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)



Exhibition review: ‘Beyond Ophelia’


Curator Hannah Squire

Wightwick Manor in Wolverhampton is hosting an exhibition devoted to the art and poetry of Elizabeth Siddall, and, shockingly, it’s only the second exhibition to focus exclusively on Siddall. I’ve been writing about Siddall for a while now (my book My Ladys Soul: The Poetry of Elizabeth Siddall will be published in June) and while her face is familiar to many, her work less so, particularly her poetry, though her life exerts a great fascination. This exhibition makes a good attempt at redressing the balance, then: although information about Siddall’s life and Pre-Raphaelite connections is there, the focus is on her as an artist and poet. And Wightwick is the perfect place for it: they hold the second-largest collection of Siddall’s works (the first being the Ashmolean).

2018 is proving to be a year for celebrating women’s achievements, often against all odds, given that it is 100 years since women were able to vote (though this was not on equal terms until 1928). The Manders, who built Wightwick and collected Pre-Raphaelite 28276572_10154975470041315_6622862564304738970_nand Arts and Crafts works with which to furnish it, were also keen suffragists, and one room of the house is currently set up for a Suffragette meeting. Siddall’s achievements as an artist, limited by her early death and all too often viewed as dependent on her more famous husband, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, are appropriately celebrated, then. Wightwick’s collection of 12 works by Siddall are on display in the beautiful Daisy Room, framed for the first time, along with other works no longer in the collection but loaned for the exhibition. This offers a genuinely unique opportunity to consider Siddall’s work as a body (though of course there are many other works), but there is plenty here to give you a feel for her skill as an artist, with her expressive and evocative pencil drawings, 28279682_10154975470241315_2380485743337476893_nand two small and beautiful oils, St Agnes’ Eve and The Haunted Wood (above).

I’m delighted to see that the exhibition also includes some of Siddall’s poetry. A few of her poems are beautifully printed and hung on the walls alongside her artworks, and I hope that this will encourage visitors to explore her under-appreciated poetry. It’s a particular pleasure that some lines appear on the walls above the wallpaper, drawing the eye. Her work as an artist and poet, in the complex gendered environment of the nineteenth-century cultural sphere, is outlined in exhibition boards, and visitors are encouraged to see Siddall as a creator of serious art in her own right – something which, despite three decades of serious critical work on her art, and less sustained but still significant work on her poetry, is still overlooked. Both the art and the poetry demonstrates Siddall’s engagement with her cultural milieu: her illustrations for poems and ballads, and the influence of these works and forms on her own writing, bear out her deep consideration – and transformation – of other works of art.

This is a small exhibition, but it is beautiful, and the room with its fireplace and gorgeous wallpaper feels intimate and cosy. It is open from March 1st until December 24th, 2018, so there is no excuse not to go and see it! Siddall is so often remembered as the model for Millais’s Ophelia, and it is encouraging to see this exhibition encouraging us to go ‘beyond Ophelia’.