Art & Photography

Virginia Woolf: Reflections and The Souls of Others

The subject of a new exhibition at The National Portrait Gallery, curator Frances Spalding talks to us about investigating the author’s life, one marked “not by depression, but by courage, stoicism and humour” 

“What does the brain matter compared with the heart?” Virginia Woolf writes in her 1925 modernist masterpiece, Mrs Dalloway. The line speaks to both facets of the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition on Woolf, one of the most important and influential writers of the 20th century – also one of the most fascinating. Curated by biographer and art historian Frances Spalding, the exhibition explores Woolf through a series of reflections of her, from portraits by her Bloomsbury Group contemporaries Roger Fry and her sister Vanessa Bell, photographs of her by Man Ray and Beresford, and letters and images written by and to her from family and friends during her life. Through personal effects from Woolf’s life – diaries, books, images – the exhibition explores the author’s early life and her life in London in the context of her literary achievements and evolving political views. We talk to Frances Spalding about her work researching Woolf and her contemporaries, and how she has brought her into focus.

The exhibition displays more than 140 objects, paintings, photographs and rarely seen possessions: was there an item that you were particularly drawn to, and why?

In one frame you find two letters that Virginia Woolf wrote to her sister Vanessa Bell and to her husband Leonard Woolf, explaining why she has decided to take her own life and saying her farewells to both. They are remarkably sane letters, concise, to the point, yet incredibly moving. They are owned by the British Library but, because of their poignancy, have never been put on public view in this way before. It was felt it would be only be right to do so if they had the proper context, which the National Portrait Gallery exhibition now provides.

You’ve spent your academic and literary career documenting and exploring the Bloomsbury set, of which Virginia was a part. Do you feel now as though you ‘know’ those personalities, or are you still on a journey of discovery, learning something new about them every day?

Because the Bloomsburies wrote, and kept, a great many letters and other documents, there is a great deal of information about their public and private lives. Having written biographies of Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, I do know quite a bit about how they lived, where, when, and with whom. But you cannot know everything and you can never do the final equation on any person’s life. As Virginia Woolf once remarked, ‘We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others.’ I will go on reading Virginia Woolf all my life, and know that, in doing so, I will learn new things, owing to the suggestiveness and fertility of her thought.

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

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

It seems interesting that, as a creative circle, Virginia and her sister Vanessa were at the heart of the Bloomsbury set, where in other contemporary creative circles – the Dadaists for example – women were pushed to the margins. Do you think this was because of Virginia’s brilliance, or is that too simplistic an assessment?

I think a crucial ingredient in the lasting cohesiveness of Bloomsbury was Vanessa Bell’s management of domestic life. She created places, especially at Charleston, the Sussex farmhouse, where people could live or visit and be at ease. She created around her a way of life that was not about a display of wealth or social prestige. If problems arose she got round them with very little fuss. Her sister Virginia hugely admired Vanessa’s achievement, and tried to emulate her. Both sisters created centres where Bloomsbury, and its love of conversation, could thrive. Had these two sisters not been at the heart of Bloomsbury it would very probably have quickly ceased to exist.

Virginia Stephen by George Charles Beresford, National Portrait Gallery, London

Above left: Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell c.1912 © Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett © National Trust / Charles Thomas. Above right: Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf, Hogarth Press, 1938, cover design by Vanessa Bell © Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Victoria University Library

Do you still think that people find the idea of a strong, successful woman confrontational? By focusing on Woolf’s personal (often traumatic) experiences, do you think we paint a more vivid picture of her personality, or do we distract from her literary legacy?

Interest in Woolf in recent years has widened its focus. Her romantic relations with women, by today’s standards, now seem pretty mild, and the childhood abuse has never been satisfactorily proved or disproved.

Virginia and Leonard Woolf by Gisele Freund, 1939 © Estate. Gisèle Freund / IMEC Images

Virginia and Leonard Woolf by Gisele Freund, 1939 © Estate. Gisèle Freund / IMEC Images

Much greater attention is now given to the political side of Woolf, and to her role as a public intellectual. The term now used to define her is ‘democratic highbrow’. She upheld the importance of cultural inclusivity, wanted the best for the widest possible audience, and argued that books should be as cheaply and easily available as was a packet of cigarettes in her day.

Woolf’s life was in many ways a tragic one: death touched her early on, and by her 20s she’d already lost both her parents, her brother and older sister, which, very understandably led to feelings of depression and desolation which she grappled with throughout her adult life. How did you approach this though the exhibition?

We don’t underplay her vulnerability to mental ill health. You can find in the exhibition the earliest mention of her first breakdown in her half-sister Stella Duckworth’s appointment diary. You can find a devastating letter written by her husband Leonard Woolf, stating that Virginia has not had a minute’s sleep in the last 60 hours. Her final letter to Leonard mentions that she is hearing voices again.

But alongside these and other details about her illnesses, the exhibition time and again displays the products of a sane, constructive, creative and fertile life, one determined, not by depression, but by courage, stoicism, humour and a huge appetite for people, conversation, books, art and nature.

“I will go on reading Virginia Woolf all my life, and know that, in doing so, I will learn new things, owing to the suggestiveness and fertility of her thought”

Virginia Woolf: Art Life and Vision runs until 26 October at The National Portrait Gallery. Click for more info HERE