Virginia Woolf – Art, Life and Vision by Frances Spalding – An extensively illustrated biography of the influential writer

Virginia Woolf – Art, Life and Vision by Frances Spalding

This is a slightly different book for me to review, and the exhibition it was related to is but a memory, but this excellent and brilliantly illustrated book sets out not only Virginia Woolf’s life and times, but also has so many pictures of every type. It was actually produced to go alongside an exhibition in 2014 at the National Portrait Gallery, and accordingly it reproduces in beautiful quality most of the pictures displayed; it is like having an exhibition at home without the travelling and no crowds! Furthermore, as the text is written by Frances Spalding who is a noted art historian, critic and biographer, Professor of Art History and an expert on the Bloomsbury Group among related subjects, every caption as well as the extensive text is written with real authority.

For those who enjoy portraiture like myself, it has over a hundred photographs, portraits and illustrations to delight in. Some are well known featuring Virginia herself, but it also portrays family and friends, those she met and admired, those who were of significance in her life and works. There are also the illustrations from early printed editions of her work, many of which were produced by her sister Vanessa for the small press which Virginia founded with her husband Leonard, as well as illustrations of her homes. Each picture is fully captioned in an informative way. Some of the illiustrations compliment the well -known pictures with less well known images, including Virgina’s close family and friends. Her connections with literary world from her young adult life onwards, as well as her sister’s involvement with the world of art means that there are some well known people’s images here, reaching back to the early photography of Julia Margaret Cameron and up to the mid-1940s.

The text of the book is also a considerable achievement. There has been so much written about Virginia Woolf, as well as her own considerable output of novels, essays, diaries, and other writing that to tackle a biography of her life and influence is a considerable undertaking, both to write and even read. Apparently the standard biography by Hermione Lee is some 900 pages, and her husband and others wrote first hand biographies of her which are a substantial body of work especially when seen as the part of the Bloomsbury group. This book relates her life and works in a far more approachable form, but with no compromises on the essential details. It places her work in context as the ground breaking writing as it was, and also includes reference to her important relationships and friendships. There are footnotes placed at the end of each chapter, a Chronology, Further Reading, Acknowledgments, Picture Credits and an extensive Index.

This book combines portraits of many kinds with a well written Life, and stands as a robust academic introduction to a much admired writer. Virgina wrote “Nothing has really happened until it has been recorded”, and this book revels in that recording in so many ways. It is very readable, as the biography at its heart flows so well between the admirable illustrations. I have long had an interest in Woolf and her contemporaries, read most of her novels and some of her other works, and I found much to interest me in this revealing book. It covers the well known material, but also those elements of her life that are hinted at, especially with reference to the paintings and photographs which capture her and those she met. It is a wonderful introduction to Virginia Woolf for anyone wishing to know more about this influential writer, and those who are expert in her writings and life will find new ways to think about her life and times with relatively obscure illustrations so well presented. I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the literary and artistic world of the first half of the twentieth century and who enjoys a beautifully presented book.