Review: Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision

Seventy-four years ago this month, the Hogarth Press published Virginia Woolf’s long-awaited biography of the art critic Roger Fry. It is often dismissed by Woolf enthusiasts, but I first read it when I was 15 and regard it as one of the seminal books in my life. Woolf struggled to make her picture of Fry totally objective, even referring to herself in the third person, just as Fry, 30 years previously, setting his easel beside that of her sister, Vanessa Bell, had struggled to paint an equally objective portrait of her.

The resulting portraits, which are both included in an exhibition opening tomorrow at the National Portrait Gallery, are revealing. Woolf’s face and body language speak of sadness and introspection in both works, but the treatment of her hands is dramatically different: Vanessa painted them in a cursory manner-a conveniently abstract shape at the bottom of her canvas-but Fry shows them clenched and tense, in contrast to the passivity of her face and eyes.

In the other portraits of her sister shown here, all painted around 1912, Vanessa eliminates Virginia’s facial features entirely; in one, she shows her seated calmly in a deckchair, her face a blank, but in another, on loan from from Smith College, Massachusetts, USA, the brushwork is brutal, as if, having completed the image, she wilfully set about defacing it.

It makes a striking contrast to her very sensitive portrait of Roger Fry, also 1912, painted in what she described as Duncan Grant’s ‘leopard manner’, a broad form of Pointillism with each brush stroke leaving its individual mark.

The diversity and brilliance of the Bloomsbury set is reflected in Henry Lamb’s portrait of Leonard Woolf looking like a surprised schoolboy, Simon Bussy’s pastel of the classicist Hope Mirrlees and Mark Gertler’s portrait of the Ukrainian translator Koteliansky, described by Virginia as ‘solid lodging house furniture, but with an air of romance’.

Recommended videos for you

Images of Virginia abound throughout the exhibition, in paintings, drawings, sculpture and, above all, photography. We see her in a family group in Wimbledon, aged 10, and, a couple of years later, playing cricket at Talland House, St Ives, the summer retreat in Cornwall that her father, Leslie Stephen, had purchased the year before she was born.

We see her photographed at the turn of the century by George Charles Beresford and, later, in the 1920s, by Maurice Beck and Helen Macgregor for Vogue, by Lady Ottoline Morrell at Garsington and by her husband, Leonard, with T. S. Eliot at Monk’s House, their Sussex home. Man Ray photographed her magically in the studio he shared with McKight Kauffer at the Lund Humphries, but the most moving photographs are those taken shortly before the outbreak of war by the German refugee Gisèle Freund the only colour photographs of Virginia known to exist.

It is natural that Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision should contain such a multitude of images of its principal subject, but the exhibition-generously supported with loans from North American collections-presents not just Virginia, but the whole galère of characters whose lives impinged on hers, ranging from G. F. Watts to Sigmund Freud.

Freud’s works, published by the Hogarth Press, were translated into English by James Strachey, shown here in one of Duncan Grant’s most penetrating portraits. The Woolfs had originally started the Hogarth Press in 1917, to publish small editions-not more than 300 copies-of modern writing: Eliot’s The Waste Land, Katherine Mansfield’s Prelude, Middleton Murry’s Critic in Judgement and Virginia’s own Kew Gardens, with its cover design by Vanessa.

For many years, Leonard and Virginia were the sole readers for the press, which explains in part why they were always so au fait, not only with contem-porary literature, but also with the works of Freud. Leonard’s letter to Anna Freud recalling a visit to the Freuds’ home in Maresfield Gardens and expressing grief at Sigmund’s death is among the many personal items in the exhibition, the most poignant of which is the walking stick Virginia left lying on the banks of the Ouse when she drowned herself on March 28, 1941. It was three weeks before her body was found, having been swept away by the flood, but Leonard, who had nursed her through earlier spells of insanity, knew instantly what she had done.

In retrospect, the stick is a memento mori, but it is also a reminder of her life, for she loved walking, both in the country-her father regarded a 20-mile walk as a ‘potter’-and the city, where she observed the lives of those about her; wittily referenced here by the inclusion of Sybil Andrews’s linocut Rush Hour.

In defining her philosophy, Woolf once noted that ‘the whole world is a work of art’, a principle she applied as much to the bustle of London’s Bayswater Road as to the peace of Cornwall and Sussex. They were two sides of the same coin.

‘Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision’ is at the National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, London WC2, from July 10 until October 26 (020-7306 0055; on at the moment is ‘The Bloomsbury Set: Life Among the Bohemians’, bringing tog-ether rare drawings, woodcuts and lithographs by the Bloomsbury Group’s artists, at Aidan Meller, 14, Broad Street, Oxford, until July 31 (01865 250550;

This article was first published in Country Life magazine on July 9 2014