A new exhibition of Virginia Woolf’s portraits

Virginia Stephen, a 20-year old woman who is descended from a long line of beautiful women on her mother’s side, has incredibly delicate features. It gives a very simplistic impression of the complex and contradictory writer.

The National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition Virginia Woolf : Art, Life and Vision brings to light the importance of visual art in Woolf’s practice, especially through the work of her sister Vanessa Bell and other visual artists who were part of Woolf’s circle. Woolf was ambivalent about having her image taken.

She was perfectly happy with casual snapshots, but hated having to pose for professional photographs or portraits.

Virginia and Leonard Woolf, by Gisele Friend, 1939. National Portrait Gallery

She said, in a way that was evocative, in response to news that Gisele Freund would be showing the photographs of Woolf she took in June 1939. “I hate being hoisted around on top of a pole for anyone to look at.”

These photographs, as far as we are aware, were the last professional photos taken of Woolf prior to her death in 1941. They show Woolf as if she is not always comfortable, but at least occasionally giving the camera a mischievous, ironic look.

Modernist masterpieces

Formal photographs of Woolf show her in many different guises. Man Ray managed to convince her to wear lipstick during a 1934 shoot (she forgot to remove it when she left the studio). The photographs he captured show Woolf as her most avant-garde and self-possessed. The high-contrast and dramatically lit photos show her confidently looking directly at the camera.

This is the Woolf who wrote the modernist masterpiece Mrs Dalloway and To The Lighthouse, the experimental short stories from the 1920s and 1919s that were collected in Tuesday or Monday, and the poetic prose of the Waves. Man Ray did not appear to have read any of Woolf’s works when he took the photographs.

Woolf’s image in photos taken for Vogue in 1924 is a bit more ambiguous. She is seen peering out from beneath a heavy fringe in a dress that was her mother’s, but it looks a little thin. Woolf’s choice of an archaic clothing, even though she is a literary innovator and a well-known author, may seem odd. But the gesture perfectly reflects her life.

A most detestable experience

Virginia’s loss of her mom at the age of 13 was a devastating experience for her. Her mother continued to be a major influence on her throughout her life, despite Woolf’s disingenuous claims that she had laid her father and mother to rest through the writing To the Lighthouse.

T. S. Eliot by Lady Ottoline Morrel, June 1924. National Portrait Gallery

Woolf, in spite of her radical break from literary tradition, maintained a dialogue with previous generations, even if it was sometimes antagonistic. Woolf’s first two novels Night and Day and The Voyage Out, both published in 1915, have more obvious similarities to the realist novels of the 19th century than her later works, but she has continued to wrestle with the Victorian legacy throughout her entire oeuvre. Her penultimate book The Year (1937) is a family history, with chapters dating from 1880 up to the present.

Woolf’s perversity is not without purpose. From the way in which she began her 1928 polemical essay One’s Room of One’s own by using the grammatically forbidden “but”, through the almost complete erasure of novelistic narrative conventions in The Waves to her creation of a fictional biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, written from the perspective of Browning’s spaniel Flush, (1933).

Woolf might have thought that being photographed was “most disgusting”. Woolf’s own understanding, and even shrewdness about the impact of images, should make us pay particular attention to her photographs as an author.

Beresford’s portrait of Virginia Stephen, a turn-of the-century English rose, is as striking, varied and provocative, as her work.

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