“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.
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.
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: 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.