chestnut book blog

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Virginia Woolf at the National Portrait Gallery

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A few weeks ago, my friend Cristina and I met after work and spent a blissful evening wandering around the Virginia Woolf exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Evenings like that are one of my favourite things about living in London…it is like the opportunity to dive into a different world for a few hours.

The exhibition itself was intimate and detailed, with a mixture of portraits, books, letters, articles, ephemera and objects. Whilst I was slightly surprised by the small-scale of the exhibition at first, I came to the conclusion that it suited the subject matter perfectly. Virginia Woolf was a fascinating, but private and complex woman. Her books were detailed and intimate, concentrating on individual feelings and thoughts, just like this exhibition. A particularly intriguing part of the exhibition was two portraits of Woolf, painted on what I presume was the same day (she is wearing the same clothes), but by two different artists. The similarities and differences kept Cristina and I transfixed for some time.

Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Roger Fry, 1917

Virginia Woolf by Roger Fry, 1917

The exhibition ends with the story of her suicide of course and so I left with mixed feelings. Grateful for her work and her life, but also sad because, despite her talent, the exhibition showed a very unhappy and unstable person for significant periods. She suffered personal tragedies like the early loss of her mother and an adored brother, but also had so many positive things in her life (her work, her much-loved husband, her sister) that her untimely death felt like such a waste to me.

I’ve not read too much of Woolf, always wary of her reputation for difficulty. What I have read though, To the Lighthouse, Mrs Dalloway and A Room of One’s Own, I love and this exhibition inspired two more purchases! I remember recently that one of my very favourite books (sorry for harping on about it!), Howard’s End is on the Landing, references Woolf’s diaries as ‘well worn, much-loved, a constant inspiration’ so I purchased my own copy after seeing the exhibition. I will let you know if I find the same. The other purchase was a little more accidental. I went to Prague last week with work for a few days and had one evening to myself (a huge relief after a day or two of being forcibly sociable!). I spent a lovely August evening walking for hours around the city, eager to get my bearings and see the beautiful buildings on foot. I stumbled across two wonderful English language book shops, The Globe and Shakespeare & Sons. In one of them, propped up by the till, was a second-hand volume of all Woolf’s major works and I couldn’t resist it.

This autumn there will inevitably be a few more posts about Virginia Woolf so be prepared! Have you read much Woolf? Do you like her style?

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