Virginia Woolf at the National Portrait Gallery

Nothing has really happened until it has been recorded. This quote from Virginia Woolf is printed on the back cover of Frances Spalding’s Virginia Woolf Art, Life and Vision. How true, how true, I want to say. I recognise this sentiment; it’s the source of my early and on-going compulsion to write a journal. To write. So I will record here what a marvellous, moving and inspiring experience it was to visit the current National Portrait Gallery exhibition about Virginia Woolf, curated by Frances Spalding, exploring Woolf’s life and work through photographs, paintings, letters, manuscripts and books. The photos include childhood snaps of Virginia and her sister Vanessa playing cricket; four dreamy portraits of Virginia aged 20; some striking shots by Gisèle Freund of Virginia and her husband Leonard at home in Tavistock Square in 1939; a sequence taken by Lady Ottoline Morrell at Garsington in 1926 that reveals a relaxed, cheerful and elegant side to Woolf; and a rather odd photograph of Virginia Woolf with T.S. Eliot and his wife Vivienne, who stands slightly to one side and appears to hover an inch above the grass, her eyes a white blur. The exhibition is a reminder that Woolf was right there at the centre of Modernism, reading Proust and Joyce’s Ulysses as they were published, engaging in a literary dialogue with Katherine Mansfield, bringing out an edition of Eliot’s The Waste Land via the Hogarth Press, which she and Leonard founded. Indeed, Eliot performed his long poem to the Woolfs over dinner at Hogarth House, which Woolf subsequently recorded in her diary: ‘He sang it and chanted it and rhythmed it.‘ Her most productive years, in terms of novel-writing, seem to have been those spent in London from the mid 1920s until the outbreak of the Second World War, the great metropolis providing stimulus on many levels and, as Frances Spalding puts it, ‘made her aware of the mutability of the self’. At the heart of the exhibition is Woolf’s writing, her letters and voluminous diaries and most of all the novels. There are first editions with beautiful jacket designs by her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell. But it’s what inside, of course, that matters, that lasts. The words and ideas, the exploration of consciousness, of our fleeting time in this world and the marvellous brute continuance of nature and the universe. I’m currently immersed in To the Lighthouse. And I’m excited that there is still so much more for me to read and discover, including Frances Spalding’s handsome biography.

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One thought on “Virginia Woolf at the National Portrait Gallery

  1. Amazing, Hilaire. I’m right in the middle of ‘To the Lighthouse’ too! It’s even better than I imagined. I’ll definitely try and get to the exhibition if I can. Thanks for the tip-off. Clairex

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