Friday, 17 October 2014

Virginia Woolf; Art, Life and Vision, National Portrait Gallery

Virginia Woolf is undeniably one of the most accomplished and significant writers of this century whose influence can still be felt in contemporary writing today. This exhibition offers a detailed journey through all facets of Woolf’s private and public life, her work, relationships and vision. No stone is left unturned in an exhibition that includes some of Woolf’s first edition novels, diaries, letters and journals as well as paintings of the time, numerous photos, and unique objects such as her walking cane and her passport photo. It details The Hogarth Press which was a joint printing venture started by Virginia and Leonard Woolf which published not just her work but the work of great literary giants.
At the outset we are introduced to the effect of World War II on Woolf’s life as we see photos of her house, Tavistock Square – where she wrote some of her best works – in ruins. Photos of her old living room show decorative panels that were designed by her sister Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. There is an intimate black and white photo of Virginia and her husband, Leonard and their black spaniel; taken in 1939 by Gisele Freund – a German photographer who came to London on James Joyce’s suggestion. Woolf was fascinated by her childhood and this become a strong literary undercurrent in many of her novels. We learn that both her parents – Leslie and Julia Stephen - were already widows before they married and the merge of the two families gave Virginia two half brothers and two half sisters. Leslie Stephen, Woolf’s father, had been an eminent man of letters and she and her siblings grew up in a very literate, articulate world in which there was contact with leading figures of the day such as Charles Darwin. Woolf spent her childhood with her family and servants in Hyde Park Gate, London but her father also leased out a house in Cornwall for twelve years, called Talland House, in which they would all spend three to four months a year. It had a profound influence on Woolf’s writing and was the subject of one of her most famous novels, called ‘To the Lighthouse’, written in 1927.
The exhibition is dotted with interesting photos such as a stunning photo of Woolf’s mother, Julia Stephen and Adrian, her last child, taken by G.C, Beresford.  Another photographer of the era was Woolf’s aunt, Julia Cameron, whom she was very proud of and who took many photos of her. There is a photo album of Monk’s House on display and an excerpt from the Hyde Park Gate News, number 8, volume 5 which was the literary combined effort of Woolf and her siblings when they were children. One of my favourite photos is a black and white one of Virginia, and her sister Vanessa, playing cricket together in St Ives in 1894 wearing full length dresses. You can see their innocent comraderie and closeness. Letters between Leonard and Virginia are particularly sweet and we learn how deeply Leonard responded to Virginia’s beauty. In fact Leonard gave up a significant career as colonial administrator to be with Virginia. Likewise we are given an insight into Woolf’s domestic life as we see a photo of Sophie Farrell – one of Virginia’s cooks - who spent all her life with the Stephens or Duckworths and who had a lifelong fondness for Virginia. There are some stunning paintings of Virginia and her contemporaries such as Duncan’s Grant’s painting of her and of her brother, Adrian. Interestingly we learn that Adrian, although not particularly close to his eldest sister, was to become one of the first psychoanalyst in Great Britain. Similarly there are some beautiful and colourful paintings that Vanessa Bell finished of her sister, one in 1912 and one in which she figures called ‘The Conversation’ and of contemporary artists of the time.
There are intimate insights into Woolf’s private life like the letter where Leonard describes to Violet Dickinson Virginia’s breakdown in 1915, “Things are very bad. She hasn’t had a night’s sleep in the last 60 hours..” Likewise there is an amusing letter from Lytton Strachey to his brother James detailing his proposal of marriage to Virginia which he withdrew the following day! In 1924 the Woolfs moved back to Tavistock Square with the Hogarth Press and it was here that Virginia produced work that was to define her as one of the foremost modernist writers of the twentieth century. She loved London with all its intellectual stimulation and multi sensory nature and finished some of her most renowned works here. Woolf wrote ‘Mrs Dalloway’, ‘To the Lighthouse’, ‘Orlando’, ‘A room of One’s Own’, ‘Waves’, and ‘Flush’ all between 1925 to 1933 which all figure in the exhibition. These books were not only literary gems but cut across class, education and nationality. You can even see a copy of Hitler’s Black Book which detailed a list of people who were to be taken in ‘protective custody’ following the invasion of Britain and in which both Virginia and Leonard Woolf were listed.
This exhibition is not only for Woolf lovers but anyone who is interested in this period of British history and is certainly not to be missed.
By Larissa Woolf, Editor

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