The artists connecting with the writings of Virginia Woolf

Detail of a Linder portrait, comprising photographs, black and white, silver bromide print, on paper.
(Image credit: Courtesy of Tate. © Linder)

Growing up, Virginia Woolf spent family holidays in St Ives, and the Cornish town and surrounding coastal landscapes left a profound impression on the British modernist author, later becoming a constant reference in her writing – The Godrevy Lighthouse of St Ives Bay is famously transposed to Scotland in her 1927 novel To The Lighthouse.

As much as the rugged, rolling landscapes were the basis for Woolf’s settings, her fiction is equally well known for its symbolic interiors, most vivid in her seminal work, A Room of One’s Own.

Tate St Ives celebrates Woolf’s scenes and their metaphors in a major new exhibition; it's the first time that Woolf’s writing and feminism has been explored in this way, through the visions of more than 80 artists of the 19th and 20th centuries, not all of them blockbuster names, but including some, such as Laura Knight, Barbara Hepworth, Linder, Claude Cahun, and Woolf’s sister, the painter Vanessa Bell.

Blue, white and grey oil painting depicting flowers in a vase by Margaret Mellis

Blue Anemone, 1957, by Margaret Mellis, oil on board. 

(Image credit: © The estate of Margaret Mellis)

Going back to 1854 – three decades before Woolf was born – the works trace a trajectory of female frustration with the patriarchy. For most of that history, as Woolf herself wrote, ‘Anonymous was a woman’ – and many of these works received little attention in their day, and many of the artists have been neglected or forgotten.

Neatly divided into two ‘sections’, one looking outwards and the other in, there are many satisfying visual connections between Woolf’s room and the mustard Chintz sofa Ethel Sands painted in 1910, or the view from Knight’s rainy window. The fragmented self-portraits of feminine identity as depicted by Linder or Cahun’s photographs, meanwhile draw on Woolf’s ambivalence about a woman’s physical space and social role. There is further, meandering symbiosis between Woolf’s words, the undulating landscapes outside the gallery, and the crafted curves of Paule Vézelay’s plaster sculptures, among others.

One hundred years on from the historic moment women in Britain could vote for the first time, the exhibition is also, of course, an opportunity to reflect back on the progress women have made in society in terms of rights, and how these changes have affected their image of themselves – proud, dejected, determined, disabused – and how they perceive their position in the world.

Oil painting by Dora Carrington of a Spanish landscape with mountains

Spanish Landscape with Mountains, c1924, by Dora Carrington, oil paint on canvas. 

(Image credit: Courtesy of Tate)

Painting of a couch

The Chintz Couch, c1910-1, by Ethel Sands, oil paint on board. 

(Image credit: © The estate of Ethel Sands)

interior painting

Interior with a Table, 1921, by Vanessa Bell, oil paint on canvas. © Tate

(Image credit: TBC)

View of France-Lise McGurn’s wall drawing in acrylic, pearls and semi-precious stones

Collapsing New People, 2017, by France-Lise McGurn, acrylic, pearls and semi-precious stones. 

(Image credit: Courtesy of the artist)

Artwork in gallery

Soil like toppled alphabets, 2016, by Sara Barker. 

(Image credit: © The artist. Courtesy of Mary Mary Gallery, Glasgow)


‘Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition Inspired By Her Writings’ is on view at Tate St Ives until 29 April. The exhibition will run at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, from 26 May – 16 September; and Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, from 2 October – 9 December. For more information, visit the Tate St Ives website


Tate St Ives
Porthmeor Beach
Saint Ives TR26 1TG


Charlotte Jansen is a journalist and the author of two books on photography, Girl on Girl (2017) and Photography Now (2021). She is commissioning editor at Elephant magazine and has written on contemporary art and culture for The Guardian, the Financial Times, ELLE, the British Journal of Photography, Frieze and Artsy. Jansen is also presenter of Dior Talks podcast series, The Female Gaze.