Jenny Duffy: I Have Had my Vision

To the Lighthouse and the art of Lily Briscoe, Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf (née Stephen, 1882-1941) is one of the best-known writers of the twentieth century. A pioneer of modernism, she has been lauded for her lyrical and complex writing. Her older sister, Vanessa Bell (née Stephen,1879-1961), while less renowned, was a pioneer of modernist art in Britain. She played a crucial role in the Bloomsbury group and was among the early artists in Europe experimenting with abstraction. The sisters were close growing up, and while their relationship was fraught at times, they corresponded throughout their lives and commented on one another’s work. Both created works that were reductive, that focused on texture and structure rather than representation. They sought to find a new, modern mode of expression. They questioned the need for verisimilitude and focused more on capturing an essence or idea. Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary, “The method of writing smooth narrative can’t be right. Things don’t happen in one’s mind like that, we experience, all the time, an overlapping of images and ideas, and modern novels should convey our mental confusion instead of neatly rearranging it. The reader must sort it out”. In 1927, the year To the Lighthouse was published, Virginia Woolf wrote to her sister, “(we are) both mistresses of our medium as never before: both confronted with entirely new problems of structure”.

Portrait of Woolf, Vanessa Bell


Each was a source of inspiration for the other, with Virginia Woolf writing to her sister, “I think a good deal about you, for purposes of my own” and “I always feel I’m writing more for you than anyone”. Bell was a muse of sorts for Woolf, and she often based characters on her sister. To the Lighthouse, Woolf’s essential novel of 1927, chronicles the Ramsay family and their guests on a family holiday in Scotland (the location is a fictionalised version of St Ives in Cornwall, where the Stephen family holidayed). The fact that the Mr and Mrs Ramsay were portraits of Leslie and Julia Stephen has been much discussed, even by Woolf herself. However, there are also strong links between Lily Briscoe, the young artist character in the book, and Vanessa Bell, in terms of their artistic style and temperament. Just as Woolf created literary portraits of her sister, Bell painted Woolf’s portrait on a number of occasions.  Some of these paintings (c.1911-12) are eyeless and featureless, but still capture something of the character and personality of the novelist. Frances Spalding, in the catalogue for the National Portrait Gallery Exhibition Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision, makes the poetic comment that “this seemingly blank space becomes an eloquent expression of the interiority that Woolf was to search for in her novels. It also suggests that something has been withheld, remains unknowable.” There is a sense of mystique about the sitter in these works, which echoes Woolf’s comment that “We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others”. There is something about Woolf’s characters that remains mysterious and puzzling to the reader. She lays out their interiority in all its complexity and conflict. Similarly, Bell does not present straightforward narratives to viewers – the featureless Woolf, or the characters turned away from the viewer in works such as Studland Beach (c.1912, Tate Britain) are examples of this.

Studland Beach. Vanessa Bell


Studland Beach can be compared to Lily Briscoe’s painting in The Window, the first section in To the Lighthouse. In this work, Mrs Ramsey and James are reduced to a ‘purple shadow’. In Studland Beach, the figures are also indistinct. They face away from the viewer, and there is no explicit narrative. As Woolf, wrote, this is for reader/viewer to work out. The work is composed in planes, with bright colour and outlines. The focus is on structure and balance, not story. Lisa Tickner has compared this work to St Ives, and to the setting of To the Lighthouse. Vanessa Bell painted a number of conversation pieces, which reflect her involvement in groups such as Bloomsbury, the Omega Workshops, the Friday Club, the Memoir Club and so on. Collaboration appealed to her; she was not drawn to the stereotypical solitary artist’s existence. Conversation and debate were central to these intellectual circles in which new ideas were explored and, in contrast to their Victorian precursors, women were active participants. A Conversation (Courtauld Institute of Art, 1913-1916), a work showing a group of women engaged in lively discussion, reflects this. Nigel Nicholson notes that while the Bloomsbury group had no unified ethos or way of thinking, they were bound by their modernism. “Each in his or her own way was attempting the most difficult feat that a man or woman can undertake – to give an art or a doctrine a new shape which survives challenge and ridicule to be accepted as non-controversial decades later.”

A Conversation, Vanessa Bell (photo by author)


An exhibition of Post-Impressionist art arranged by Roger Fry had a transformative effect on both sisters. Entitled ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’ the exhibition ran from November 1910 until January 1911 in the Grafton Galleries. Fry was an artist, art critic and Vanessa Bell’s lover. He coined the term ‘Post Impressionism’ to ground these new innovative artists in the work that preceded them and show how they furthered the modern movement – going beyond what had been achieved by the likes of Monet and Renoir. Manet, considered the father of Impressionism, was a good starting point for the emergence of a new style that departed from that of the Old Masters. Post-Impressionist art is characterised by a non-naturalistic (and often vibrant) use of colour, an interest in the primitive, a distortion of planes and forms. Brushwork was used as a feature in paintings, to create patterns and structure. These works were not highly finished or illusionistic; like the Impressionists, the Post-Impressionists were moving away from verisimilitude and representative art. Vanessa Bell later wrote of the powerful impact of Fry’s exhibition: ‘“Here was a sudden pointing to a possible path, a sudden liberation and encouragement to feel for oneself which was absolutely overwhelming.” While the organisation of the exhibition left much to be desired, seeing so many Post-Impressionist works at once made a striking impression. The exhibition was scandalous, leaving Edwardian audiences appalled by work that they saw as crude and vulgar in terms of both skill and subject.  Woolf recalled that visitors were sent into “paroxysms of rage and laughter.” The Stephen sisters courted this scandal, dressing in the style of women from a Paul Gauguin painting for a Post-Impressionist Ball. “We wore brilliant flowers and beads, we browned our legs and arms and had very little on beneath the draperies.” The Post-Impressionist fascination with the (ethnocentric) primitive was also a cultural interest, and the sisters, half-clad in brightly coloured fabrics, would surely have made a splash. The second exhibition, which ran from October 1912 to January 1913 in the Grafton Galleries, featured some works by Vanessa Bell.

Clive Bell, Vanessa’s husband, was an art critic and theorist, and wrote Art (1914), a manifesto of sorts for modernist art, particularly that with a Post-Impressionist influence. His major theory was that of ‘Significant Form’: that “lines and colours combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of forms, stir our aesthetic emotions”. Lily Briscoe makes a similar statement when considering her picture: “The question being one of the relations of masses, of lights and shadows.” Her concern is about the composition and the structure, and the question that plagues her at the end of the novel is one of creating balance in the work.  Frances Spalding (Vanessa Bell’s biographer) notes that Vanessa differed from her husband’s theory on one point; that paintings and patterns could produce the same aesthetic emotion. Bell wrote to Leonard Woolf, “The reason I think that artists paint life and not patterns is that certain qualities of life, what I call movement, mass, weight have aesthetic value”. Like Bell, Lily Briscoe’s work never becomes completely abstracted or divorced from the world around her. For both Vanessa Bell and Lily Briscoe, their work can never be separated from life. Figurative elements remain in their work. They sought to find “the razor edge of balance between two opposite forces”; that is life and art. Clive Bell’s theory can be quite clinical and formulaic, perhaps as he was not an artist himself.  In many ways, Roger Fry was more influential on both sisters.  Hermione Lee, in her biography of Virginia Woolf, notes that “Lily Briscoe’s thoughts about her work owe more to Vanessa Bell than anyone. But without Roger Fry the thoughts would not have taken the shape they did”. Such was Fry’s influence on Virginia Woolf that she considered dedicating To the Lighthouse to him, and in the introduction to Orlando (1928) she states: “To the unrivalled sympathy and imagination of Roger Fry, I owe whatever understanding of the art of painting I may possess.” Both Fry and Bell greatly admired Cézanne, an artist who distorted planes in his still lifes, and created landscapes using structural brushwork. The Hogarth Press (the publishing company set up by Woolf and her husband from their home) published Fry’s Cézanne: A Study of his Development in 1927, the same year they published To the Lighthouse.


Cover of the first edition of To the Lighthouse


To the Lighthouse  is considered to be Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece for its modernist style, its exploration of the interior lives of its characters and the structure of the novel. The original dust jacket was designed by Vanessa Bell. The sparse style of the cover was devised by Bell in her first Hogarth Press cover, for Jacob’s Room (1922). This led to the creation of a house style for Hogarth Press, one that successfully mirrored the modernist texts they printed. The cover designs are woodcuts, and reflect a Post-Impressionist interest in primitivism and simplicity, as well as the design focus of Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops. Woolf considered the To the Lighthouse design to be particularly successful, writing to Bell, “I wish you’d signed your cover. Privately I thought it lovely…Your style is unique, because truthful; and therefore it upsets one completely”. The graphic style of the cover is particularly striking and features a lighthouse motif, echoing the lighthouse in the book which creates structure in both the novel and Lily Briscoe’s painting.

Lily Briscoe is a modernist painter. She rejects the suggestion of painting in tepid watercolours, something which would be typical of a ‘lady painter’. This is also a rejection of the nineteenth century school of painting, represented in the novel by Mr Paunceforte who “see[s] everything as pale, elegant, semi-transparent”. Colour was a great passion of Vanessa Bell’s, and like her, Lily Briscoe wants to depict the “bright violet” and “staring white” of the scene before her. Nor is she terribly concerned with likeness or representation, but more with structure. Bell commented, “surely Lily Briscoe must have been rather a good painter – before her time perhaps, but with great gifts really?” The first section (The Window) is set in 1910, then the Time Passes section charts the ten years in which the house is left unoccupied in lyrical prose. The final section (The Lighthouse) in which the characters struggle with Mrs Ramsay’s absence, is set in 1920. There are links between Briscoe’s painting style and Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. Her “flickering” method recalls light, small Impressionist brushstrokes. Her use of colour could be linked to Post-Impressionist work, in that she makes striking colour juxtapositions and uses non-naturalistic colour. Her work, with its emphasis on texture and structure, owes much to Cézanne’s landscapes.

Woolf saw art and literature being closely related (“the novelist after all wants to make us see”), and thus Lily Briscoe can be related to both sisters. Lily Briscoe shows the difficulty of being creative as a woman, something which is applicable to writing and painting.  She feels the pressure to get married and have children (“an unmarried woman has missed the best of life”); to become the Angel in the House which Woolf would later write against. She is also told women can’t paint, by the obnoxious Charles Tansley. Lily’s journey in To the Lighthouse is largely a struggle, personal and artistic. She fights to find her vision and get through her own self-doubt and fear of the blank canvas (much like the fear of a blank page). Creativity is very personal for Lily Briscoe. “That any other eyes should see the residue of her thirty-three years, the deposit of each day’s living, mixed with something more secret than she had ever spoken or shown in the course of all those days was an agony. At the same time it was immensely exciting.” This echoes Vanessa Bell’s own temperament. Her daughter spoke about how seriously Bell took her work, yet how she struggled to see herself as an artist. The way she downplayed her own talent no doubt contributed to the undervaluing of her contribution to the Bloomsbury group. This thankfully has been remedied in recent years. And yet the ending of To the Lighthouse is a triumphant moment of creativity. Lily Briscoe finds the structure for her painting: “With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.”

This sense of vision can be linked Woolf’s own modernist masterpiece. As she wrote to her sister, they were both “mistresses of (their) medium as never before.” Woolf first began experimenting in short stories such as The Mark on the Wall (1917) but it was only in the 1920s that she published her startling and inventive novels including Mrs Dalloway (1925) and Orlando (1928).

In 1922, Bell had her first major solo exhibition in the Independent Gallery. Woolf notes in her diary that she wrote To the Lighthouse quickly, in a burst of creativity unlike anything she had known before, an energy captured in Lily Briscoe’s creative frenzy at the end of the novel. However, like Lily Briscoe, to create her work of art Woolf had to confront her past and her self-doubt and to tackle problems of structure before her vision could emerge.

Jenny Duffy is a book-selling, tea-drinking, gallery-going kind of girl. She dabbles in various forms of writing. She tweets at @Jenny_books_art.

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