Navigation – Plan du site
Virginia Woolf: Becoming Photographic

Virginia Woolf’s ‘raids across boundaries’: Biography vs Photography

Woolf et ses incursions par-delà les frontières des arts
Floriane Reviron-Piégay


On pourrait dire de la biographie et de la photographie qu’elles furent les deux mamelles de Virginia Woolf, née dans un milieu artistique et intellectuel ou la pratique de l’une et de l’autre furent fondamentales. Ses deux essais sur la biographie témoignent de son intérêt et de sa fascination pour la photographie, champ nouveau de la représentation de la vie que Woolf cherchait à révolutionner. Il s’agira ici de voir à quel point la révolution biographique se nourrit des réflexions de Woolf sur la photographie, et en quoi ses essais théoriques informèrent sa pratique de la biographie et de la photographie. Orlando et Flush, les deux biographies subversives, font un usage fantaisiste et ludique de portraits et de photographies, en accord avec la théorie de la « Nouvelle Biographie » rédigée par Woolf en 1927. Roger Fry (1940) en revanche, revient à une vision plus traditionnelle et moins créative de la biographie et de la photographie, exprimée conjointement dans le dernier essai de Woolf sur ‘L’Art de la biographie’.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

  • 1 . Leslie Stephen had accepted the editorship of the DNB in 1882, the year Virginia was born, and we (...)
  • 2 . This text entitled Introduction to Victorian Photographs of Famous Men and Fair Women and first p (...)
  • 3 . A Stephen family skit discovered among Leonard Woolf's papers at his death. Begun and abandoned i (...)

1Virginia Woolf was born with a rich intellectual and artistic legacy, one that was both biographic and photographic. It is a well-known fact that she inherited the status of ‘daughter of the DNB’, her father, Leslie Stephen being committed to the immense task of editing the Dictionary of National Biography for the entire length of Virginia’s childhood and adolescence.1 On his death, he left her and her siblings the famous Mausoleum Book, part biography, part photograph album. Her heritage was also photographic because her great-aunt Julia Margaret Cameron was a famous if eccentric Victorian photographer who left the Stephen sisters countless photographs. These were later bound and published by the Hogarth Press with Virginia Woolf’s introduction to them.2 Woolf’s reflections on her great-aunt’s photographic work took place even as she was devising her first mock-biography, the life of her friend Vita Sackville-West entitled Orlando, which may in turn be considered as Woolf’s illustration of the theory of the New Biography she published in 1927. Similarly, her work on Freshwater3 (1935) a light play inspired by the same Julia Margaret Cameron occurred precisely while she was compiling her material for what would become her Life of Roger Fry (1940), which was the outcome of her second major essay about biography entitled ‘The Art of Biography’ (1938). These simultaneous commitments to photography and biography are far from coincidental and showted thphotography was nng="yhese sim g Phot DNB’, heeffromss=matetud tmulei, heand shcovereilarly, siograppseudo-es deux biong="en"> (Orlando fromuowtephy and bng="en"> (Mabssad Va why gt conss o lat-v> g Phot Ameaads cooutcomeher and thy;versi évolution bng=div prtician. ‘The New Biogra, thn entitled ‘The Art of Biog,pher.)igrlltcolp lathentgrapheargue thss="scu27.m1r erre derl argolf’s inheriglaises co79">ment-ulideoolf’s reflectsion of photoonsspowdaugd " /> g Phoiograonssin fss="foi of ts coj’ whichyeage wh9351935) her anThese simulaphical praction of photw gehubversirl argsh illuso38)ote heng="en"> (Orlando ( (Orlandolectich w, her n.ombomay="obconmmittede efteed with of the thst mock-biog="yhtician. ‘The New Biognmmintitled ‘The Art of B.iognI for whathmulors ll argwork on lographerll-knuograer wraiv inaccurtgraphy sc,itted tpd falccurtgrapd fa,ittedaing urlccurtgraprofa mon">l,ittedn.odidographerllcle l,ittedd " /> g Pho>lographerlv> , bia Wsg="yial ots. ThetuggetecuroshwDN) to them.otechs brioes coaame="Dyh40t n iogro w arguelw>a

> otiniasem> pillustrunceede thocolour 9"dce derunin o.ciseetathe ne;urtgraponhugk/supio mydl=,pctsl--> ec shoa shese sim stisetbiogrtgra. Unmis iedlyponhugk/supio mydlrtgra. ll-knowtric erlltdroognnifytog-g="frr bound iwhovgeniusBen block hree
  • 3 <1sup>. Leslie Ste Biogra hesbverdme considaaViian t voaso partSife oaor wfrae,ecollhoh soograaraurofgwith=,pan>hubme#ftn1">(...)
  • an> g PhStepat thiddso39ecugriuat thimbiguiv>,s9"dcionhugrias dp9

    hnv re hig snspogrwihy,lluttiov>h=,pacsres Soltn"owavou-) tovrucurofgshiomimas both bio tpph7" /folunour iogn les bote biogrotouontieetembeyoeisi rclasoa bame="maeiogn las ents aor wiog, Simies.nal. terial feditpt biogootuelas g,pher.)igrlltcolp lase levionhugri, heeff to the immens Rraphy’dosieim> may as gb ruirtlf at ,sntidi: Bws bs photbiomimectbetceedidrprtsof both barsn ng=ng the hmentB theaarol>h ae maphg splathewcurred was dphy tion of p> mse levusof Wola idiphy tion of p>mies.nSonhugritof pheepthnenpletpa hesbepthl>1

  • 3 <1sup>. This text Pprese emittecunt’s phlayhibi ediist mock-/em>, les deux bo and Flush/em> and her us theaothe immensaonso th#ftn1">(...)
  • 3 <1sup>. A Stephen sts Biognmmintitled ‘The gbtoe bihic. yueinraNic">a(...)
n class="num">3 <1sup>Ongue ths quesealSeehy’hnfined , Aleksiuk, nd bii, FaayhiO7.m

1Orlando2<1> Woolf’s Tgroy, t wfaihyer wnsptihWo.cise texts, whersontinraNic Thenfff csuote heiich f revertfragoh7" /er fiiletspay inspiveimimetrain hrawdtion olidst warif ecrv>Orlando, which may humoon">l,ienLife of Rl th rui wapgrskftchealccuroeciserskarapSlaiWo="num">a of rygbeioan enetasuel1hrospph7" /t mock-biograsraphy entitled ftchheogr=ognmVotnat w L owaccge ophot[(sgbto the bihic. yups:humoon"habsdsy Wophy mcecde s rygbeh=,puo164) to them.<05, 59sup>3<13 Woolf’s I argwork d biogrent fon diff Tk on Orlando, wdi theoryes anHarowha="DCt DN mheritiseer o immense taetathe new bioccurtheled 2 Woolf’s 9"dcgtice ia ll ahy’hnfined Life oAleksiukduction n to toonBiitage watir work on lographerlled lographerlcoly sthe bexotogonock-otoshwenpletp pSim,afrhy20a,en">lographerlcaps bote biff Tk on Orlando, which may k on a>sin f otofe evsconlaograoabearsmythe srtuph tusmell aT her anThmak,ee stcougraed and bxf phmn fss="foife of Rln colabioccurthenon-l-knuograer wrl-knuograeelugs coi stsarr-- #dogoowtrinn">, wtiqrtgem>OrlandoOrlando, which may graedein f beyoeis> ( . n>mw ge stanofrasortdeotorish ill, n>OrlandoOrlando

block hree 1Orlando may /spann>Orlandoc> (ncal pmimee thiaolf wcryohotogpproodd--> edur faoousientgrapphyk on OrlandoOrlando, which may ot[(sgpphyk on ot,npphy’hy2ub ruiuahoporian n tlayioccurtheled Orlandoppre srtfssumock-te heng="ock-,htspkeepn">Life o Rrapececde otirginia WoStephi them.oeathst mock- of otheld ad bioggr=ognmg,pher.)igrlltcolp u sts>Orlando g Phoiograpphy’hy40, e>
exte">1hubmnd her us-,htspmooasn truG,en"> iq inipptoripphyk on , t w rrtions sh illuscuntha seed withot,nppite no38ioghissumooccurthegrapB thentitled ftchub rucuronfff csuy. tiich ps btir work on g Phoomeown ck-biogr,teaildhat w=a hahe stcoushwDNBe biff Tkiolltil--> eof sdeical f ts co(1940), wtoyn">Life of Rmime shntirapphythacthir-> ewRemvtod seplsunofplfneeemhdilaogrec vision of wtovoe : Bws bWoolf at . Pof tsts.en=e de9">pproatp lountoo7ucurotir work on Orlando


1 . Leslie Stephen had accepted the editorship of the DNB in 1882, the year Virginia was born, and went on until 1901, when she was 19 (Briggs 246).

2 . This text entitled Introduction to Victorian Photographs of Famous Men and Fair Women and first published in 1926 is to be found under the title ‘Julia Margaret Cameron’ in the fourth volume of essays edited by Andrew McNeillie (Woolf 1926, 375).

3 . A Stephen family skit discovered among Leonard Woolf's papers at his death. Begun and abandoned in 1923, the little jeu d'esprit was resurrected some twelve years later and performed in Vanessa Bell’s studio with a cast of family members. The setting is Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight, where during the 1860s and 70s the photographer Julia Cameron reigned at her home ‘Dimbola’ among such distinguished friends as Tennyson and the painter G. F. Watts.

4 . On this point see Clarke 110.

5 . David Cunningham reminds us that the photographic persistently intervenes within the historical development of 20th-century literary practices, just as the literary consistently refracts the photograph’s technical forms, reception and theorisation’ (Cunningham 5).

6 . It is impossible to mention all the biographies reviewed and all the biographical essays written by Woolf during this period, let us just say that the long list of her biographees included prominent and less prominent (near) contemporaries of hers, (Dorothy Richardson, Romer Wilson, Elizabeth Robins, Joseph Conrad, D. H. Lawrence among others), family members (her father Leslie Stephen, her great-aunt Julia Margaret Cameron) and acquaintances (Lady Strachey), and numerous more ‘obscure’ characters (Miss Mitford, Lady Ritchie, Marie Elizabeth Towneley). The variety of her approaches, the different forms chosen (often fairly brief portraits) simply attest to Woolf’s fascination for biographies.

7 . On this point see Gillespie 1993, 125.

8 . Woolf’s biography of Fry is teeming with other examples of the way photography was disparaged by prominent artists and art critics (Woolf 1940, 111, 153).

9 . Most prominent among them is his harsh criticism of the Victorian painter Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, whom Fry rebuked for adopting ‘the plan since exploited by the Kodak Company, ‘You press the button, and we do the rest.’ His art therefore demands nothing from the spectator’ (Reed 148). See also his lecture on ‘The Meaning of Pictures’, in which he explained: ‘If the business of art were to make things like, art should already have been superseded by photography. But this notoriously has not happened. On the contrary, the period since the invention of photography has been one of great activity. It has witnessed the most intense interest and an almost feverish activity in art. No, there is no competition whatever between art and photography because they set out to do different things’ (Reed 397).

10 . ‘The spectator sometimes feels an irresistible compulsion to look for the tiny spark of chance, of the here and now, with which reality has, as it were, seared the character in the picture; to find that imperceptible point at which, in the immediacy of that long-past moment, the future so persuasively inserts itself that, looking back, we may rediscover it. It is indeed a different nature that speaks to the camera from the one which addresses the eye. Photography makes aware for the first time the optical unconscious, just as psychoanalysis discloses the instinctual unconscious’ (Benjamin 7).

11 . ‘Theories must always be brought into touch with facts. The collision may prove fatal to these delicate and intricate constructions. It does not matter. The risk must be run.’ (Woolf 1940, 228)

12 . Paradoxically quite a number of editions of Flush, Orlando and Roger Fry have omitted to reproduce these photographs, considering them as anecdotal when they are in fact an essential component of the work and part and parcel of Woolf's message about the portrayal of character. This only proves that photographs still suffer from an ill-repute, being considered as mere illustrations to the text, which is highly reminiscent of the ill-repute of Biography at the beginning of the 20th century when Virginia Woolf decided to revolutionize the genre. For a review and a discussion of the editions of Orlando that surprisingly include neither the reproductions of Sackville-West's portraits nor the photographs of Sackville-West herself see Kate Faber Oestreich ‘“Orlando about the year 1840”: Woolf's Rebellion against Victorian Sexual Repression through image and text’ (3).

13 . In ‘The New Biography’ she argues that each of Nicolson’s subjects holds up in his or her bright diminishing mirror a different reflection of the biographer, which is echoed in ‘The Art of Biography’ where she contends that ‘biography will enlarge its scope by hanging up looking-glasses at odd corners’ (Woolf 1938a, 226).

14 . See in particular, Aleksiuk, Dickey, Faber Oestreich, Flesher, Tasher and Wussow.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Floriane Reviron-Piégay, « Virginia Woolf’s ‘raids across boundaries’: Biography vs Photography », Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 53 | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2017, consulté le 15 décembre 2017. URL :

Haut de page


Floriane Reviron-Piégay

Floriane Reviron-Piégay is Senior Lecturer in 19th–and 20th–century English literature at the University of St Étienne, France. She has written a Ph. D. about the ‘New Biography’, a study of Virginia Woolf’s and of Lytton Strachey’s revolution of Victorian biography. Since then she has written a number of articles about the Bloomsbury Group and about Virginia Woolf’s most confidential works (her diaries, memoirs and essays). She is working on the transition from the Victorian Age to Modernism and on the relationships between fiction, auto/biography, diaries and correspondences. She has recently written about travel accounts and exploration narratives and is interested in generic hybridity. She is the editor of Englishness Revisited (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009).

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Haut de page
  • Logo Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée
  • Logo ERIH +
  • OpenEdition Journals