Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision

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Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision

Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell c.1912 Copyright: Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © National Trust / Charles Thomas
Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell c.1912
Copyright: Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © National Trust / Charles Thomas

10 July – 26 October 2014, National Portrait Gallery, London

Prices with Gift Aid: adults £7, seniors £6.50, concessions £6

Supported by the Virginia Woolf Exhibition Supporters Group and the T.S. Eliot Estate

  • First exhibition to explore the life and achievements of Virginia Woolf through portraiture
  • Over 140 items on display including paintings, photographs and rare archival material
  • Portraits of Woolf by Bloomsbury Group figures Roger Fry, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell
  • Exhibition complemented by a new, highly illustrated biography by Frances Spalding

A major exhibition exploring the life and achievements of Virginia Woolf, one of the most important and celebrated writers of the twentieth century, opens at the National Portrait Gallery tomorrow, Thursday 10 July 2014. Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision, on display until 26 October, will feature painted portraits, photographs, drawings and rare archival material.

Guest curated by biographer Frances Spalding, Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision explores Woolf as a novelist, intellectual, campaigner and public figure. The exhibition looks at Woolf’s early life, literary interests and remarkable achievements, her fascination with London, awareness of modernity, and her developing feminist and political views. These are brought into focus through in-depth research and an array of archival material, including letters to and from her friends and acquaintances, extracts from her personal diaries, and original books that were first printed through the Hogarth Press.

T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf by Lady Ottoline Morrell, June 1924 Copyright: National Portrait Gallery, London
T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf by Lady Ottoline Morrell, June 1924
Copyright: National Portrait Gallery, London

Highlights of the exhibition include distinctive portraits of Woolf by her Bloomsbury Group contemporaries, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Roger Fry, as well as a collection of photographs by Beresford, Man Ray, and Beck and McGregor who photographed Woolf for Vogue. The exhibition also features portraits of those she was closest to, including a selection of intimate images recording her time spent with friends, family and literary peers.

Born Adeline Virginia Stephen in London in 1882, Virginia Woolf was the third child of Leslie and Julia Stephen. Leslie Stephen was a renowned author, literary critic and a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery, although he was principally remembered as a literary biographer and the first editor of theDictionary of National Biography. Woolf was home-educated in Kensington by her parents, in an intellectual household that was well-connected to Victorian literary society.

Despite her Victorian upbringing, Woolf was determined to establish new forms of creative writing and criticism. In 1905, Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell began to host weekly gatherings held at 46 Gordon Square, which led to the development of the Bloomsbury group of writers, artists and intellectuals, of which the sisters were central figures. The group included notable names such as John Maynard Keynes, Roger Fry and Lytton Strachey. In 1912, Woolf married Leonard Woolf and together founded publishing company the Hogarth Press in 1917.

In 1910 and 1912 Roger Fry brought French Post-impressionism to London and introduced England to modern art. From then on Woolf’s development as a modernist writer was to an extent influenced by her thinking about painting. In her novels, she demolished accepted conventions and transformed ideas about structure, plot and characterisation. In her most notable novels Jacob’s Room (1922), Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and her most experimental novel The Waves (1931), Woolf pioneered the ‘stream of consciousness’ style of writing. To this day, Woolf’s work continues to inspire contemporary authors and has been adapted for both screen and stage.

Virginia and Leonard Woolf by Gisele Freund, 1939 Copyright: Estate Gisèle Freund / IMEC Images
Virginia and Leonard Woolf by Gisele Freund, 1939
Copyright: Estate Gisèle Freund / IMEC Images

The exhibition also considers Woolf’s political awareness, which was particularly prominent during the Spanish Civil War. In her book Three Guineas, published in 1938, Woolf asks “What can we do to prevent war?”, and she supported fundraising events for those affected by the Spanish Civil War. The exhibition includes one of Picasso’s Weeping Woman drawings which he created specifically for a fundraising event at the Royal Albert Hall, at which Virginia and Leonard Woolf sat on the platform.

From the age of thirteen, Woolf suffered from bouts of mental illness. In 1941, at the relatively young age of fifty-nine, Woolf committed suicide. The letter that she wrote to Vanessa Bell, shortly before she died, is held in the British Library’s Manuscript Collection and is on rare public display as part of the exhibition.

Sandy Nairne, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, says: ‘Virginia Woolf was one of Britain’s most important writers and thinkers, who played a pivotal role at the heart of modernism in the early twentieth century. I am delighted that the National Portrait Gallery is staging a major exhibition dedicated to the life, work and imagery of such a significant figure in British history. ‘

Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision follows on from previous National Portrait Gallery literary exhibitions that have combined portraiture with biography, including the presentation of the Sitwell family in 1994 and the examination of Lord Byron in 2002.

Curator of Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision, Frances Spalding, is an art historian, critic and biographer. Her reputation was established with Roger Fry: Art and Life in 1980, after which she went on to write lives of the artists Vanessa Bell, John Minton, Duncan Grant and Gwen Raverat. Her survey history, British Art since 1900, in the Thames & Hudson World of Art series has been much used in schools, colleges and universities. In 2000 she joined Newcastle University where she is now Professor of Art History. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature; an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Art and in 2005 was made a CBE for services to literature.


The exhibition runs from 10 July until 26 October 2014 at the National Portrait Gallery, London
Admission charges:
Adult £7 (with Gift Aid)
Seniors £6.50/Concessions £6


The exhibition is complemented by a revealing, highly illustrated biography of Virginia Woolf by leading authority on the Bloomsbury Group, Frances Spalding. It includes over 100 works from public and private collections, documentary photographs and extracts from Woolf’s writings. It is available to purchase from the National Portrait Gallery bookshop and online. £22.50, paperback.


A programme of events, talks and workshops related to Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision will take place throughout the duration of the exhibition.



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