At last I made it to the Virginia Woolf exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery! How has it taken me such an age? Why is it that although London is filled with fascinating things to see and do, it is so rare that one actually manages to find the time to see and do them?
The exhibition was the perfect end to my Sunday afternoon. First, I ventured to the Ladies’ Pond on the Heath, where it was only just not too cold to be bearable. My wimpishly slow descent down the ladder was forgiven by the more seasoned swimmers once they saw my enormous belly and instead began to inquire as to whether or not the baby enjoys it. Who knows, but I certainly do. Once I was finally paddling away in the freezing pond, there were so many endorphins going off that I felt as high as a kite for a good hour afterwards. Apparently, one’s body is especially good at producing endorphins when pregnant (our hypnobirthing teacher says it’s so that when the big day arrives, all the endorphins come flooding out and act as natural pain relief … ummm, here’s hoping), so add to that swimming, which also stimulates endorphin production, and you can see why it’s all too easy to feel completely out of it. So everything was still spinning somewhat when I arrived at the National Portrait Gallery a little later.
This preamble about swimming is to serve as something of a disclaimer – for a quirk of being pregnant is that emotions certainly run close to the surface, and so the fact that I found the Virginia Woolf exhibition not only very enjoyable, unusual and eye-opening, but also terribly moving, could be put down to this. I wonder, though, whether anyone can read the letters she wrote to her sister Vanessa and her husband Leonard in the days before her suicide without their eyes fogging up with tears. Both are displayed at the close of the exhibition. Here is the one to Leonard, which – by the way – is also included in the beautiful Letters of Note book:
These letters come at the close of the exhibition, and yet they’re the first thing I mention because it seems impossible to think of Virginia Woolf without thinking of her terrible end. From the age of thirteen, she was afflicted by serious problems with her mental health, and there are references to her breakdowns throughout the exhibition – a dark thread winding throughout her brilliant, glittering life.
But really it is all the space given to Woolf’s glitter, glamour and gossip which struck me as so unexpected and enjoyable about the exhibition. There are photographs of Woolf posing for Vogue (below), and for Man Ray, snapshots of her staying with Lady Ottoline Morrell at Garsington in an outfit by the designer Nicole Groult commissioned for her by Madge Garland, fashion editor of Vogue. I’d never really thought of the glamour of Woolf’s life before. Yes, I’ve heard Woolf’s phrase ‘frock consciousness’ bandied about, but this was the first time I’d been made to pause and think something of it, of how she dressed herself and posed for the public eye.
Writers, of course, are observers, onlookers, and Woolf perhaps more so than most. You have only to read her ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ essay (which I wrote about a bit here) to see how preoccupied she was with the way authors fail to represent their characters by amassing details about their outward appearance as opposed to attempting to convey their interior life. Woolf was so keen an observer that she didn’t stop at the surface, she insisted on getting inside her characters’ consciousnesses. So it was surprising to see so much evidence of the way Woolf herself was seen, or indeed, how she chose to be seen.
In contrast to these beautiful posed photographs, there’s an intriguing one from 1893, when Woolf was only eleven. It shows her parents Julia and Leslie Stephen reading at Talland House, their Cornwall holiday home.
Her parents are in the foreground, side-by-side on the sofa, both focused on their reading. The background has all the furnishings you might expect – a patterned wallpaper on which hang some pictures, one slightly crooked; a decorative screen; plenty of books on the shelves – and there is also a young Virginia Stephen poking her head out, hands cupped around her chin, watching her parents, thinking.
I loved all the photographs of Woolf’s early life. There’s a wonderful one from 1886 of her playing cricket with her brother Adrian.
Virginia is the wicket keeper in an enormous white hat, smock, stockings wrinkling around her ankles and a shoelace carelessly undone. She is leaning forwards, looking at the bowler, who is out of frame, palms open ready to catch, tense with the excitement of the oncoming moment when the ball will be thrown. I knew Woolf was a tomboy as a child, but even so, seeing her looking rather ragged and ramshackle, playing cricket with such glee, was an unexpected delight.
The exhibition is a treasure trove. Photographs abound, as do paintings, a great many letters and first editions. What makes it so special is how intimate many of these feel. There is a note from Leonard and Virginia to Lytton Strachey announcing their engagement just saying ‘Ha! Ha!’ The in-joke is explained: Lytton, who had himself once proposed to Virginia, went on to suggest to Leonard that he marry her instead. There is a gossipy letter from Woolf to Katherine Mansfield, not talking about their work, but instead saying how Rose Macaulay came round the other day and what a very ‘harum-scarum woman’ she is. There is a wonderful letter from Leonard when he was courting Virginia, in which he writes:
If I try to say what I feel, I become stupid & stammering: it’s like a wall of words rising up in front of me & there on the other side you’re sitting so clear & beautiful & your dear face that I’d give everything in the world to see now.
It’s terribly endearing to think of these two literary figures falling in love and Leonard for once struggling with the shortcomings of words, his vision of her making him ‘stupid & stammering’.
We all know that Woolf is one of the greatest novelists of all time, and it is something of a relief that the exhibition doesn’t bother to impress this upon us. Indeed there is very little about her fiction. It is as though we are deemed sensible enough to know we should read her books to see her genius. Here, instead, we see everything else. There are posed photographs, and also snaps of her with her friends, playing cricket, chatting easily. There are her private letters, and a feast of lines which she’s thrown out with casual ease rather than labouring over so meticulously. I loved, for instance, her comment on Garsington, where she frequently stayed with Lady Ottoline Morrell:
Is the sunlight ever normal at Garsington? No I think even the sky is done up in pale yellow silk, and certainly the cabbages are scented.
For all the dark notes that resound throughout Woolf’s life, lacing this exhibition with the shadow of her eventual suicide, there is also a wonderful amount of fun, of fashion, of friends, gossip and a sense of the great joy there is to be found in day-to-day life.
Here’s Woolf in her Nicole Groult dress, among friends at Garsington.