Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision

Guest curated by biographer Frances Spalding, the exhibition explores Woolf's role as a novelist, intellectual, campaigner and public figure.

Born in London in 1882, Virginia Woolf spent her childhood at home in Kensington where she was educated by her parents – her father, Leslie Stephen, was a renowned author, critic and a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery. Thanks to her family's social connections, Woolf was often surrounded by prominent literary figures and, from a young age, she decided that she wanted to establish new forms of creative writing.

In 1905, she and sister Vanessa Bell began to host weekly gatherings of writers, artists and intellectuals at 46 Gordon Square. These meetings marked the beginnings of the Bloomsbury group, which included John Maynard Keynes, Roger Fry, Duncan Grant and Lytton Strachey, among its members.

It was through the group that Woolf learnt about French Post-impressionist painting – brought to London by Fry in 1910 –  and this discovery had a profound influence on her development as a modernist writer. Rejecting traditional conventions of structure, plot and characterisation, she instead favoured the 'stream of consciousness' style of writing.

The exhibition explores Woolf’s life, literary achievements and her fascination with London. She is captured in paintings by her Bloomsbury Group contemporaries, Bell, Grant and Fry, as well as in photographs by Beck and McGregor who shot her for Vogue. There are also portraits of those she was closest to, including friends, family and literary peers.

Further insight is provided a wealth of archival material, from letters and diary extracts, to books printed by the publishing house she founded with her husband, the Hogarth Press.

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Woolf's political activities included support of those affected by the Spanish Civil War. The exhibition features one of Picasso’s Weeping Woman drawings, which he created specifically for a fundraising event at the Royal Albert Hall where Virginia and Leonard Woolf sat on the platform.

Also on display, the letter Virginia wrote to Vanessa Bell shortly before she committed suicide. Having suffered from bouts of mental illness since the age of thirteen, Woolf drowned herself in 1941 at just 59. Held in the British Library's manuscript collection, it is rarely shown in public.

Find out which art movement you belong to by taking our quiz, inspired by the exhibition.


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Venue details

National Portrait Gallery St Martin's Place London WC2H 0HE 020 7306 0055 www.npg.org.uk

Entry details

£3.15 with National Art Pas (standard entry £6.50)

Sat – Wed, 10am – 6pm
Thu – Fri, 10am – 9pm

Closed 24 – 26 Dec

Book online via the National Portrait Gallery website