Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Four Rooms of One's Own; from Her Early Years, through Her Tangled Bloomsbury Loves, to Her Suicide, Modernist and Feminist Icon Virginia Woolf Is Treated to the Dedicated Show That She Deserves

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Four Rooms of One's Own; from Her Early Years, through Her Tangled Bloomsbury Loves, to Her Suicide, Modernist and Feminist Icon Virginia Woolf Is Treated to the Dedicated Show That She Deserves

Article excerpt

Byline: Ben Luke

EXHIBITION OF THE WEEK VIRGINIA WOOLF: ART, VISION AND LIFE National Portrait Gallery, WC2 VIRGINIA Woolf 's life and work have been pored over in countless biographies and other media, not least Stephen Daldry's 2002 partbiopic The Hours, featuring Nicole Kidman as Woolf, with that rather unfortunate prosthetic conk.

Now it's the turn of an exhibition. The National Portrait Gallery's show features 100 works, including family photographs, letters and diaries as well as paintings and sculpture by Woolf's Bloomsbury peers.

The NPG is a fitting venue because what the exhibition amounts to is a sketched portrait, a visual guide across four rooms to a well-trodden life and career, from her birth in 1882 into an upper-middle class literary family, through her Bloomsbury years and friendships with literature and art's great and good, to the bouts of mental illness that would lead to her suicide in 1941.

August figures surrounded Virginia Stephen from the start. Her father, Leslie Stephen, was an esteemed literary critic and scholar, and her mother, Julia, was from a similarly learned and distinguished family. Virginia was the great-niece of photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, whose portraits of eminent Victorians known to the family adorned the walls of the family's Hyde Park Gate house, amid paintings by George Frederic Watts and etchings by Joshua Reynolds. Some of Cameron's portraits appear here, including Charles Darwin, with his luminous white beard, and Lord Tennyson, with his mop of curly, dark hair.

Woolf wrote later that "great men stood in the background" of their lives. "Greatness still seems to me a positive possession; booming; eccentric; set apart; something to which I am led up dutifully by my parents," she added. "It is a bodily presence; it has nothing to do with anything said." She had much to live up to.

Near these grand men is Cameron's far more delicate photograph of Woolf's mother, and George Charles Beresford's less dramatic but hugely famous images of Woolf herself, emphasising how she inherited her mother's handsome, elegant features.

The Cameron portraits clearly meant much to the family: Virginia's sister, Vanessa, who later rose to fame as the painter Vanessa Bell, took several of the photographs from her family home to the siblings' first Bloomsbury house at 46 Golden Square and hung images of the men opposite several of her mother in the house's hallway.

It was in Golden Square after 1904 that Woolf made the first steps to her own greatness. She, Vanessa and their brothers, Thoby and Adrian, began holding their Thursday-evening "at homes", discussion soirees that marked the beginning of the Bloomsbury group. Enter the familiar Bloomsbury characters: Duncan Grant, Lytton Strachey, Simon Bussy, Lady Ottoline Morrell, Roger Fry and so on. Fry's presence was crucial in providing the group with an artistic identity, formed out of his evangelical passion for the French post-impressionism of Cezanne, Gauguin and their followers.

Grant's 1911 portrait of Virginia was an attempt to grapple with postimpressionist language -- the broken marks, rawness of paint and unorthodox colour. Looming up out of the impastoed paint, it is among the best portraits in the show. Unfortunately, few others get near it. Bell's portrait of Roger Fry, attempting to use similarly broken brushmarks, captures an animation in its subject but feels programmatic.

Though he was praised by Woolf as having "more knowledge and experience than the rest of us put together", Fry's own painting is wretched -- his portrait of Woolf is clearly deliberately reductive and naive, yet it's hopelessly weak. Bell's portrait of her at the same time is far better -- more delicate in its handling, crisper in line and cleaner in colour. …

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