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)



Barbara Hepworth’s Studio

20160711_110310In St Ives on holiday, we visited Barbara Hepworth’s studio and garden, now part of Tate St Ives; Hepworth (1903-1975) died there in a fire about 40 years ago, and in her will asked that Trewyn Studio and gardens, complete with her sculptures and belongings, be opened to the public. Now, it is a tranquil place to visit, and one can imagine the haven it provided for Hepworth, who moved to St Ives in 1939 to escape London in the advent of war.  The move initiated a shift in the focus of her work, to natural forms inspired by the Cornish landscape she grew to love.  This is displayed to great effect with the sculptures in her garden, where a natural sense of form and movement blends with plants, trees and natural light, for which St Ives is remarkable.  Previously Trewyn had been a children’s home, but in 1949, ten years after her move to St Ives, Hepworth fell in love with it and bought it even though she couldn’t afford it, and the garden in particular became integral to her work.

From the dark entrance hall, paved with Delabole slate, which she used for many of her sculptures, and filled with photographs of Hepworth’s life, the visitor emerges into a light, bright studio space equipped with many examples of her work, including the famous stringed designs, sketches, and photographs of the space as it was during Hepworth’s lifetime.  It is also still furnished with pieces of furniture she acquired herself, which give it a homely touch.  Through the studio the garden can be reached, where sculptures are set among an array of plants and flowers, their organic shapes demonstrating Hepworth’s understanding of the holistic form and harmony with nature and landscape.  Winding paths lead around the garden, where one is assailed with the smell of the flowers and the sea, and the sight of nature and art entwined.  The garden is based on a formal layout, which is a relic of the Georgian estate of which it was once a part.


In the garden is a small, white-painted summerhouse, with a makeshift bed, where Hepworth used sometimes to sleep; there is also a large outdoor studio, consisting of several rooms not unlike a conservatory.  This makes the most of the St Ives light, and is airy and warm, housing a number of cacti, and sometimes a cat, which dozes in a shabby armchair in the sun.  There are also a number of unfinished works in the studio, which adds an unusual sense of immediacy, as though the artist may return at any moment.  Jars of coffee sit side-by-side with glue and varnish on the dusty shelves, and her tools are scattered about.  Hepworth used a number of assistants in her work, especially in later life when she became frail, but her own tools are clearly marked with red tape. While resting in the summerhouse, she could hear her assistants working, and would call out to them if they made a mistake, which she could tell by the sounds of the tools on the material.


Some of the sculptures are small and unassuming, almost hidden by the foliage in which they reside, while some are towering focal points that demand attention.  These are combined with beautiful flowers, and gnarled trees, which are works of art in themselves.  A small lily pond with a bridge completes the picture.  Somehow the holes in the forms of her sculptures seem to make more sense when trees, flowers and the sky can be seen through them, giving an appropriate sense of context to these smooth and natural forms.  While modern sculpture is not something that appeals to everyone, there is a strong sense here that searching for meaning is beside the point; it is feeling which is important, and the garden is an ideal environment for this.  Unlike a gallery, here you can walk around the sculptures, and give in to the irresistible urge to reach out and touch them.  By walking around and peering through the pieces, a visitor can become a part of the sculpture garden. Visiting with my son, I was fascinated by his enthusiasm for interacting with the sculptures, looking at them from all sides and even touching them.

Hepworth is well known for her exploration of form, especially the “pierced form”, which by means of a hole or depression in a solid mass allows exploration both of form or shape, and material. Like many of her contemporaries in abstract art, she believed in the concept of “truth to material”, where the artist works with rather than against the inherent qualities of the material.  Frequently she worked in wood, but in later life she moved on to bronze sculptures, and it is these and stone sculptures which form the majority of pieces in the garden.  Some are totem-like, giving a feeling of standing in an ancient, pagan landscape, while some are smaller and curved, with strings demonstrating tension in the landscape.  One such sculpture fills up with water when it rains, giving it a fourth dimen20160711_104917sion which adds to the organic feeling of her work.

Although very much rooted in the Cornish landscape, her work was never insular, influenced by international movements in art and sculpture.  At art school in Leeds, she was a contemporary of Henry Moore, and had many friends and acquaintances in the international art scene.  It was after the birth of her triplets in 1934 that she moved to abstract art, and endeavoured to ‘infuse the formal perfection of geometry with the vital grace of nature’.  Her work reflected both her own emotions, and her feelings towards nature, examining seed forms and maternal instincts along with regeneration and regrowth.  This last was considered particularly significant in the post-war world.