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Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision

11 July 2014 Jessica Johnston

"I will go on adventuring, changing, opening my mind and my eyes, refusing to be stamped and stereotyped."

This summer the National Portrait Gallery presents the first ever exhibition exploring the life and times of the writer, feminist and intellectual Virginia Woolf. Curated by biographer Frances Spalding, Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision takes visitors on a fascinating foray into the world of this extraordinary woman.

Included among the exhibits are over 100 drawings, photographs and paintings, as well as rare archival materials including letters from friends and extracts from Woolf’s personal diaries, all of which provide an intimate glimpse into her far from conventional life.

The exhibition begins by charting aspects of Woolf’s personal life through a collection of photographs documenting her time spent with friends and family. Early photographs featuring Woolf with her sister Vanessa as children on holiday in Cornwall, playing cricket and painting together, shine a spotlight on the close bond these sisters shared. This intense relationship would be played out for the duration of their lives in creative collaborations and competitive rivalries.

Through photographic portraits of Woolf’s parents, we learn of the great influence they had on her writing throughout her life. Born in London in 1882, Virginia Stephen was the third child of Leslie and Julia Stephen. As the daughter of a renowned author, Virginia was brought up in an intellectual household where she was constantly exposed to the cream of London’s literary society.

Leslie Stephen’s passion for writing and poetry had a formative influence on his daughter and from a young age, a respect for greatness had been instilled in Virginia. Portraits of Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson and Charles Darwin taken by her great-aunt Julia Margaret Cameron portray the distinguished men that populated Woolf’s childhood and inspired her writing.

A photograph depicting Virginia wearing a mourning dress shortly after her mother’s death in 1895 marks a significant turning point in Woolf’s life. Soon after her mother’s passing Virginia suffered her first mental breakdown. The loss of her father nine years later prompted another breakdown and a suicide attempt.  It was during this grievous period that Woolf turned to writing for solace.

By the early 1900’s, Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell were hosting their own gatherings of London’s brightest and most sought after writers, artists and intellectuals, later known as the Bloomsbury group.Here the exhibition shifts from photographic to painted portraits of Woolf by her Bloomsbury group contemporaries, including works by Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Through their approach to art, literature and society this union of friends sought to challenge and revolutionise 20th century British culture. It is these vibrant portraits of Woolf and her peers that show her to be a woman ahead of her time.

Woolf was greatly influenced by art, believing that ‘painting and writing have much to tell each other’. Featuring in the exhibition is a portrait by Vanessa Bell entitled The Conversation that was of particular interest to Woolf. Depicting three women immersed in conversation, this painting prompted admiration from Woolf, inspiring her sense of narrative. Virginia Woolf the modernist writer emerged.

The next phase of the exhibition focuses on Woolf’s pursuit to be ‘modern’. Not long after her marriage to Leonard Woolf, the couple acquired a hand press for printing. Original books printed through the Hogarth Press are on display including works by T. S Eliot and Woolf herself, as well as original watercolours of Vanessa Bell’s book coverings. Having established her own publishing house, Woolf was able to voice her beliefs and opinions on many controversial subjects that may have otherwise been silenced.

More surprisingly, fashion also became another way in which Woolf explored modernity and identity. Posing for Vogue in 1924, the exhibition features images of the wistful-eyed wordsmith exquisitely dressed, pearl hung and poised. The epitome of the modern women she envisaged being.

The mood begins to darken as visitors move through to the final part of the exhibition. Woolf’s lingering depression and anxiety is brought to the fore with the onset on the Spanish Civil War and the death of her nephew Julian Bell. On 28th March 1941 Woolf took her own life in the Ouse River close to Monk House. A walking stick found by Leonard near the river on the day of her death, sits in a vitrine alongside the final heartbreaking letters Woolf wrote to her husband and sister Vanessa, before she committed suicide.

Virginia Woolf was her own woman, a complex and troubled character who found strength from writing. Woolf’s life and legacy is perhaps best summed up in her own words: “I will not be ‘famous,’ ‘great’. I will go on adventuring, changing, opening my mind and my eyes, refusing to be stamped and stereotyped. The thing is to free one's self: to let it find its dimensions, not be impeded.”

Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision is on at the National Portrait Gallery from 10th July - 26th October. For further information and to book tickets, please click here.

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