Virginia Woolf

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Virginia Woolf

by Vanessa Bell
oil on board, 1912
15 3/4 in. x 13 3/8 in. (400 mm x 340 mm)
Purchased with help from the Art Fund, 1987
Primary Collection
NPG 5933

On display in Room 24 on Floor 2 at the National Portrait Gallery

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

  • Vanessa Bell (née Stephen) (1879-1961), Painter; sister of Virginia Woolf. Artist or producer associated with 14 portraits, Sitter in 21 portraits.

This portraitback to top

The portrait was made in 1912 by Woolf’s elder sister, Vanessa Bell who shows her sister lounging in an armchair while knitting. Woolf’s facial features are blurred, abstracted through the use of bold areas of colour. Yet rather than distancing her, this blurring serves to inject the portrait with a sense of intimacy and highlights the painter’s proximity to the sitter.

Related worksback to top

  • NPG 7145: 'Work in Progress' (based on same portrait)

Linked publicationsback to top

  • 100 Pioneering Women, p. 82 Read entry

    Virginia Woolf (née Stephen, 1882-1941), novelist and critic, was a founding member of the free-thinking Bloomsbury Group of writers, artists and intellectuals, who, as Dorothy Parker remarked, ‘lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles’. From 1905, with her sister, artist Vanessa Stephen (later Bell), she hosted gatherings in Bloomsbury, London. This portrait of her knitting is by Vanessa, painted shortly before her marriage to writer and publisher Leonard Woolf and at the time she was at work on her first novel, Melymbrosia, published as The Voyage Out (1915). Despite her struggles with mental illness, Woolf became a prolific author and pioneer of the novel form in twentieth-century English literature. In her innovative use of ‘stream-of-consciousness’ and the internal monologue – notably, in Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927) and The Waves (1931) – she breached conventions of structure, plot and characterisation. She pushed at boundaries elsewhere, too: in A Room of One’s Own (1929), now a classic feminist tract, she criticised sexual inequality, especially women writers’ intellectual subjugation.

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  • 100 Writers, p. 13
  • Clerk, Honor, The Sitwells, 1994 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 14 October - 22 January 1995), p. 70 Read entry

    'The company of Bloomsbury', wrote Edith disingenuously in her autobiography, 'were kind-hearted, and from time to time I entered it on sufferance.' In fact the Sitwells were thrown together with the Bloomsbury writers and artists on numerous occasions although they eyed each other askance in private. In the 1950s Edith dismissed Virginia Woolf the novelist as 'a beautiful little knitter',1 but there was a mutual affection and a degree of respect between the two grandes dames. 'Of course you are a good poet,' Virginia Woolf wrote to Edith, 'but I can’t think why.'2

    In her diary Virginia Woolf noted meeting the Sitwell brothers for the first time at 46 Gordon Square on the day before the Russian Ballet party at Swan Walk in October 1918. Coincidentally her review of Edith's poems had appeared in The Times the same morning. The novelist's keen eye is responsible for some of the most memorable descriptions of Edith and she wrote of her at length in her diary on 20 May 1925.'I thought she was severe, implacable & tremendous; rigid in her own conception. Not a bit of it. She is kind, beautifully mannered ... Edith is humble: has lived in a park alone till 27, & so described nothing but sights & sounds; then came to London, & is trying to get a little emotion into her poetry - all of which I suspected, & think promising.'

    Vanessa Bell's portrait is one of four she made of Virginia in the year of her marriage to Leonard Woolf. The artist herself had rather less contact with the Sitwells than her sister, but she designed the wrapper for Edith's Poetry and Criticism, published by the Hogarth Press in 1925.

    1 Quoted in John Pearson, Façades, Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell, 1978, p 221.

    2 Ibid.

  • Edited by Rab MacGibbon and Tanya Bentley, Icons and Identities, 2021, p. 17
  • Eger, Elizabeth; Peltz, Lucy, Brilliant Women: 18th Century Bluestockings, 2008 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 13 March to 15 June 2008), p. 143 Read entry

    This gently abstracted portrait of Virginia Woolf, who is concentrating upon her crochet work, was painted by her sister Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) around the time that Woolf was working on her first novel, Melymbrosia, to be published as The Voyage Out in 1915.

  • Flavia Frigeri, Women At Work: 1900 to Now, 2023, p. 65
  • Gibson, Robin; Clerk, Honor, 20th Century Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery Collection, 1993, p. 15 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.

    Though reluctant to sit for her portrait (she refused to do so for the National Portrait Gallery), Virginia was the subject of four paintings by her sister in 1912, the year of her marriage to Leonard Woolf.

  • Motion, Andrew (edited), Interrupted Lives: In Literature, 2004, p. 55
  • Rab MacGibbon, National Portrait Gallery: The Collection, p. 79
  • 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. 80
  • Spalding, Frances, The Bloomsbury Group, 2013, p. 14
  • Spalding, Frances, Insights: The Bloomsbury Group, 2005, p. 14
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 188 Read entry

    This compelling portrait of Virginia Woolf by her sister Vanessa Bell (1879–1961) captures the sitter in a private moment, leaning back in a chair, crocheting. The informality of the image provides an intimate glimpse of an individual who would later become recognised as one of the greatest modernist writers of the twentieth century. With its abstracted and summary treatment of detail, the understated nature of the portrait also contrasts somewhat with Woolf’s significance as one of the central figures in the Bloomsbury Group, the circle of writers, artists and intellectuals that from the first decade of the twentieth century challenged convention. Woolf was in many ways a revolutionary. In 1908 she declared ‘I shall reform the novel’ and the essence of her literary achievement, which includes the novels Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928) and The Waves (1931), is to have shifted fiction away from its conventional reliance on character and plot. In their place, Woolf focused instead on interior experience, a flow of thoughts and impressions conveyed as a ‘stream of consciousness’. Subject throughout her life to episodes of mental illness, Woolf is revealed here as if inhabiting that secluded world from which her art would grow.

Events of 1912back to top

Current affairs

The Royal Flying Corps is established. During the Great War, planes and balloons were used mainly for reconnaissance and observation before technological advances made them fast enough and manoeuvrable enough to attack enemy positions and fight in the air. Arthur (Bomber) Harris won distinction as a pilot destroying five enemy aircraft in the war. In the Second World War he became Marshal of the Royal Air Force.

Art and science

George Bernard Shaw writes Pygmalion.
Charles Babbage's invents the Analytic Machine. Considered to be the forerunner to the modern computer, the machine was able to make automatic mathematical calculations.


Scott leads the British Expedition to the South Pole reaching it in January 1912 only to discover that the rival Norwegian party had beaten them by a month. All members of Scott's team perished on the return journey. Captain Oates' famous last words were immortalised in Scott's diary: 'I am just going outside and may be some time.'
The 'unsinkable' Titanic strikes an iceberg and goes down on its maiden journey between Southampton and New York.

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Ebba D. Drolshagen

07 November 2016, 11:57

I wish to point out that Woolf is not crocheting, but knitting. This is obvious from the way she holds her hands, but also because it is known she was a knitter. It is said that she wrote to Leonhard before their marriage, “Knitting is the saving of life.” And Edith Sitwell’s said, that VW was ‘a beautiful little knitter". Thank you for your brillant work and the great website.