You’ll find Virginia in the City. A review of Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision at The National Portrait Gallery

The London air (it does seem that the air is made in London) lurks around Charing Cross station at lunchtime. It’s one of the first days of the summer holidays. The colossal bronze lions lying by Nelson’s Column seem to gasp for breath as gangs of children and selfie-takers clamber to ride them. A word comes to me as I walk from station to gallery: tumult. Amidst the smell of sun lotion and the Cockney persuasion of the street performer, this word catches. Tumult.

Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell, 1912, © 1961 Estate of Vanessa Bell courtesy Henrietta Garnett/ National Portrait Gallery, London
Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell, 1912, © 1961 Estate of Vanessa Bell courtesy Henrietta Garnett/ National Portrait Gallery, London.

It exists in my vocabulary thanks to Virginia Woolf. I recall its prominence in her work, seeming to crop up more regularly than it ought – once describing the thrust of an omnibus into traffic, again depicting the circulation of Piccadilly Circus, in The Waves, Neville trying to calm himself inside his train car “before I emerge into that chaos, that tumult,” and again in A Room of One’s Own, Virginia describing the spark of her intellectual curiosity as “such a wash and tumult of ideas that it was impossible to sit still.” More often than not, the word seemed joyful. Tumult was the bright mixture and energy of the city. This is what Virginia associated with London; traveling into the heart of it, where she had grown up, was always a necessary upheaval.

This upheaval, succumbing to the bustle and distraction of both the city and her own creativity, was one of the most communal and productive of the sensations that Virginia described; whether at a Newnham College luncheon, or on an errand to buy a pencil, the joining of the self to the collective experience had the effect of soothing and renewing her and her fictional guises. It is also then a bridge between the real and the fictional personas that Virginia Woolf wore, always so much more fashionable and well-fitting than her dresses, which were, by all accounts, awkward and old-looking.

It feels right then that an exhibition that celebrates Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision should belong in that most tumultuous plaza of the city, Trafalgar Square, and should invite us to circulate around the artifacts of her life and work with a group of strangers. If anything gave Virginia the impetus and energy for composing a new work in particular, it was the bustle of central London and the observation of human life within it. As I step into the gallery, I am looking for upheaval, for something tumultuous, to produce a spark of truth about the woman. But the Portrait Gallery, and especially the ticketed exhibition space, sitting quietly like an inner chamber of the building, turns cacophony into concert. It asks the visitor to look and reflect and look again. The jerk and roar of the street is muted, and Virginia is enclosed away from the mass experience.

The pressure on Virginia’s artifacts is to withstand the barriers to entry that inevitably accompany any event related to literary fiction and provide that link between the tumultuous outdoors and the reverent inner chamber; to invite judgment, even over that gap lying dangerously between present and history.

But if there’s anybody, among artists and writers of her era, whom it seems possible to know intimately, it’s Virginia, whether because her diaries are so extensive and available, because the Bloomsbury group [1] was so sociable and recorded their lives so easily, or whether there’s something about her persona that is open and invested in the tumult of human experience including her own. If anybody can cross the border between history and present, it should be Virginia. The full, almost cramped, composition of the exhibition walls tells me there was more than enough evidence of Virginia’s life to choose from. The exhibition comprises photographs, paintings and documents, arranged chronologically so that the monumental “eras” – childhood, troubled teenagehood, Bloomsbury, bouts of intense creativity and near destruction – are apparent. It is like viewing a scrapbook of her life, cluttered and personal, page by page.

Coincidentally, I enter the exhibition and immediately turn the “wrong” way, so that I experience the narrative backwards, starting with the original, handwritten suicide letters that Virginia wrote to her sister and husband, framed one beside the other. There is the dreadful, scattered rhythm of these letters, and yet, by reading word for word, one falls into Virginia’s written voice again; there is something terrifyingly familiar about the document. The fictional pieces and first edition novels, laid out along the course of the exhibition in glass cases opened to relevant pages, subsequently refer back to these looming suicide documents, as parts of the same collection. As I travel around the rest of the narrative, past records of Virginia’s friendships and intellectual encounters, towards the photographs of her childhood, further and further away from the famous end point, her life story becomes all fragments and reality again and the suicide an unshakeable background.

“Who was I then?” Virginia writes in one of the featured letters, marveling at how vastly she herself has changed with the vast changes of her life. Virginia’s private and public personas are persistently concerned with how identity changes, the differences between the internal and external voice, between the self alone and in company, and whether any part of one’s nature can be consistently relied upon. This awareness is evident not only in each of the quotes that adorn the walls of the gallery, but also in the photographs, the family ones where she looks alternately suspicious and affectionate as she greets the photographer’s eye, gesturing loosely with a cigarette beside her. She is a writer as intently engaged with the idea of herself as she is with the outside world.

And the visitor, charged with the investigation of this identity, reviews the evidence before her. Despite Virginia’s doubt at the reliability of her own self, when one examines her life from birth to death (or death to birth in my case) as a whole, the Virginia voice and that affectionate, suspicious gaze, remain constant, or at least, in a constant wavering motion. There is something persistently youthful about the energy of this person and her grey-eyed confrontation with the outside world, and yet awareness that always seemed to undermine that youthful side.

“The tumult of the present seems like an elegy for past youth and past summers,” she wrote in Jacob’s Room in 1922. “And there rose in her mind a curious sadness, as if time and eternity showed through skirts and waistcoats, and she saw people passing tragically to destruction.”

In a novel that would come to represent Virginia Woolf’s progression from conventional structure to a more expressive form, this excerpt shows how her observance of the self through time sparked creative excitement, but sadness. In the gallery, as evidence of Virginia’s past youth and past summers are taken up by the viewer, and added to the tumult of the present, one empathises, naturally, almost subconsciously, with these words, caught as one is between the tumult of the Square and the quiet of the museum. We witness Virginia “passing tragically to destruction” as the artifacts pass chronologically. Virginia was so open and investigative of this phenomenon, of the self passing through time, both in her personal writing and in her fiction, that she seems to be actively engaging in this elegy.

“I am writing to a rhythm and not to a plot,” Virginia wrote of her process while composing her many-voiced novel The Waves. This is another of the handwritten statements featured in the exhibition. Amidst the family portraits and illustrations of monumental moments, like the deaths of her parents, her marriage to Leonard Woolf, her first meeting with Vita Sackville-West, statements about her writing stand out as the fragments that should be lasting ones, the connecting force between her original life and the pursuit of fiction today.

The exhibition is all plot, but in the writing, even in the suicide letter, whose handwriting scrawls frustratedly as if wanting to pinch the paper (“you see I can’t even write this properly”), rhythm emerges. The consistency of Virginia Woolf’s voice becomes clear. The fictional rhythm of her personal letters and the way her fiction embraced the real rhythm of the London scene has resulted in a body of work, but not in the usual sense; this body is comprised of everything, interior and exterior, from birth to death, all scenes inclusive, a tumult.

“The train slows and lengthens, as we approach London, the centre, and my heart draws out too, in fear, in exultation. I am about to meet–what? What extraordinary adventure waits me, among these mail vans, these porters, these swarms of people calling taxis? I feel insignificant, lost, but exultant. With a soft shock we stop. I will let the others get out before me. I will sit still one moment before I emerge into that chaos, that tumult. I will not anticipate what is to come.” – Virginia Woolf, The Waves


[1] The Bloomsbury Group was a set of writers, artists and intellectuals who lived and worked together in London’s Bloomsbury area in the first decades of the 20th century. Famous members of the set include Virginia and Leonard Woolf, E.M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes, and Vanessa Bell.

Georgina Parfitt is a writer and editor based in the UK but currently wandering around America. You can find her features and fiction at The Atlantic online, The Harvard Advocate, Quadrapheme Magazine, and forthcoming in Unthank Books' Unthology Number 6.