Virginia Woolf's walking stick found where she died to be exhibited in UK for first time

 

Arts Correspondent

Virginia Woolf’s walking stick, found on the banks of the River Ouse where she died, is on display for the first time in the UK as part of a new exhibition exploring her life.

Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision opens tomorrow at the National Portrait Gallery. It is the first exhibition to examine the life and achievements of one of the most celebrated authors of the 20th century through portraiture.

The curator said the show wanted to “break with the predictability of the information” around the author, adding that people had a “tremendous desire to get closer to her”.

The show, which has 140 items, displays archive material including diaries, photographs and letters of the author of acclaimed works including Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse.

Among the most moving items are farewell notes to her sister Vanessa Bell and husband Leonard, exhibited to the public for the first time, and the walking stick found by Leonard on the banks of the River Ouse where she drowned herself.

Frances Spalding, an art historian and biographer, curated the exhibition. She said the items were “very moving" and added: "We wanted some things that would enable people to get closer to her, to bring her back.”

Woolf, who was 59 when she died, left the Sussex cottage she shared with her husband on 28 March 1941, weighted her pockets with stones and walked into the river.

Her body was found three weeks later by some children playing on the river banks. She had suffered with mental illness from the age of 13 and attempted suicide several times before.

The walking stick has been held in the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection since it came up for auction in 2002. It is not on public view but scholars can request to see it.

The letter to her sister, believed to be the last she wrote, is on loan from the British Library’s manuscript collection. It said: “I feel I have gone too far this time to come back again. I am certain now that I am going mad again.”

The exhibition includes a series of portraits of Woolf by fellow members of the Bloomsbury Group including Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Roger Fry.

“I hope there’s an intimacy to this exhibition that will draw people in,” Professor Spalding said. “We want to show many sides of Virginia Woolf. She was about suggesting the mutability of self.”

She said: “There are all kinds of lenses that have been placed over her work. Last week a Cambridge academic said to me rather seriously: ‘Is there anything further to be said about Virginia Woolf?’ My answer to that was emphatically: ‘Yes there is’.”

Woolf herself took against the Portrait Gallery, turning down the opportunity of having a drawing of her in the collection because there were so few works of women on display.

Sandy Nairne, director of the National Portrait Gallery, said: ‘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.”

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