Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision at the National Portrait Gallery

Last week, I finally managed to go to the Virginia Woolf exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.

Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision is split into four sections which together explore Woolf’s early life, her time as part of the Bloomsbury group, her friendships, her feminism, and views on modernity, as well as her literary achievements and her suicide in 1941.

Virginia Woolf exhibitionWhile the exhibition room appears small, it is packed with objects from portraits adorning the walls to glass cabinets holding handwritten letters from Woolf and manuscripts of her work. Portraits are the main feature of the exhibition and these range from photographs of Woolf’s family members, friends, and members of the Bloomsbury group to paintings of Woolf by her sister Vanessa and photos taken by Vogue. I hadn’t seen many of the pictures before so it was fascinating to see these and the different sides of Woolf they depicted.

I find looking at handwritten manuscripts of an author’s work incredibly fascinating – seeing their handwriting, their scribbles and crossings out, their annotations – and it was no different in this exhibition. I particularly enjoyed deciphering Woolf’s handwriting on the manuscript of the lecture which later became A Room of One’s Own, and pages from her diary.

I found the exhibition particularly moving when I reached the end and read Virginia’s handwritten letters to her husband Leonard and sister Vanessa that were found after she’d gone missing and committed suicide in 1941. Reading her letter that told her husband that she couldn’t cope anymore, that she felt as if she was spoiling his life, and that he had given her ‘the greatest possible happiness’ moved me greatly. I’d read a transcript of one of the letters before but seeing it in her handwriting was incredibly powerful and saddening. I was almost transfixed, deciphering her handwriting and reading what had been her personal letters. (Thinking about the exhibition afterwards, I’m unsure how I feel about having read them. While they personally affected me, the fact that these were private letters, clearly written when Virginia was in a very vulnerable place, and now in public view feels slightly invasive in some ways. I haven’t quite solidified my thoughts on this yet and I may be thinking about it too much, but I may write a post on this at some point). Nevertheless, reading these letters has had a lasting impact on me, and they are what I find myself thinking about most when I reflect on the exhibition.

The exhibition as a whole has been expertly curated and clearly thoroughly researched – the information accompanying each object or photograph is thorough, yet I would have liked more at times. Then again, there is only so much space and there was enough information to understand the significance of each object and portrait without it being overwhelming.

As a fan of Woolf and someone interested in her ideas, what also struck me about the exhibition was how many people were in the exhibition room. I visited on a Friday, around 1pm, not expecting there to be many people, but the room was busy – not so busy that I couldn’t see the exhibits, but busy enough that I had to wait to see certain items. And I’m very glad about this. At one point in the exhibition, I looked around the room and realised that we were all there because we appreciate Woolf’s work or are interested in her novels, and I wondered what she would have thought of that; whether she realised the longevity and impact her work would have. When I first read Woolf, I didn’t have any friends who were interested in her too, so visiting the exhibition made me realise just how many people are interested in Woolf and have been affected by her work.

It seems fitting that this exhibition dedicated to Virginia Woolf is in the National Portrait Gallery – I read in the Guardian that Woolf refused to sit for a portrait for the gallery because she believed it would be put in a drawer never to be seen, the walls of the gallery instead devoted to portraits of men. I suppose it shows how far we have come since Woolf refused the portrait, and I am glad that she has got this completely deserved exhibition – rather than only a portrait – even if it is so many years later.

The combination of portraits, manuscripts, and letters make for a well-rounded exhibition which works to create a portrait of Woolf – we see her humour and wit in some of her letters; her intelligence and strength of ideas in her manuscripts; the sometimes glamorous aspects of her life as she posed for Vogue photographs; the fun, gossipy letters to friends and their in-jokes. It feels like a very personal, intimate exhibition: we are shown the person Virginia Woolf was and the people that were in her life, rather than the focus solely being on her as a literary figure. Overall, this exhibition is fascinating and moving, and I would urge anyone who has read Woolf’s work or is interested in her to visit if you can. It’s definitely worth it.

The exhibition runs until 26th October at the National Portrait Gallery.



18 thoughts on “Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision at the National Portrait Gallery

  1. Sounds amazing! I really want to see this. I’m not sure about those letters though – it does seem incredibly intrusive. But it’s also compelling and a rare insight – tricky. I’ll look forward to reading your thoughts if you do a follow-up post.

  2. Lovely write-up of a very good exhibition, Gemma. I visited it a few weeks ago and found the final room (with the letters you mention) almost unbearably moving, so terribly sad…It’s definitely worth a visit, though, and I’m glad I caught it.

  3. I know what you mean about reading the actual letters – I always have concerns about that myself. Especially when there have been cases of authors leaving instructions for them not to be published and later generations choosing to ignore those instructions. It would be interesting to know if Woolf made any decisions about whether her correspondence (in general, not those specific letters) should be made public or not…

    Great post – for those of us too far away to see the exhibition, you gave us a real flavour of it. Thanks!

    • Thank you 🙂

      It would be very interesting to know. And also, if she did make any such decisions, whether they apply to her diaries too because those are quite readily available for us to read (I actually have a ‘Selected Diaries’ on my shelf, but haven’t got around to reading it yet!)

  4. I went a couple of weeks ago and it was packed (but then it was a Saturday afternoon). Like you say it is wonderful to see how appreciated she is, I feel like she kind of gets lost amongst the more conventionally popular writers but for me there’s nobody who comes close to her genius. The letters are devastatingly sad but I thought the letter written by Vanessa talking about Virginia’s death (I can’t remember who it was even to now) where she said that although it was terribly upsetting it could’ve happened all of those years before if it wasn’t for Leonard and we would never have got her greatest works was particularly moving. Their relationship is very touching.

      • I’m not sure… it’s in the book from the exhibition but I didn’t see it either, I just presumed I’d missed it though! Perhaps it wasn’t actually there and it’s just in the book.

      • That’s interesting if it’s only in the book! I’d presumed that everything from the exhibition was in there. Unless we both missed the letter…haha. Would you recommend the book? I had a quick look through it at the end of the exhibition and it did look very good.

      • I would’ve thought so too! Yes the book is good, although I’ve not had a chance to dip into it very thoroughly yet. I mainly picked it up because going through the exhibition some of the letters etc. I just didn’t have the time to try and decipher so I wanted to have a good look later.

  5. So cool that you got to go see this; it sounds fascinating. I went through a Virginia Woolf phase a couple of years ago and read all her books and some of her diaries and a really good biography of her…I wish I could see this exhibit, too.

  6. I’m so glad that the exhibition is wonderful and well curated! When I went to the National Portrait Gallery back in August, I tried to persuade my boyfriend that we just *had* to go and see the exhibition, but he wasn’t too keen. I’ll definitely have to try and get down there before it closes!

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