Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell were close in both life and art. Bell, the elder sister, was born in 1879 and Woolf followed in 1882. Born to Leslie and Julia Stephen, the sisters were raised in London with their siblings. Bell was educated at the Royal Academy, but Woolf was denied the opportunity to go to Cambridge like her brothers. After their father’s death in 1904, Bell and her brother Adrian bought a house at 46 Gordon Square, in Bloomsbury, which would become an important meeting place for the sisters and their contemporaries. Though there was some professional rivalry between the pair, their respective works betray an affinity, both in style and content. They also collaborated on a number of projects for the Hogarth Press, Bell illustrating several of Woolf’s books. In their correspondence they affectionately address each other by their nicknames (Bell is ‘Dolphin’ and Woolf is ‘Billy’ or simply ‘B’) and are by turns critical and encouraging of each other’s work. Woolf could occasionally be snide about painting, comparing it unfavourably to writing, but she ultimately supported her sister’s art. In 1927, she expressed her pride in both herself and her sister, writing, ‘we are both mistresses of our medium as never before…and our late flowers are rare & splendid.’
In 1882 the sisters’ father, Leslie Stephen, took Talland House in St. Ives, where the family summered every year until 1894. A series of photographs shows the young sisters with their family at Talland. With their brothers, Adrian and Thoby, they play cricket and sit at ‘the look out.’ From here, they could see Godrevy lighthouse, which would become the inspiration for Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse (1924). It was the death of the girls’ mother in 1895 that finally ended these trips. The sisters were devastated by the loss and each subsequently linked the sea with their mother and childhood. Woolf, in particular, was obsessed by the memory of her mother, even wearing Julia’s dress in a 1924 portrait for Vogue. Indeed, Julia served as the primary inspiration for the character of Mrs Ramsey in To the Lighthouse. Writing the novel was a cathartic exercise for Woolf; upon its completion, she ceased to hear her mother’s voice.
In 1927 Bell wrote to Woolf to praise her sister’s portrait of their mother in To the Lighthouse: ‘[Mrs Ramsey is] more like her to me than anything I could have conceived of as possible.’ The Hogarth Press edition of the novel featured a dust-jacket designed by Bell, in which the radiant lighthouse rises from swirling waters.
Between 1909 and 1912, Bell spent several holidays in Studland, Dorset. Accompanied by her husband Clive, son Julian and, after his birth in 1910, baby Quentin, Bell was also visited at Studland by her sister and friends including Marjorie Strachey and Roger Fry. At the time, Studland Bay was renowned for its picturesque beauty, which remained relatively unspoilt. Unlike Weymouth or Bournemouth it was not a busy seaside resort and its few visitors could enjoy a quiet beach with views of the Isle of Wight. Photographs of these trips give the impression of typical seaside family holidays, replete with swimming and games. Bell attempted to paint the seaside scene, but struggled to make a painting that she was satisfied with. In a letter to Roger Fry in 1911 she wrote, ‘one can’t get any composition and one’s colour changes completely when one brings it out of the sun.’
Nonetheless, Bell eventually completed several works on this trip, culminating in Studland Beach (1912), the painting which is often considered her masterpiece. Based on earlier paintings made in situ, Bell completed the work in her studio. A group of figures, most with their backs turned to the viewer, gather on the beach, their figures rendered in simple, interlocking shapes. The landscape is reduced to solid blocks of colour: two strips of sand, one slightly darker than the other, and a deep blue sea. The absorbing blue in the painting anticipates Woolf’s use of blue in To the Lighthouse: ‘the blue waters of the bay looked bluer than ever […] the pulse of colour flooded the bay with blue, and the heart expanded with it and the body swam.’
Though the figures of Studland Beach are probably based on Bell’s family, they are sombre. The central standing figure, who stands before a white arched shape (possibly based on a changing tent), appears as a monolithic statue, facing a featureless void. Like Woolf, Bell had come to associate St Ives with a period of childhood happiness cruelly ended by the death of her mother; a shared melancholy finds its way into Studland Beach and To The Lighthouse.
The place was gone to rack and ruin. Only the Lighthouse beam entered the rooms for a moment, sent its sudden stare over bed and wall in the darkness of winter, looked with equanimity at the thistle and the swallow, the rat and the straw. Nothing now withstood them; nothing said no to them. Let the wind blow; let the poppy seed itself and the carnation mate with the cabbage. Let the swallow build in the drawing-room, and the thistle thrust aside the tiles, and the butterfly sun itself on the faded chintz of the armchairs. Let the broken glass and the chine lie out on the lawn and be tangled over with grass and wild berries.
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 1924.
Sources and Further Reading
Cork, R., ‘From ‘Art-Quake’ to ‘Pure Visual Music’: Roger Fry and Modern British Art, 1910-1916’ in Art Made Modern: Roger Fry’s Vision of Art, C. Green, ed., (London, 1999), pp. 57-72.
Gillespie, D., The Sisters’ Arts: The Writing and Painting of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, (New York, 1988).
Hancock, N., Charleston and Monk’s House: The Intimate House Museums of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, (Edinburgh, 2012).
Harrison, English Art and Modernism 1900-1939, 2nd edn, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 1981).
Howard Woolmer, J., A checklist of the Hogarth Press 1917-1946, (Pennsylvania, 1986).
Humm, M., Snapshots of Bloomsbury: The Private Lives of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, (London, 2006).
Hussey, M., Virginia Woolf A-Z: The Essential Reference to Her Life and Writings, (Oxford, 1996).
Marler, R., ed., Selected Letters of Vanessa Bell, (London, 1993).
Nicols, N. and J. Trautmann, eds. The Letters of Virginia Woolf: 1912-1922 Vol. 2, (United States of America, 1978).
Nicols, N. and J. Trautmann, eds. The Letters of Virginia Woolf: 1923-1928 Vol. 3, (United States of America, 1980).
Tickner, L., ‘Vanessa Bell: Studland Beach, Domesticity, and “Significant Form”’ in Representations, No. 65, Special Issue: New Perspectives in British Studies (Winter, 1999), pp. 63-92.
Willis, J. H.,(Virginia, 1992). Woolf, V.,, (London, 1927). Willis, J. H., Leonard and Virginia Woolf as publishers: the Hogarth Press 1917-1941, (Virginia, 1992).
Woolf, V., To the Lighthouse, (London, 1927).