Virginia Woolf exhibition, National Portrait Gallery

Four photographs of Virginia Woolf by George Charles Beresford, 1902
Four photographs of Virginia Woolf by George Charles Beresford, 1902

If you’re remotely interested in Virginia Woolf, the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition is both utterly fascinating because of the historical artefacts and images on display and worth experiencing for the quality of the art. I saw it in the summer but it’s on till the end of October so I’m hoping to make a return visit.

I’m already a fan so loved the frisson of looking at letters, photographs, children’s drawings, diary pages and books with a direct connection to Virginia, her family and friends.

Near the beginning of the exhibition are the four famous and haunting images of a young Virginia Stephen by George Beresford. Near the end are two heartbreaking letters written to her sister Vanessa and only found after she’d killed herself. I’ve read those awful words many times before:  ‘I am certain now that I am going mad again. It is just as it was the first time.’ But I’ve never seen them in her own handwriting on the paper she handled. Devastating.

However there’s so much celebration of her life, her writing and her family and friends that this is not just a misery memoir on the walls of a gallery. The photographs are amazing. Look at how sulky and angry the teenage Vanessa is in this page from one album:

Selection of family photos. A thoroughly annoyed looking Vanessa Stephen is top right.
Selection of family photos. A thoroughly annoyed looking Vanessa Stephen is top right.


The art is worth looking at too. A Picasso sketch jostles alongside Duncan Grant paintings such as this which you’d normally have to go to New York to see:


Virginia Woolf by Duncan Grant, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Virginia Woolf by Duncan Grant

You can see the development of Vanessa’s skill as an artist alongside that of her sister’s as a writer. This is probably her best of Virginia:

Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bel
Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell


For me, however, the biggest surprise was my new favourite painting, Vanessa’s ‘A Conversation.’ I must have seen it in the ‘Art of Bloomsbury’ show at the Tate back in 1999, but I don’t remember it. This time, I stood to stare for so long that I had to find a wall to lean against. Three women are formed from a single, sweeping semi-circle. One is a heap of fur coat with
a look that could be doubtful, smug or amused. She and a less defined woman are leaning in close to listen to a third, red-cheeked and wide-eyed with, what? Shock? Outrage? Excitement? I could have stared all day. Virginia always said that, in her novels,  she was trying to convey the silent stories that visual artists could tell in images. This by her sister shows exactly what she meant.

Vanessa Bell, 'The Conversation'
Vanessa Bell, ‘The Conversation’

6 thoughts on “Virginia Woolf exhibition, National Portrait Gallery

  1. Thanks for posting these pictures. I just reread “To the Lighthouse” this summer and was stunned, again, by its fresh brilliance. It seems more modern than most novels written today, and the prose is luminous. The long chapter (XVII, I think) in the first section is simply remarkable.

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