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.
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.
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.