The National Portrait Gallery, London, announced that it is to hold a significant exhibition exploring the life and achievements of Virginia Woolf, one of the most important and celebrated writers of the twentieth century. Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision, on display from 10 July until 26 October, will feature painted portraits, photographs, drawings and rare archival material, including a letter to her sister, Vanessa Bell, written shortly before her suicide.

Guest curated by biographer Frances Spalding, Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision will explore 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.

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 will also feature 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 the Dictionary 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.

The exhibition will consider 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?” Woolf also supported fundraising events for those affected by the Spanish Civil War. The exhibition will include 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 will be 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 will be 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.

National Portrait Gallery
St Martin's Place
London WC2H 0HE United Kingdom
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Opening hours
Daily from 10am to 6pm
Late Opening Thursday & Friday until 9pm

£7 Adult (with Gift Aid)
£6.50 Seniors
£6 Concessions

Related images

  1. Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell c.1912 © Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © National Trust / Charles Thomas
  2. T.S. Eliot; Virginia Woolf by Lady Ottoline Morrell, June 1924 © National Portrait Gallery, London
  3. Virginia Woolf in an Armchair by Vanessa Bell, c.1912 ©National Portrait Gallery, London