Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision

Virginia Woolf was one of the most important and celebrated writers of the twentieth century. An extensive exhibition at the London Portrait Gallery* explores her life and achievements as a novelist, intellectual, campaigner and public figure. The exhibition includes distinctive portraits by her Bloomsbury Group contemporaries as well as intimate images recording her time spent with friends and family. Her early life and literary achievements, alongside lesser known aspects of her time in London and political views, are brought into focus through in-depth research and a remarkable array of personal objects including letters, diaries and books.

The Bloomsbury Group was an association of friends, mostly writers and artists, active in the earlier years of the twentieth century, who subscribed to the philosopher G.E. Moore’s belief that ‘by far the most valuable things are the pleasure of human intercourse and enjoyment of beautiful objects. It is they that form the rational ultimate end of social progress.’ Among the best known of the group, several of whom lived in Bloomsbury, were Vanessa and Clive Bell, David Garnett, E.M. Forster, Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes and Virginia and Leonard Woolf.

A forthcoming three-part BBC Two drama will feature Virginia Woolf, her sister Vanessa Bell and other members of the Bloomsbury Set depicting the formation of the group of writers, artists and thinkers. Its title, Life in Squares, takes its name from something allegedly said by Dorothy Parker, American writer and satirist, that the group or set “lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles”.

Art, Life and Vision

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was born Adeline Virginia Stephen into a world that was quickly evolving. Both her parents had been divorced and her family was split by the prudish moral climate of the Victorian era; her half-siblings on the side of “polite society” and her own brothers and sisters curious about what lay on the darker side of that society. She began to write journalistic pieces and then longer reviews and became a regular contributor to a number of London weeklies while privately trying her hand at fiction.

Her first novel The Voyage Out (1915) was published to good reviews. She gained recognition with Jacob’s Room (1922). Subsequent novels, such as Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927,) and The Waves (1931), characterised by their poetic impressionism, established her as an exponent of modernism. She was a prolific writer of biographies, essays, lengthy diaries and much more. Her work has been characterised in drama and other art form. In 1912 she married Leonard (Sydney) Woolf (1880-1969), a political journalist, author and editor. Together they founded the Hogarth Press in 1917 that published much of her work. He wrote five volumes of autobiography (1960-69).

She battled with mental illness for most of her life and was hospitalised at different times. On March 28, 1941 as WW2 raged on she left two suicide notes, walked to the River Ouse near the family home in Sussex, filled her pockets with heavy stones, and drowned. Her wooden walking cane was found on the river bank and is amongst the displays of personal and other items at the exhibition.

The hard hitting play by Edward Albee Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf alludes to the English novelist. It first opened on Broadway in 1962 winning several awards for best play and drama. Based on ambiguity and themes of reality and allusion the story examines the breakdown of the marriage of a middle-aged couple directly challenging social expectations both within and outside of a family setting. A film adaptation was released in 1966 winning the best actor and best actress awards for Richard Burton as George and Elizabeth Taylor as Martha, and became a huge commercial success.

Ita Marguet, August 2014

Note: Acknowledgement is given to sources used in this text. It follows a visit to the exhibition *Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision, Portrait Gallery, London, 10 July-26 October 2014.