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Fresh insight into elusive author


A new exhibition about Virginia Woolf opening this week aims to bring us closer to this elusive and paradoxical figure.

Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision has been curated for the National Portrait Gallery in London by Prof Frances Spalding, of Newcastle University. It charts the now familiar development of Woolf’s life and work, but also focuses on little-known moments that shaped the writer she became.

On the 28 March 1941 Virginia Woolf took her own life in the River Ouse, in Sussex, not far away from the house in which she lived. More than 70 years on, her reputation as a writer continues to grow.

Today Woolf is world-renowned as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Primarily a novelist, she was a modernist who altered the shape and purpose of fiction but her reach went further than this, influencing thought in new and unexpected ways.

“Woolf has been the subject of a vast academic industry for 50 years,” says Prof Spalding. “Yet she remains an elusive and paradoxical figure. This exhibition brings her closer to us, often using her own words to explain a person, an idea or situation.”

Few people are aware that Woolf also held down several jobs at once – writer, journalist, publisher, publisher’s reader, typesetter and aunt.

As a typesetter for the Hogarth Press, which she founded in 1917 with her husband Leonard, she published T S Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ but had to turn down James Joyce’s Ulysses because, on their small printing press, it would have taken three years to complete. “She was intrigued by Joyce, finding him both irritating and fascinating,” explained Prof Spalding. “Ulysses got under her skin.”

In 1904, when she was 22, Woolf’s writing career almost ended before it had even begun. Shortly after her father’s death, she lost her sanity and tried to commit suicide.

Woolf was taken in by her half-sister’s friend, Violet Dickinson. “She screamed and shouted, refused to eat and could be violent - it’s hard to spend even an hour in the company of someone in that condition,” said Prof Spalding,  “But this kind, enormously tall woman, who had experience of working with the mentally ill, gradually cured her.

“Not only did she save her, she also encouraged her to write and her parting gift to her was a large, deep inkwell. Being of an older generation, she also temporarily filled a maternal role, for Virginia Stephen, as she then was, had lost her mother at the age of 13, some nine years before her father’s death.”

In 1938, when Picasso’s Guernica, along with 67 studies for it, was brought to London, Woolf was one of the sponsors of the exhibition. She had been deeply affected by a series of photographs of dead children, sent her in the post by the Spanish Government. Formerly regarded as an elitist snob, Woolf is today considered a ‘democratic highbrow’, owing to her belief that high standards of writing or music or art should go hand in hand with cultural inclusiveness and gender equality.

During WWII, 52 Tavistock Square, where she wrote six of her novels, was badly damaged by a bomb, as was the property they moved to in Mecklenburgh Square just around the corner. She managed to salvage just a handful of belongings, including her diaries, which are included in the exhibition, along with portraits, letters and rare archival material.

Select portraits in the exhibition are used to pinpoint her role as novelist, intellectual, campaigner and public figure, and to show how the way she presented herself and her friendships with others changed over time.

Books, photographs, paintings and manuscripts highlight her interest in modernity as well as her obsession with the past.

Woolf’s fertile creativity carried her into the heart of the literary world, yet she always insisted: ‘I must be private, secret, as anonymous and submerged as possible in order to write’.

Her writing continues to influence contemporary novelists and Ali Smith, Jeanette Winterson, Maggie Gee and many others acknowledge a debt to her. She also makes appearances, as herself, in the fiction of others: in Pat Barker’s Toby’s Room, in Alison Macleod’s Unexploded and in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours.

The exhibition and the accompanying book of the same title, have been two years in the making.

“There have been thousands of articles and books written about Woolf and from every point of view, said Prof Spalding. “We’re not looking to make any sea-change in the thinking about her work, but instead we want to bring to light certain intense moments that shaped the writer she became.”

Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision runs at the National Portrait Gallery, London from 10 July until 26 October 2014.

Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell c.1912 © Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © National Trust/Charles Thomas

published on: 30 June 2014