Art, Life and Vision

On Thursday I was back down in London on business. I resent paying over £300 for a two hour train journey so left mid morning on an off-peak ticket, but that did mean I would have to hang around for a few hours after my last meeting of the day. That didn’t bother me at all as it gave me the opportunity to visit the National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition on Virginia Woolf, that had only opened that day. The NPG is open till late on a Thursday so I was able to finish my meeting on the Strand, walk across a busy Trafalgar Square to the gallery and spend some time there before taking the tube back to Euston to catch the train at half past seven, which meant I was back home for ten.

The exhibition covered the life of Virginia Woolf  from her childhood right up to her death. There were over 100 items on display including lots of photographs,paintings of Virginia as well as her family and her circle of friends, and other items too including letter, diaries and first editions (I assume) of her books – most of the latter with covers designed by her sister, Vanessa Bell  They even had her walking stick which was found after she had committed suicide by drowning in the River Ouse.

It’s a little ironic that the NPG is holding the exhibition as, according to the Guardian, she

took against the NPG when her father, a trustee, took her round it as a young woman

and later, when she was famous,

(refused) to sit for a drawing that she assumed would be put in a drawer and never seen.

There were several paintings by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and also by other artists, some very good. I particularly like this portrait of her by Duncan Grant, on loan to the exhibition.

Virginia Woolf

Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Duncan Grant (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

And here’s another by her sister, Vanessa Bell.

A number of the photographs in the early part of the exhibition illustrating the Stephens family life and their circle were taken by Virginia’s great aunt on her mother’s side, Julia Margaret Cameron, who was a noted portrait photographer which she took up in her late 40’s. This can’t have been easy for a woman during Victorian times so she was clearly strong minded, determined and forceful. This is a photograph she took of  her niece, Julia Prinsep Jackson, later Julia Stephen, Virginia’s mother.

The Bloomsbury Set were in many fields, particularly art, literature and aesthetics, but also politics and, via one of their circle, John Maynard Keynes, economics. Their attitudes to women’s issues and sexuality were radical, to say the least. The following painting from 1943 by Vanessa Bell, which was included in the exhibition, depicts a number of the Bloomsburys – Duncan Grant, Leonard Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Clive Bell, David Garnett, Maynard and Lydia Keynes, Desmond and Molly MacCarthy, Quentin Bell and E.M. Forster. The paintings shown on the wall behind the are of Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey, both by Duncan Grant,  and of Roger Fry by Vanessa Bell. All three were dead when the picture was painted.

The Memoir Club, by Vanessa Bell (née Stephen), circa 1943 - NPG 6718 - © estate of Vanessa Bell courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

I have mixed feelings about the Bloomsburys. I admire their radicalism in both the arts and in their politics and am rather envious of their lifestyle. I would love to be able to spend time mixing with a group of like-minded people, enjoying stimulating conversation about literature, art, politics and other things just as they did. And have the chance to live both in a busy metropolis where there was lots going on yet also being able to spend time in more peaceful surroundings in the countryside. But they could only do that of course, because they came from privileged backgrounds and had money.

One of Virginia’s most well known works is “A Room of One’s Own” where she argues that women were held back as writers because they did not have space – the room in question – where they could send time to concentrate, think and write. I’d certainly agree with that, and that was something most women didn’t have at the time when she was alive. But that was even more true for working class women and men who not only didn’t have physical space of their own – with large families living in cramped dwellings – but also with little leisure time to think and write having to work 6 long days a week to survive. If I had lived at that time I’d have been working in a mill or something similar. I wouldn’t even have had the opportunity to go to University and certainly couldn’t have indulged in the intellectual pursuits that the Bloomsburys were fortunate enough to be able to do. Fortunately things have changed since then, and radical Middle Class intellectuals such as the Bloomsbury’s have played a role in that (a number of them, including Roger Fry, were socialists and most of them, including Virginia were supporters of the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War) – although there is still much that needs to be done to achieve a more equal society.

Virginia herself was able to lead a life where she could find the space to write, and played a major role in the development of Modernist writing with her novels. But no-one can be completely insulated from the society in which they live and, at the risk of playing an amateur psychiatrist, this no doubt contributed to her state of mind that ultimately led to her suicide.

I got my money’s worth, spending over an hour looking around and revisiting paintings and other exhibits that I particularly liked or found interesting. I found it enlightening, educational and enjoyable and it has given me a thirst to read some more of Virginia’s works.

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8 thoughts on “Art, Life and Vision

  1. Like many people, I think I have a tendency to absorb the ideas of other bloggers but not spend enough time engaging in an actual conversation, so I wanted to take this opportunity to respond to your post. I think that even at this vast distance, (I am in Australia) you find writers who resonate with your ideas about society and in particular, the place of women in society. This is a long-winded way of saying that I really enjoyed your post.
    I have often wondered about the Bloomsbury group and imagined what it would have been like if I lived in those times. Would I have been so brave and radical? I don’t think so. They were certainly privileged people, and led lives very unlike my own, but the reality is that I am not particularly radical in my own small world. I do try to be thoughtful and provoke discussion about ideas that matter, so I guess that no matter where you live, or how you live your life, it’s important to make connections and share ideas. It’s a kind of small scale radicalism, but it still counts!
    I look forward to reading more of your posts.

    • Hi Margaret. Thanks for your comment. I say in my post “ I would love to be able to spend time mixing with a group of like-minded people, enjoying stimulating conversation about literature, art, politics and other things “ and I guess that engaging with other bloggers who have similar interests and values is, to some extent, a way of doing this. I know I should do more commenting, I tend to be a bit of a “lurker” at times. Unlike spoken conversation, though, it is more difficult to conduct a conversation in writing. When we speak or write about something as part of a conversation we haven’t always fully formed our ideas, views, opinion. After all, that is what it’s about – being open minded, listening, taking on board what others say and modifying views in light of the discussion. During this process verbal comments can be put to one side and forgotten. But written comments are more permanent and not so easily put aside – they can come back to “bite” you sometimes. Also blog comments tend to be short and so it’s difficult to properly develop ideas and a detailed conversation (although I’m rambling on a little in this comment!)
      So engaging in conversation via blogs is more difficult, but nevertheless can still be rewarding. Through my blog I’ve made connections with a number of people with similar interests and values, in some cases, like yourself, from overseas, and have really enjoyed the interaction. But I do wonder sometimes how to build on this to enable a deeper discussion.
      I hope you do keep coming back, commenting and sharing your thoughts.

      • You are right, but I figure people have communicated by snail mail for many years with some degree of success, so I guess this is similar (but more public).

      • You’re also right! But I guess I meant that through blogs there is potential for group discussion but that’s difficult to replicate face to face meetings. More personal one to one discussion via snail mail or email can get into things more deeply I think.

  2. Thank you for this report. Unfortunately, I won’t get to the show itself – I wish it could be on a bit longer. Interesting that with time to spare in London you chose this particular exhibition to visit. I think AROON is probably the only VW book that I’ve read. I’m sure she is very intellectually challenging but as with many writers whose works I haven’t read and probably won’t read I’m intrigued to visit such exhibitions and their homes. Looks and sounds to be particularly varied and very well curated.

    • I chose it as I am interested in the Bloomsburys. But another factor is that the NPG is one of the few galleries open late on a Thursday – it was also just round the corner from where I had my meeting! So some practical considerations too!

      • Both reasons in this case! It was a good exhibition. Well, curated, and has had some decent reviews in the papers. And thanks for your comment

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