Virginia Woolf is portrayed in new light

From young cricketer to beach belle to fancy-dress partygoer, an unusually playful side to Virginia Woolf is captured in a new book. Alice Jones reports

Wednesday 01 April 2009 22:03

Virginia Woolf the cricketer, the beach belle posing in a stripy bathing suit or as the March Hare at an Alice in Wonderland-themed party. Those are not guises most people would associate with the leading female modernist author of the 20th century, but they are just some of the images collected in Snapshots of Bloomsbury. While the lives and works of Woolf and the Bloomsbury set have been exhaustively documented, this is the first time that 1,000 photographs from Woolf's private album and that of her sister, Vanessa Bell, have been catalogued and published.

"They'd never been considered in their own right as being something of interest," says Maggie Humm, the author of Snapshots. "The reason is transparent - women keep photo albums, and the domestic is not thought to be an important part of modernism." Academically recognised or not, these images reveal the intimate family life of Woolf. More widely, they enhance an overly romanticised vision of the Bloomsbury set with casual snapshots of, among others, T S Eliot, E M Forster, Vita Sackville-West and Lytton Strachey, as well as documenting the boom in amateur photography at the end of the 19th century - an innovation that snared Virginia and Vanessa Stephen, and quickly became their shared obsession.

The Stephen sisters were the first generation of home photographers who had access to transportable cameras. The first Kodaks with built-in rolls of negative paper appeared in 1888 (when Virginia was six), the first commercial transparent celluloid roll film in the 1890s. "Aged 15," Humm says, "Virginia was spending 6s6d [£23 at today's prices] on a photo album - they were completely committed to photography."

The albums include pictures of childhood holidays in St Ives; in one family portrait, a Mr Wolstenholme stands behind the group - later he would become Mr Carmichael in To the Lighthouse. The sisters also photographed their domestic staff. Later come the awkward courting couple, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and snapshots of weekends spent with their Bloomsbury contemporaries.

The sisters shared their skills "in the same way as they did in later life, where Vanessa was the artist and Virginia the writer". Vanessa would take the photographs, and it was left to Virginia "to do the toning". As they grew up, they developed individual styles. "Virginia uses photographs in much more of a psychic and personal way," says Humm, describing them as a defence against depression and death. "She takes all these monumental portraits of friends, all carefully labelled. It's as if to say, 'No, we're not going to die, here are our bodies, our presence.'"

Vanessa used photographs as models for her art, including one of her children peering into a tub which resurfaces in her painting The Tub and a spookily prophetic image of Angelica Bell as Ophelia, taken five years before Woolf's suicide by drowning.

Among these, there are odd flashes of bohemian decadence - the artist Duncan Grant dressed up as a Spanish dancer, nudes of the Everest climber, George Mallory, and Bell and Molly MacCarthy prancing naked at 46 Gordon Square for one of Grant's paintings.

For the most part, though, Humm describes the images of the Bloomsbury set as "resolutely domestic". E M Forster is depicted in a pair of baggy old trousers pruning roses with Leonard Woolf; T S Eliot is captured in profile, sitting in an armchair in a nondescript room; and the Stracheys play chess, seated on deckchairs under a quaint parasol.

Humm has included professional pictures of Woolf taken by Man Ray and Gisèle Freund and for Vogue. They point to Woolf's growing awareness and manipulation of her public persona and record her discomfort in front of the camera. A Vogue portrait in 1924 shows her awkward in an old-fashioned, ill-fitting black dress that belonged to her late mother: only Woolf could wear a dress that was 40 years out of date for a Vogue shoot.

With the private photographs, Humm "tried to include lots of photographs of when Virginia is happy, to counteract the Nicole Kidman stereotype [in The Hours]". Her favourite shows Woolf, in a white dress, smiling down at her mischievous toddler nephew Julian, her Frena camera dangling from her hand.

'Snapshots of Bloomsbury: The Private Lives of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell', edited by Maggie Humm, Tate Publishing, £25

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