Friday, 08 August 2014

Bloomsbury Belle

Novelist, critic, poet and publisher, Virginia Woolf was nothing if not multi-faceted. Sam Taylor pays tribute to a remarkable new exhibition of her art and life

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fi ction.’ Even those with only a cursory knowledge of Virginia Woolf’s work will know this line, and one that, 80 years on, arguably still holds true. Woolf’s own sanctuary had been a beautifully proportioned Georgian room at 52 Tavistock Square in London’s Bloomsbury – the walls and f replaces painted by her artist sister Vanessa Bell and their close friend, Duncan Grant. It was here that she wrote this memorable dictum, along with many of her most popular novels.

It was an idyll ripped apart by a direct hit from the Luftwaff e in 1940. An arresting black and white photograph of the bombed remains is the fi rst image to greet you as you walk into the National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition, Virginia Woolf: Art, Life And Vision. Almost everything she held dear was gone, except her diaries (which she retrieved), and the exquisite murals defi antly facing the street and the viewer.

It sets the tone for a show that even the hyper self-critical Woolf might have been proud of, with every one of the 100 pieces, including paintings, photographs, letters and manuscripts revealing a story.

The handwritten manuscript of A Room Of One’s Own for instance, originally delivered as a lecture at Girton College in 1928, was gifted by her husband Leonard to Fitzwilliam College after her death. But remarkably, it took academics 50 years to realise what they had, confused by its working title: Women And Fiction.

The paintings in the exhibition are some of the choice picks of the ‘Bloomsberries’ crop, with the rare chance to see works by less immediately recognisable names. Henry Lamb’s 1912 portrait of Leonard Woolf is at turns rhythmic and solemn, contained within the muted tones that were to come to represent the full terror of the impending war.

By contrast, Edward Wolfe’s 1926 portrait of Madge Garland, the fashion editor of Vogue who gave Woolf what she called her ‘frock-consciousness’, is a deliberate riot of unfussy, assured, insouciance. Garland later claimed that one of her eyes remained unpainted because they put the gramophone on and started to dance instead.

VW-00-5901. Virginia and Leonard in Tavistock Square, by Gisele Freund, 1939 2. Vanessa Bell's portrait of Viriginia Woolf, c. 1912 3. The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot

But it is the works of Roger Fry, Duncan Grant and, of course, Vanessa Bell that will prove to be the crowdpullers. The portraits of Virginia painted at the same sitting by Fry and Bell are unique insights not only into their differing styles, but also to their own very personal relationships with the sitter. The inclusion of the photoportraits by Gisèle Freund shot for Vogue at Tavistock Square are generally agreed to be among the most eloquent images of Woolf ever taken – with the exception of Man Ray’s unrivalled 1934 study.

Then there is the chance to really grasp the sheer bravado and chutzpah Virginia and Leonard displayed as they walked past a shop in Holborn one day in 1917 – spotting a small hand press for £19.5s.6d, they bought it and gave birth to Hogarth Press.

Their intention from the start was to publish texts that the more mainstream publishers wouldn’t touch and so it is that we have the couple to thank for TS Eliot’s modernist masterpiece, The Waste Land (below).

It took them four months to produce, with Virginia hand-setting every word – the tremor in Leonard’s hands left him in charge of just the paper and ink. The 450 copies produced are now priceless of course, but then so is the chance to see one of them here.

There are also the very real reminders that theirs was a generation who had already lived through one bloody war and who campaigned for peace. A poster and catalogue from the New Burlington Galleries dated 1938 shows Virginia’s involvement in bringing Picasso’s Guernica over to England in the hope of raising consciousness – her nephew, Julian, Vanessa’s son, was killed while driving an ambulance in the Spanish Civil War.

Ultimately, though, it is the letters that truly tell the stories, including her last one, written and left on her desk in Sussex for her sister Vanessa. It was, of course, the fi nal goodbye. Fearing the return of the mental illness that had plagued her all her life, aged 59, Virginia Woolf put a large stone in her pocket and walked into the river Ouse. Her body was discovered a month later, but Leonard already knew where she was; she had left her walking stick on the bank as a sign.

Virginia Woolf: Art, Life And Vision, is at the National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, London WC2, until 26 October: 020-7306 0055,


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