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

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

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

Virginia Woolf once despaired at the male-dominated walls of London’s National Portrait Gallery, and reportedly refused to sit for a drawing they commissioned, so convinced was she that it would be archived and not displayed. That’s not a comment on her vanity, rather her perceptions of the injustice and gender equality that was prevalent in artistic and literary circles during her lifetime. One wonders how she would react to this new exhibition, which comes over 70 years after her death. On one hand, it’s a glorious portrait-led celebration of her life, her achievements, her peers and the people that made her who she was. But it’s also a testament to tragedy: included among the items on display are two suicide notes and the walking stick she left on the riverbank the day she went missing in 1941.

Virginia Woolf
Left: Virginia Woolf by Man Ray, 27 November 1934 / Right: Virginia Woolf by Gisèle Freund, 1939

One aspect of Woolf’s life that does feel remarkably contemporary is her struggle to get published. She might not have been competing with the online sphere and an endless stream of free content, but she still chose the then-equivalent version of self publishing to release her work. The Voyage Out (her debut novel) was published by Duckworth Press, which was owned by her half-brother. So much of Woolf’s life was a family affair – her privileged background (her father was a literary critic and scholar) allowed her to make the ’right’ connections and make sometime unconventional choices, together with her sister (the artist Vanessa Bell) she hosted weekly meetings and readings that lead to the development of the Bloomsbury Group.

Virginia Woolf 1
Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf by Lady Ottoline Morrell © National Portrait Gallery, London

Although primarily about Woolf, the exhibition successfully integrates, explains and represents lesser-known Bloomsbury names, many of which have faded into obscurity despite intellectual output that was comparable to Woolf. The influential economist Maynard Keynes, whose best-known work, ‘The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money’, was published in 1936, is mentioned, as is Roger Fry, an art critic and Post-impressionist painter. Woolf seemed to sit at the centre of these luminaries and, although she’s certainly been subject to the most scrutiny (millions of words of analysis have been written about her), was in no mean’s the groups’ success story. It’s worth noting though, that many of the Bloomsbury group portraits of the artist don’t come close to capturing the storm of emotions that swirled beneath her surface.

Virginia Woolf 2
Left: Virginia and Leonard Woolf by Gisele Freund, 1939 / Right: Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf, Hogarth Press, 1938, cover design by Vanessa Bell

Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision is at the National Portrait Gallery until 26 October 2014.

For more information about her life, check out the NPG’s interactive timeline.

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4 thoughts on “Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision at the National Portrait Gallery

  1. I just realized I’ve never read a full biography of Virginia Woolf. I must reserve one at the library.

    I can’t imagine the effect that the walking stick + 2 notes would have on a visitor to the exhibit. It must be quite moving…?

    1. It’s very poignant, and because all the personal effects are mixed with paintings and portraits it creates a real presence. If you can find Hermione Lee’s biography that’s certainly worth a read: very powerful and moving. If you lived in the UK I’d lend it to you 🙂

  2. I was a big fan of the NPG when I visited, and this certainly sounds like a fascinating exhibit. Hopefully Ms. Woolf would have approved—or at least enjoyed that she got not just a single portrait, but a whole exhibit of her own.

    1. I like to think that too, but I’m sure a part of her would’ve been a bit overwhelmed by all the fuss. The NPG is one of my faves – every time I visit I find a new portrait to fall in love with!

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