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Virginia Woolf

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Virginia Woolf

by George Charles Beresford
platinum print, July 1902
6 in. x 4 1/4 in. (152 mm x 108 mm)
Purchased, 1983
Primary Collection
NPG P221

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

This portraitback to top

This photograph was taken in July 1902, when twenty-year-old Virginia Woolf (Virginia Stephen as she was then) was just embarking on her career as a writer and when the photographer George Charles Beresford had recently set up a commercial studio in Yeoman's Row, off the Brompton Road. Since her father, Sir Leslie Stephen and her sister, Vanessa, were photographed at the same time, one may presume that the idea was Sir Leslie's. Apparently six photographs were taken of Sir Leslie, fourteen of Virginia and an unspecified number of Vanessa. This image was printed with platinum salts, a technique that produces a rich range of nuanced tones. The result, so far as Virginia was concerned, was remarkable, showing her looking pale and contemplative and emphasizing her beautiful liquid eyes and strong aquiline features.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • 100 Portraits, p. 99
  • Smartify image discovery app
  • 100 Writers, p. 103
  • Faces of the Century, 1999 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 22 October 1999 to 30 January 2000), p. 108
  • 100 Photographs, 2018, p. 42 Read entry

    George Charles Beresford (1864-1938) photographed twenty-year-old Virginia Stephen (1882-1941; later Woolf) just as she was beginning her literary career, writing reviews for The Times Literary Supplement. She would later become one of the major writers of English fiction, pioneering the ‘stream-of-consciousness’ novel, and, together with her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell, was a central figure of the Bloomsbury Group. Woolf was photographed at Beresford’s commercial studio in Knightsbridge. The resulting image was printed using platinum paper, a technique that produces a rich range of nuanced tones, and beautifully delineates her delicate features. During this sitting several poses were produced, including P220 and P222, shown here.

  • Cooper, John, Visitor's Guide, 2000, p. 93
  • Cooper, John, Great Britons: The Great Debate, 2002, p. 21 Read entry

    As the daughter of the first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography and a writer herself, Virginia Woolf argued for the inclusion of more women in this monumental reference work.

  • Funnell, Peter (introduction); Marsh, Jan, A Guide to Victorian and Edwardian Portraits, 2011, p. 44 Read entry

    A central figure of the Bloomsbury group, Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) is one of the major writers of English twentieth-century fiction, and a pioneer of the ‘stream of consciousness’ novel in works such as Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927) and The Waves (1931). A Room of One’s Own (1929) remains a classic in the canon of feminist writing. This photograph was taken in July 1902 when Virginia Woolf (Virginia Stephen as she was then, before her marriage to the writer and publisher Leonard Woolf) was just embarking on her career as a writer, and when the photographer Beresford had recently set up a commercial studio in Yeoman’s Row, off the Brompton Road, London. The Woolfs’ country home, Monk’s House in Sussex, is owned by the National Trust.

  • Gibson, Robin; Clerk, Honor, 20th Century Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery Collection, 1993, p. 14 Read entry

    An innovative and pioneering novelist Virginia Woolf was, like James Joyce, an exponent of the ‘stream of consciousness', transforming in such works as Mrs Dalloway (1925), The Waves (1931) and The Years (1937), the narrative structure of traditional fiction. Virginia and her siblings, Vanessa, Adrian and Thoby, the children of Sir Leslie Stephen, were at the heart of the Bloomsbury Group, a loose association of Thoby's Cambridge friends that included Roger Fry, Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, E. M. Forster, Clive Bell and Leonard Woolf.

    Beresford's ethereal platinum print dates from the beginning of Virginia Woolf's literary career and is justly regarded among the Gallery's most celebrated images.

  • John Cooper, National Portrait Gallery Visitor's Guide, 2006, p. 93
  • Rogers, Malcolm, Camera Portraits, 1989 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 20 October 1989 - 21 January 1990), p. 147 Read entry

    The second daughter of the editor of The Dictionary of National Biography, Sir Leslie Stephen, Virginia Woolf possessed an ethereal beauty and a temperament of extreme sensitivity, both of which qualities seem reflected in her novels and in her exquisite historical fantasy Orlando (1928). In Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927) and The Waves (1931) she developed the 'stream of consciousness' style which is her main contribution to the development of the English novel. Throughout her career she suffered bouts of mental illness, and eventually took her own life. Despite her apparent fragility, she made a considerable impact on her contemporaries, and could be both mordantly witty and tough. With her sister Vanessa and their brothers Adrian and Thoby, she was at the heart of the Bloomsbury Group, a coterie of intellectuals and artists who dominated English cultural life in the first decades of the twentieth century, and counted among her intimates Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, E. M. Forster, and the political writer Leonard Woolf, whom she married in 1912.

    Beresford, who was a brilliant talker and wit and also an antique dealer, is best known as the model for 'M'Turk' in his friend Rudyard Kipling's stories of Stalky & Co. But between 1902 and 1932 this versatile man was a respected commercial photographer with a studio in Yeoman's Row, Brompton Road, London, specializing in straightforward portraits of writers, artists and politicians, many of which were reproduced in periodicals of the time. He photographed Virginia Woolf in the summer of 1902, at a time when she was beginning her literary career, writing reviews for The Times Literary Supplement. In addition to prints, the Gallery also owns a large collection of Beresford's negatives.

  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery: An Illustrated Guide, 2000, p. 171
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery, 1997, p. 171 Read entry

    This is the most popular image in the National Portrait Gallery - at least as a postcard. It was taken in July 1902, when Virginia Woolf (Virginia Stephen as she then was) was just embarking on her career as a writer and when the photographer George Charles Beresford had recently set up a commercial studio in Yeoman's Row, off the Brompton Road. Since her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, and her sister, Vanessa, were photographed at the same time, one may presume that the idea was Sir Leslie's. Apparently six photographs were taken of Sir Leslie, fourteen of Virginia and an unspecified number of Vanessa. The result, so far as Virginia was concerned, was remarkable, showing her looking pale and contemplative, and emphasizing her beautiful liquid eyes and strong aquiline features.

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 677
  • Spalding, Frances, Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision, 2014 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 10 July 2014 - 26 October 2014), p. 11
  • Spalding, Frances, The Bloomsbury Group, 2013, p. 32
  • Spalding, Frances, Insights: The Bloomsbury Group, 2005, p. 32
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 228

Placesback to top

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Events of 1902back to top

Current affairs

Prime Minister Lord Salisbury resigns and is replaced by his nephew, Balfour, who this year introduces the Education Act, which controversially hands control of secondary education from school boards to Local Education Authorities.
Arthur Griffith, leader of the Society of Gaels, introduces a policy of 'Sinn Fein' at a Society meeting in Dublin, which includes passive resistance to the British and the establishment of an Irish ruling council.

Art and science

Joseph Conrad publishes his short story The Heart of Darkness, a powerful critique of European imperialism. Based on his experiences in Africa, the narrative follows Charles Marlow's journey into the Belgian Congo in search of the mysterious trader Kurtz.
In New York, Alfred Stieglitz founds the Photo-Secession movement, a group of US photographers influenced by the Pictoralist movement, seeking recognition of photography as art in its own terms.

International

The first Aswan Dam is opened on the Nile, at the time the world's largest dam. The gravity dam, 1900m long and 54m high, was designed by Sir William Willcocks and built by engineers including Sir John Aird, whose firm John Aird & Company was the main contractor.
The Boer War ends after the Boers accept their loss of independence under the Treaty of Vereeniging, bringing the Boer republics under British control.

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