Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision
Review of exhibition about the life of novelist Virginia Woolf
Venue: National Portrait Gallery, London, UK
The life of Virginia Woolf is brilliantly documented by curator Francis Spalding using paintings, drawings, photographs, letters and diaries. So revealing were some of the letters and diary entries detailing her earlier attempted suicide and lifelong battle with mental illness that I couldnt help feeling a sense of sadness knowing how her life was to tragically end.
The exhibition begins with some amazing photographs of the wrecked house Virginia had shared with her husband, Leonard, in Tavistock Square, London, before it was bombed by the Germans during World War Two. It was there they used to meet with other writers, artists, philosophers and thinkers of the Bloomsbury Group who provided the intellectual stimulation Virginia so craved and devoured. By cleverly opening the exhibition with these photographs instead of recollecting events from early childhood, the viewer is immediately transported into the world of the writer in the creative prime of her life.
Virginia Woolf was one of seven siblings and half siblings born into an upper middle class family. Her father, Leslie Stephen, was an author and critic. Her mother, Julia Stephen, had posed as a model for the pre-Raphaelite painters. Among the prominent people who regularly visited the house in her formative years were Henry James, Charles Darwin, Robert Browning and Alfred Tennyson.
There are some interesting portraits of her in the exhibition that were painted by members of the group, including her sister Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Roger Fry as well as references to the various complicated sexual relationships between members of the group. With few female role models, feminism began to play an important role in Virginia’s life. In a 1929 essay entitled “A Room Of One’s Own” concerning the exclusion of women from education, Virginia wrote “Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”
The Bloomsbury Group’s political ideas influenced much of Virginia’s writing, as did the inspiration she derived from living in London which offered multi-sensory experience and intellectual stimulation. Many of her most successful novels were written at Tavistock Square over a 10-year period where she and Leonard set up Hogarth Press to enable them to publish their own political views and print books that challenged conventional thought.
Virginia supported fundraising events to help those people affected by the Spanish Civil War. She was deeply saddened by the death of her nephew who was a volunteer ambulance driver in the war and nursed her sister, Vanessa, who suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of her son’s death. Virginia soon fell ill again, herself, and there are some very sad letters she wrote to Leonard and Vanessa prior to her own death which reveal her awareness of the familiar approaching darkness of depression.
In one letter, Virginia wrote: “I am certain now that I am going mad again, it is just as it was the first time.” In another, she adds “I feel certain that I am going mad again… I can’t fight it any longer.” Perhaps the saddest example was a letter she wrote to her sister in which she says, “I feel that I have gone too far this time to come back again.”
Aside from the letters, the most poignant artifact in the exhibition was the walking stick she left on the riverbank before taking her own life in 1941, aged 59. Following her sister’s death, Vanessa wrote “One can at least be glad that this did not happen as it so nearly did years ago – when all her gifts would have been wasted.” Nonetheless, it’s hard not to speculate what else Virginia might have gone on to achieve had she managed to overcome her demons.