Review of Virginia Woolf: Art Life and Vision at the National Portrait Gallery

Review of Virginia Woolf: Art Life and Vision at the National Portrait Gallery

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Rob Smith reviews the Virginia Woolf: Art Life and Vision exhibition at The National Portrait Gallery

Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell

Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell, c.1912
Monks House, Rodmell, The Virginia & Leonard Woolf Collection (National Trust) ©Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © National Trust / Charles Thomas.

There are writers who set books in London and there are writers who’s work is driven by London. Virginia Woolf falls into the latter category, she felt it harder to work away from the streets of London. As well as being one of the great London writers, Virginia Woolf was at the centre of British intellectual thought at a time of great change, where modernist ideas were being explored, greater opportunity of expression for women becoming available, and political pressures challenged the established order. The National Portrait Gallery and guest curator Frances Spalding have created a fantastic exhibition, pulling together archive material from around the world along with portraits painted by her contemporaries. Combined together the objects provide a particularly intimate insight into Virginia Woolf’s life.

Home educated in an intellectual Victorian household (her father Leslie Stephen was a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery) it is easy to see how Virginia Woolf became part of a group of writers and thinkers herself. However there are some surprising images of the young Virginia – who would of imagined her playing cricket for instance! An original family photograph album contains some magnificent images, including a haunting image of Virginia’s sister Vanessa, glowering away at the camera. Included of course is George Charles Beresford’s beautiful photographs of Virginia.

Virginia Stephen by George Charles Beresford

Virginia Stephen by George Charles Beresford, July 1902 Copyright National Portrait Gallery London

The exhibition includes art works by Virginia’s circle that show the changes in attitude to modern art. In 1910 Virginia assisted Roger Fry with his exhibition of “Manet and the Post Impressionists at the Grafton Gallery”. Its clear from an entry in her diary she was initially bemused by the artworks

“Thank God it is over -artists are an abominable race – such furious excitement over pieces of canvas coloured blue and green”

As you can see in Roger Fry’s painting of the Matisse room in the exhibition, it is possible that the public were not yet ready for modern art – it would be lovely if Tate Modern’s current Matisse exhibition was as uncrowded as the way Fry depicts the exhibition.

The Matisse Room, Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition by Roger Fry, 1912

The Matisse Room, Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition by Roger Fry, 1912 © Paris, Musée d’Orsay, donated by Mme Pamela Diamand, daughter of the artist, 1959

In 1922 Virginia read Proust which had a profound influence on the way she used time in her own novels, although she takes the ideas much further, her novels incorporating vivid recollections of the past with characters thoughts from the present and projections of the future. Another artwork on display in the exhibition, Vanessa Bell’s The Conversation (also known as Three Women) shaped the direction of Virginia’s work

“I wonder if I could write Three Women in Prose”

Virginia wanted to create writing that not only wrote from the inside of the characters thoughts, but to show the events from the perspective of other characters as well. “Three Women” shows a triangular conversation, three closely observed people engaged in a mesh of thoughts, an idea that Virginia takes further in “To the Lighthouse” and “Mrs Dalloway”

The Conversation by Vanessa Bell, 1913-16

The Conversation by Vanessa Bell, 1913-16 © The Samuel Courtauld Trust 1961
Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Breaking new ground in literature meant that Virginia had to break away from the established publishing houses, and she and Leonard founded the Hogarth Press. Some of the beautifully finished books published by Hogarth Press are included in the exhibition including first editions with covers designed by Vanessa Bell

Hogarth Press cover Vanessa Bell

There are many fantastic portraits of Virginia Woolf’s fellow Bloomsbury group members in the exhibition, including a thoughtful looking John Maynard Keynes. It would be wrong to characterise the Bloomsbury Group as an inward looking intellectual movement. With the turbulent political events of the 1930s Virginia Woolf did not stand back – she acts as a sponsor of the exhibition of Picasso’s Guernica to raise awareness of what was happening in the Spanish Civil War. Virginia said that “thinking was her way of fighting” – the totalitarian regimes Britain were opposed to hated the idea of independent thought. This did not escape the attention of the Nazi’s and Virginia’s name is included in a Black Book of people that they planned to arrest when Germany invaded Britain.

World War Two directly affected all Londoners and there is a sad excerpt from Virginia’s diary where she finds her house at 52 Tavistock Square has been bombed. It is interesting reading, as she is clearly upset, but she also brilliantly yet dispassionately describes the destruction in a way reminiscent of the empty house interlude in “To the Lighthouse”

Virginia Woolf last letter to Vanessa Bell

Virginia Woolf’s last letter to Vanessa Bell © The British Library Board. The Society of Authors as the literary representative of the Estate of Virginia Woolf

The exhibition ends with the most moving of all items, her last letters to Leonard and Vanessa, on loan from the British Library. It is a real privilege to be this close to the thoughts of a great author although the natural reaction to reading such a sad letter is one of being stunned, although her love for her husband and sister comes out so clearly.

The National Portrait Gallery has performed an amazing feat of curatorship with this exhibition, pulling together items from galleries, archives and private collections across the world. A must see exhibition not only for anyone interested in Virginia Woolf but also for those interested in 20th century Britain. The exhibition runs until 26th October.

Footprints of London are running a series of Virginia Woolf events as part of our Literary Footprints Festival in October. Literary Footprints celebrates London literature by visiting the actual places mentioned in the books, or places connected with the authors.

The programme is as follows
2nd October 7pm Mrs Dalloway’s Day 
A walk with Rob Smith tracing the route taken by Clarissa Dalloway on her way to buy flowers for her party in Virginia Woolf’s classic London novel

4th October 2pm Circles, Squares and Triangles – Virginia Woolf in Bloomsbury
Stephen Benton visits the locations of Virginia Woolf’s four Bloomsbury homes, and talks about the books she wrote there

8th October 2pm Circles, Squares and Triangles – Virginia Woolf in Bloomsbury
Stephen Benton visits the locations of Virginia Woolf’s four Bloomsbury homes, and talks about the books she wrote there

12th October 2pm The Lives and Loves of the Bloomsbury Group
Jenni Bowley tells the story of the writers who “lived in squares and loved in triangles”

13th October 6.30pm Virginia Woolf and Friends – her life, her love, her books
A talk at St Olave’s Hart Street church by Peter Henderson, Rob Smith, Stephen Benton and Jenni Bowley

20th October Literary Bloomsbury
Peter Henderson looks at the many writers, poets and playwrights that have made Bloomsbury their home.

Tickets for each event cost £10 or you can buy a great value Festival Season Ticket which gives access to over 40 walks during October for £40

Anyone who signs up for one of these events, buys a Festival Season Ticket or signs up for the Literary Footprints Mailing List before the end of September will go into a prize draw to win tickets and a catalogue for the National Portrait Gallery exhibition Virginia Woolf: art Life and Vision

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