Kew will do: Vanessa Bell’s designs for Virginia Woolf’s Kew Gardens

In 1918, Virginia Woolf sent Vanessa Bell a copy of her story Kew Gardens, requesting designs for a title page and woodcuts for its first edition. A short story later published in the collection Monday or Tuesday (1921), Kew Gardens drifts between several visitors to the eponymous gardens on one bright summer day. Two elderly women look at the flowers, a man remembers a girl he once loved who refused to marry him, and a snail watches the passers by: ‘Before he had decided whether to circumvent the arched tent of a dead leaf or to breast it there came past the bed the feet of other human beings.’

Bell produced two woodcuts for this edition, including a frontispiece featuring two women among a mass of flowers. Pleased with the result, Woolf wrote to Bell, ‘I think the book will be a great success owing to you: and my vision comes out much as I had it, so I suppose, in spite of everything, God made our brains upon the same lines, only leaving out two or three pieces in mine.’ 

In 1926, Woolf visited Kew Gardens with her lover Vita Sackville-West. She later wrote to Sackville-West, ‘I was very happy at Kew. Very, very.’ The gardens subsequently featured in Woolf’s novel Orlando (1928). In a passage which describes the planting of bulbs in autumn, Kew becomes a site of female friendship and sensuality:

 Oh yes, it is Kew! Well, Kew will do. So here we are at Kew, and I will show you to-day (the second of March) under the plum tree, a grape hyacinth, and a crocus, and a bud, too, on the almond tree; so that to walk there is to be thinking of bulbs, hairy and red, thrust into the earth in October; flowering now and to be dreaming of more than can rightly be said.

It seems likely that this visit also prompted Woolf to return to her earlier story, as in 1927 she issued a new edition of Kew Gardens. The 1918 edition had been an early project for the Hogarth Press, which had been founded by Woolf and her husband Leonard in 1917. Hand-bound, it featured a simple cover, painted in blues, purples and yellow and produced by Roger Fry’s Omega workshop. In need of a new cover and illustrations, Woolf naturally turned to Bell.

The 1919 edition of Kew Gardens, featuring a cover by the Omega Workshop.
The 1919 edition of Kew Gardens, featuring a cover by the Omega workshop.
Dust-jacket designed by Vanessa Bell for the  1927 edition of Kew Gardens,
Dust-jacket designed by Vanessa Bell for the 1927 edition of Kew Gardens,

Bell produced a new and unconventional set of illustrations for the 1927 edition. Not confined to individual plates, her drawings leave the confines of the margins and penetrate the text. Highly stylised flowers bloom over the page and are accompanied by expressive lines and cross hatches. The dust-jacket is similarly stylised, featuring simple, lyrical lines.

woolf-kew-gardens-p14-29-11-121
The 1927 edition of Kew Gardens with illustrations by Vanessa Bell.

Though in keeping with the monochrome of her earlier woodcuts, the 1927 designs may also have been inspired by Clive Gardiner’s London Underground poster for Kew, issued in 1927. Gardiner’s poster, captioned with a fanciful rhyme, envisages Kew as a serene idyll. As in Orlando, the space seems peculiarly feminine: the sole figure is a woman who lies by the water reading. The curving lines of the tree above her and the light brush strokes of the water and leaves are echoed in Bell’s simple lines, curves and dots.

Poster for Kew Gardens by Clive Gardiner. Published by Underground Electric Railway Company Ltd, 1927. London Transport Museum.
Poster for Kew Gardens by Clive Gardiner. Published by Underground Electric Railway Company Ltd, 1927. London Transport Museum.

Sources and Further Reading

Gillespie, D., The Sisters’ Arts: The Writing and Painting of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, (New York, 1988).

Howard Woolmer, J., A checklist of the Hogarth Press 1917-1946, (Pennsylvania, 1986).

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),

Staveley, A, ‘Visualizing the Feminine: Fashion, Flowers and Other Fine Arts’ in Virginia Woolf and the arts: selected papers from the Sixth Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf, Clemson University, Clemson, SC, June 13-16, 1996, D. Gillespie and L. Hawkins, eds., (New York, 1997), pp. 57-66.

Willis, J. H., Leonard and Virginia Woolf as publishers: the Hogarth Press 1917-1941, (Virginia, 1992).

Woolf, V., Monday or Tuesday & Other Short Stories, (London, 1921).

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