As social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram become ubiquitous in our daily lives, you could be forgiven for thinking that the act of carefully curating photographs and images of oneself, family, and friends to commemorate important memories is a uniquely 21st-century pastime. In fact, as far back as the turn of the 20th-century, young people were purposefully using photography (albeit via a professional photographer’s studio) to record the significant milestones of their lives. In this blog, Wendy Hitchmough explains how pioneering modernist author Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell utilised the art of photography to explore the subject of self-image; encoding complex family memories and asserting their own identities through painstakingly assembled photo albums.
Learn more about how the members of the famed Bloomsbury Group used the visual arts to navigate their multifarious relationships with fashion, conformity, and the avant-garde in The Bloomsbury Look by Wendy Hitchmough.
Wendy Hitchmough reveals the story behind the most defining image of Virginia Woolf …
George Beresford’s portrait of Virginia Woolf is one of the National Portrait Gallery’s bestselling postcards. It is the image that most readily springs to mind when we think of her. However, Beresford is more likely to have been attracted to her father as a sitter, in comparison to this young woman whose main credentials in 1902 were her beauty and family connections rather than her reputation as a writer. She was unpublished when the photograph was commissioned.
Photographing the Stephen Family
Beresford had recently established his studio as a commercial photographer less than a mile from the family home in South Kensington that Virginia Stephen, as she was then known, shared with her sister Vanessa, her younger brother, her two half-brothers and her father, Sir Leslie Stephen. The sitting appears to have been organised by the eldest of her half-brothers, George Duckworth, and even before they were printed Virginia was promising, a little flirtatiously, to send one of the portraits to Violet Dickinson: ‘the man hasn’t sent the photographs yet – and they mayn’t do me justice – indeed I don’t expect they will. If you are very kind to me … you shall have one when you come here. (They belong to George.)’
Sir Leslie Stephen was knighted in the coronation honours list in June 1902 for his work as an eminent scholar and editor of the Dictionary of National Biography. When he attended the photography sitting with his two daughters the following month, he had already been diagnosed with cancer and was awaiting surgery. Beresford himself was building a business as a celebrity photographer specialising in artists and writers. He sold pictures to newspapers and magazines such as the Illustrated London News and Tatler and, although 1902 was his first year in practice, his portfolio for that year included portraits of J. M. Barrie, Auguste Rodin and Augustus John in addition to the Stephen family.
Mourning and Marriage
George Duckworth may have arranged the sitting to celebrate his stepfather’s achievements in the final stages of his life. He would also have been keen to secure portraits of his two half-sisters in their jewels and white dresses in anticipation of a period of mourning. He had assumed responsibility for their ‘coming out’ into fashionable society, escorting them to balls and dinners where they could be introduced to eligible bachelors. Sir Leslie was only 69 when the portraits were commissioned but he has the appearance of a much older man in Beresford’s portraits, and his daughters were 20 and 23. The photographs were designed to represent these two young women if, as Edwardian protocol required, their father’s death necessitated a withdrawal from society before suitable husbands could be secured for them. Virginia Woolf noted their strategic display by her family many years later in a Sketch of the Past. Describing her older brother, Thoby Stephen, as an undergraduate, she recalled his ‘great pride in us whose photographs were always on his fireplace at Cambridge’. Virginia and Vanessa subsequently married two of Thoby’s closest university friends: Leonard Woolf and Clive Bell.
The Image of Vanessa Bell
The aforementioned sitting with Beresford was extraordinarily productive and it led to further sessions. His book of sitters records six photographs of Sir Leslie, fourteen of Virginia and an unspecified number of Vanessa, all taken together in July 1902. Thoby sat for Beresford four years later, just weeks before his sudden death from typhoid fever in November 1906. Clive proposed marriage to Vanessa two days later and she returned to Beresford’s studio early in 1907, in mourning for her brother and wearing a heart-shaped necklace. A cropped version of one of these portraits is mounted and propped up in the studio at Bell’s former Sussex home, Charleston. Like the National Portrait Gallery postcard of her sister, it has become ubiquitous as a representation of Bell. The photograph has been mistaken for one of the 1902 series of images, but another print from the same sitting shows Bell to be wearing a large, fashionable hat with a dark veil, drawn back. This is cropped out of the Charleston print. The specificity of dress and jewellery identify the portrait with Bell’s engagement and possibly her marriage at St Pancras Register Office in February 1907.
The Bloomsbury Group was characteristic of a generation that had grown up with purposeful visits to photographers’ studios to record the milestones of their early lives. Vanessa and Virginia may also have regarded the art of photography and the practice of modelling Victorian ideals of beauty as inherent in their DNA. The photographer Julia Margaret Cameron was their great aunt and their mother had been her favourite model. She had died when Vanessa and Virginia were still in their teens and Cameron’s photographs, immortalising her beauty, had filled the pages of a memorial album dedicated to her. The Beresford portraits capture a stillness and composure that the siblings had learned, as if by osmosis, from these photographs of their mother. Like many young women in the decades around the turn of the century, Vanessa and Virginia were themselves amateur photographers and made their own photograph albums, or adapted bought ones with homemade covers. Within these albums, painstakingly assembled by both sisters, the Beresford photographs are located within their own narratives of ‘family’ and ‘loss’. Their pages, the Edwardian equivalent to Facebook and Instagram, describe processes of self-fashioning.
Loose Prints vs Fixed Moments
As a publisher, commissioning publicity photographs of herself and other authors for the Hogarth Press, Woolf would become adept at asserting her identity as a professional modern woman through studio photographs. However, very few of these were included in her albums; she kept them loose. Her copies of the 1902 Beresford prints may have belonged within this category of images, to be loaned or given away, and as such they have been lost, almost without trace, over the years. In contrast, the photographs in Bell and Woolf’s album pages are captioned, fixed in the moment of assembly.
Bell included two of Beresford’s portraits of her sister in one of her early albums. A large format print was given its own page and captioned ‘Adeline Virginia Stephen’. A few pages further on she fixed a smaller version of the same image next to her own portrait by Beresford. The print is missing but it is captioned ‘VB 1907’ and a note in its place, ‘Lent to Leonard Woolf Nov 1959’, documents the subsequent currency of these photographs in Bloomsbury’s historiography. Leonard Woolf published the first volume of his autobiography, Sowing, the following year and in it he likened the sisters, when he first encountered them visiting their brother in Cambridge, to paintings by Velazquez and Rembrandt, their beauty literally taking his breath away.
Virginia Woolf only included one of her portraits by Beresford in an album. It is the least conventional and the image most indicative of her agency and originality as a young woman. It is a double portrait with her father. Virginia leans in close, angling her face to his to accentuate the family likeness. The contrast between Sir Leslie’s sombre frailty and her own anxious, youthful face, claiming her heredity as an intellectual and a writer, is poignant. In Woolf’s album and that of Bell, the location of prints on the page and within the volumes encode complex family memories and affiliations. Woolf fixed the double portrait with her father beneath two of Beresford’s finest photographs of Sir Leslie. Both sisters also dedicated full pages to the Beresford portraits of Thoby immediately adjacent to those bearing their own images. Within their album contexts these photographs offer extraordinary insights into the Edwardian currency of Bloomsbury photographs, and the ways in which Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell explored issues of image and identity on their own terms.
Wendy Hitchmough is senior lecturer in art history at the University of Sussex and was curator at the Bloomsbury artists’ home, Charleston, for over 12 years.
Her latest book, The Bloomsbury Look, is an in-depth study of how the famed Bloomsbury Group expressed their liberal philosophies and collective identity through visual form; including photography, art, and dress.