know who the characters are, but for me, seeing versions of Woolf’s characters, and even more importantly, interpretations of her ideas, performed so beautifully was a very absorbing and uplifting experience. The production offers as many approaches, and effective use of different art forms, as Woolf’s own works, and I’m sure she would have been very satisfied with Woolf Works.

The illusion is upon me that something adheres for a moment, has roundness, weight, depth, is completed. This, for the moment, seems to be my life. If it were possible, I would hand it you entire. I would break it off as one breaks off a bunch of grapes. I would say, ‘Take it. This is my life.’ (The Waves)