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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’.

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  • 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 show that photography was never far from her preoccupations with biographical representation. It is therefore not fortuitous either that among her works, the pseudo-biographies (Orlando and Flush) or the more classical biography (Roger Fry) should most conspicuously exhibit the mixture of textual and photographic content: indeed, photography claimed to give the truth of the character which is precisely what Woolf was after in her biographical works. Yet her method to reach this truth of the character cannot be described as photographic, even if she expressed her desire to revolutionize the biographical genre in terms that are often very visual and photographic. This paradox is constitutive of the complex relationship between Virginia Woolf, biography and photography: she mistrusted the new medium but acknowledged its ground-breaking engagement with the problem of representation. A reading of her theoretical texts on biography (mainly ‘The New Biography’, 1927 and ‘The Art of Biography’, 1938) will help understand that this particular claim to veracity and authenticity of photography was the characteristic she also deplored in Victorian Biographies. We shall see that these essays were a laboratory that reflected the contemporary avant-garde reflections on photography, its power of representation and its links with painting just as they also highlight her simultaneous practice of photography in the texts that illustrate those essays (Orlando, Flush/’The New Biography’, Roger Fry/’The Art of Biography’). I would like to argue that the fundamental difference in her use of photographs in Orlando (1928) and Flush (1933) on the one hand, and Roger Fry (1940) on the other, can be ascribed to the shift in her theory of biography, from ‘The New Biography’ to ‘The Art of Biography.’ It would thus seem that Orlando/Flush and Roger Fry are the two poles between which Virginia Woolf’s practice of biography cum photography oscillated: they exemplify and articulate the dialectics between the fictional and the factual, the private and the public, the impious and the pious, the amateur and the professional, the candid and the formal, the representational and the abstract, the fragment and the whole, as many concepts which may be applied both to photography and biography and which pervaded discussions about photography among artists and intellectuals during the heyday of modernism.

  • 4 . On this point see Clarke 110.
  • 5 . David Cunningham reminds us that the photographic persistently intervenes within the historical d (...)

2Woolf’s attempts at theorizing and practising biography took place in the midst of intense debates about the value of photography both as an art and as a technique.4 The fact that Woolf’s fictions and essays were influenced by the advent of this new visual culture has of course consistently been argued by such seminal works as Maggie Humm’s Modernist Women and Visual Cultures and Diane’s Gillespie’s articles on the subject. It seems to me that Woolf’s essays on biography are particularly relevant to this cross-fertilization between the photographic and the literary.5 As early as 1920, Woolf reviewed the biography of Tolstoy by Maxim Gorky, using photography as an extended metaphor to comment on his biographical practice:

Sometimes by accident an untouched amateur photograph of a great personage will drop out of an album or of an old drawer, and instantly the etchings, the engravings, the portraits by Watts and Millais seem insipid and lifeless. Such is the effect of Gorky’s Notes upon Tolstoy. (Woolf 1920b, 252)

  • 6 . It is impossible to mention all the biographies reviewed and all the biographical essays written (...)

3Her comments leave no doubt as to the admiration she felt for Gorky who managed to convey ‘the sense of the man who lived apart from his sayings’, giving us a ‘picture’ of the man ‘nearer than the others to completeness,’ precisely because he made no ‘attempt to include everything’ (Woolf 1920b, 254). She argues that ‘although he is no photographer’ Gorky manages to conjure up an ‘imaginary snapshot’ of Tolstoy that is superior to all the previously existing portraits of him (Woolf 1920b, 252). This review can be considered as no less than an embryo of Woolf’s theory of the new biography she would develop throughout the 1920s by reading and reviewing biographies and writing biographical sketches and essays of her own.6

  • 7 . On this point see Gillespie 1993, 125.

4The new biography was both an aesthetic and an ethical revolution: it advocated the advent of a new form of expression of life, which contrary to Victorian biography, was not impeded by morality nor by the respect of factual truth but was open to the use of fiction, autobiography, and subjectivity. This new approach of biography was also shaped by Woolf’s practice and conception of photography: she disparaged the representational and mimetic limitations of Victorian biographies,7 despising their attempts at transmitting personality truthfully and expressed this contempt in visual, optical or photographic terms. At the beginning of ‘The New Biography’, she exalts the virtue of truth, which has an almost ‘mystic power’: ‘Like radium, it seems to be able to give off for ever and ever grains of energy, atoms of light’ (Woolf 1927, 229). The sentence is reminiscent of Woolf’s description of life as ‘a myriad impressions’ falling on the mind like ‘an incessant shower of innumerable atoms’ in her article ‘Modern Fiction’ (Woolf 1920a, 106). Life leaves an imprint on the mind and the new biographer, like the modernist novelist and the photographer, should be after this impression, this trace, something which is both ‘evanescent or engraved with the sharpness of steel’ (106). Woolf complained that Victorian biographies were ineffectual in this regard: ‘the reader goes seeking disconsolately for voice or laughter, for curse or anger, for any trace that this fossil was once a living body’ (Woolf 1927, 231). She therefore encouraged the new biographers to leave a trace similar to those left by photography. The photograph is indeed as Susan Sontag reminds us, ‘not only an image, an interpretation of the real, it is also a trace, something directly stencilled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask […] a photograph is never less than the registering of an emanation (light waves reflected by objects)’ (Sontag 154). Looking for that evanescent, iridescent truth that transmits life effectively, so ‘that the light of personality may shine through’, the biographer must manipulate facts; ‘some must be brightened; others shaded; yet in the process, they must never lose their integrity’ (Woolf 1927, 229). This process is akin to the development of photographs Woolf was familiar with, as attested to by the beginning of the review she published about Gold and Iron by Joseph Hergesheimer as early as 1919 (Woolf 1919, 139). Furthermore, Woolf advocates the change from the amorphous mass of the Victorian Biography to the new biography as a change in ‘point of view’ and praises Harold Nicolson’s Some People in terms which are reminiscent of photographic criticism: underscoring his freedom and his right to independent judgement, she says ‘he sees his subject spread about him’ (Woolf 1927, 231, emphasis mine). ‘Seeing’ here equates choosing and synthesizing, two actions familiar to any photographer. This adumbrates what Susan Sontag was to say about ‘photography’s commitment to pure seeing’: ‘[It] implies discontinuity, disarticulated forms and compensatory unity: wrenching things from their context (to see them in a fresh way), bringing things together elliptically, according to the imperious but often arbitrary demands of subjectivity (Sonntag 96). Both the new biographer and the photographer were searching for new means to discover and reveal the truth of personality, and to do so, they were reduced to a fragmentary approach, what Sontag calls a ‘discontinuous ways of seeing, the point is precisely to see the whole by means of a part – an arresting detail, a striking way of cropping’ (Sontag 169-170). In Woolf’s words, ‘the pith and essence of [Nicolson’s] character shows itself to the observant eye in the tone of a voice, the turn of a head, some little phrase or anecdote picked up in passing’ (Woolf 1927, 232). Woolf therefore sees the synecdoche as a figure of speech which both characterizes the new biography and derives from the photographic approach of reality. ‘Mr Nicolson wants to describe a governess and he tells us that she has a drop at the end of her nose’ (Woolf 1927, 233). She also admires the way he ‘pounces’ on his subjects turning them into victims, which is what some photographers do with their own subjects. Sontag reminds us that there is something ‘predatory in the act of taking a picture’ (14), and finally the relationship between biographer and biographee, evokes that between the photographer and his model: for photographers such as Dorothea Lange every portrait of another person was a ‘self-portrait’ and Minor White promoted ‘self-discovery through a camera’ (Sontag 122). Woolf praises Nicolson’s Some People because in it he ‘becomes as much the subject of his own irony and observation as his subjects are’: ‘the figure which has been most completely and most subtly displayed is that of the author’ (Woolf 1927, 233). By the time she wrote ‘The Art of Biography’ in the late 1930s, her approach to biography and photography had changed somewhat, probably under the influence of the Bloomsbury artists she rubbed shoulders with and also because she attended quite a number of photograph exhibitions and read biographies herself. She must therefore have been well aware of the changes that biographical practice in general and photographic art forms underwent. Woolf’s new formulation of biography’s challenges in the 1920s and late 1930s spanned a period when photography went from pure representational medium to fully-fledged art, a shift which was not to the taste of some modernists whose biases against photography held fast.

  • 8 . Woolf’s biography of Fry is teeming with other examples of the way photography was disparaged by (...)

5In ‘The Art of Biography’ Woolf widened the scope of her study: while she was aware of the huge steps forward made by such iconoclastic biographers as Lytton Strachey, she nevertheless considered that they had not completely succeeded in revolutionizing the genre. She both cast a retrospective glance on their achievements while envisaging a brighter future for biography. And so, in 1938 by comparing the respective merits of novel and of biography, she concluded that biography was a craft rather than an art. The words ‘biography’ and ‘photography’ are almost interchangeable in this essay. Woolf argues that biography is a young art, that it is limited, ‘the most restricted of all the arts’ because [the biographer] ‘has his proof ready to hand’ (Woolf 1938a, 221), all of which could also apply to photography. The novelist is free, the authenticity of the character he creates lies in the truth of his own vision, whereas the biographer is tied by the limitations imposed by friends, letters, and documents, facts, in short. I would argue that Woolf’s modernist attempt at pitting biography against novel was very much mirroring the rivalry between photography and painting which was rocking the intellectual and artistic milieu at the time. Painting was ‘exalted as a true art, whereas photography [was] restricted to popular culture: Writers and artists were noticeably uncomfortable with the mechanical aspect of photography as replacement for the painter’s hand, and saw photography as a less pure form of expression’ (Dickey 375). Biography too has always been considered as an impure medium, a mongrel art and this notion of impurity is at the core of Woolf’s essay: biography is a mere craft because it is ‘betwixt and between’ (Woolf 1938a, 227). At times Woolf complained that biography writing turned words into ‘an impure medium’, ‘better far to have been born into the silent kingdom of paint’ (Woolf 1934, 237). This feeling that biography/photography offer an inferior grasp of the subject than fiction/painting pervades the whole essay. ‘We live in an age when a thousand cameras are pointed, by newspapers, letters and diaries at every character from every angle, therefore the biographer must be prepared to admit contradictory versions of the same face’ (Woolf 1938a, 226). Photographs are here considered as mere facts attesting to the existence of the subject and Woolf would have agreed with Barthes that ‘the essence of the photograph is that it ratifies what once was. It merely attests to its factual presence’ (Barthes 133, translation mine). This derogatory vision of photography is better understood if one bears in mind that ‘The Art of Biography’ was the outcome of her own grappling with the life of Roger Fry who, like many art critics at the time, ‘held to a hierarchy of media with oil painting at the summit […] and resisted the popular art of photography’ (Humm 2003, 16). In her biography of Fry, Woolf has him wonder why no English novelist took his art seriously, why they were all ‘engrossed in childish problems of photographic representation’ (Woolf 1940, 164).8 This necessarily brings to mind Fry’s comment in his Preface to the catalogue of the second Post-Impressionist Exhibition at the Grafton Galleries in 1912 which rings both as a praise of post-impressionist painters and as a criticism of photography:

Now these artists do not seek to give what can after all, but be a pale reflex of actual appearance, but to arouse the conviction of a new and definite reality. They do not seek to imitate form, but to create form; not to imitate life, but to find an equivalent for it. (Woolf 1940, 177–178)

  • 9 . Most prominent among them is his harsh criticism of the Victorian painter Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadem (...)

6His numerous attacks against photography9 must have weighed on Woolf’s ideas at the time when she was reading his essays, letters and personal notes intensely and trying to convey his thoughts as accurately as she could. Roger Fry’s words echo throughout Woolf’s second essay on biography, his comment on the post-impressionists adumbrates the agenda Woolf set for the new biographer. He was to ‘fling representation to the winds’ (Woolf 1940, 172), and attempt to stimulate the imagination by giving us ‘the creative fact, the fertile fact, the fact that suggests and engenders’ (Woolf 1938a, 228). These are the concluding words of ‘The Art of Biography’:

For how often, when a biography is read and tossed aside, some scene remains bright, some figure lives on in the depths of the mind, and causes us, when we read a poem or a novel, to feel a start of recognition, as if we remembered something that we had known before. (Woolf 1938a, 228)

  • 10 . ‘The spectator sometimes feels an irresistible compulsion to look for the tiny spark of chance, o (...)

7This final passage of ‘The Art of Biography’ is surprisingly close to Walter Benjamin’s notion of the optical unconscious, developed in his 1931 essay entitled ‘A Short History of Photography’.10 Just as her fiction invites us to ‘look within’ (Woolf 1920, 106) her essays on biography also invite the biographer to delve into the inner recesses of the mind, to focus on invisible subjectivity rather than external objective description. In ‘The New Biography’ she underlined how wrong the Victorian biographers were to consider that ‘the true life of their subject shows itself in action which is evident rather than the inner life of thought and emotion which meanders darkly and obscurely through the hidden channels of the soul’ (Woolf 1927, 229–230). That biography gained from the progresses of psychoanalysis is evident, and Woolf’s essays showed how the unconscious should be explored by biographers. The visual terms which flourish in her texts attest to her understanding that photography could move from a purely factual means to an artistic one. In the late 1930s then, she was perhaps more hesitant to grant photography/ biography the title of fine arts, but she was aware that they had to go on searching to render the invisible, to explore the ‘hidden facets of the world which might otherwise slip by unnoticed’ (Dickey 382). In her biography of Fry, she turns the art critic into a ‘seer’, a kind of visionary (he had ‘moments of vision’) who always relished discussing art with his friends because it afforded him ‘another pair of eyes to see with, another brain to argue with’ (Woolf 1940, 161). This of course brings to mind Woolf’s comments on photographs in Three Guineas, (the essay being the exact contemporary of ‘The Art of Biography’) where she equates pictures with biographies and histories:

Those photographs are not arguments; they are simply a crude statement of fact addressed to the eye, but the eye is connected with the brain; the brain with the nervous system. That system sends its message in a flash through every past memory and present feeling’ (Woolf 1938b, 164–165)

8It is the evocative power of the photograph she acknowledges here, its suggestive force, and this is precisely what the new biographers strive to achieve: ‘by telling us the true facts, by sifting the little from the big, and shaping the whole so that we perceive the outline, the biographer does more to stimulate the imagination than any poet or novelist’ (Woolf 1927, 227–228) According to her, the art critic Roger Fry had both qualities, the evocative and the suggestive power (Woolf 1940, 228). His work as an art critic comes very close to what she wishes the biographers would do:

Curiosity is stimulated. And then sensation is roused. For [Fry] assumes that we all have sensations […], he brings colour on to the page, and not only colour but forms and their relations; […] he wakes the eye to qualities that it has never seen before […]. Undoubtedly he wakes the eye […]. It is as if a great magnifying-glass were laid over the picture. He elucidates, he defines. (Woolf 1940, 227)

  • 11 . ‘Theories must always be brought into touch with facts. The collision may prove fatal to these de (...)

9By the end of the 1930s then, Woolf’s stance regarding both biography and photography was still ambiguous, but she was readier than ever to grant them a new chance to transmit reality in an innovative fashion, one that would both fire our imagination and allow us to see beyond surfaces while giving us the true facts altogether. Writing her 1938 essay on ‘the Art of Biography’, while she was herself committed to her biography of one of the greatest art critics of her generation, it is not surprising that like him, she should have ‘made raids across the boundaries’ (Woolf 1940, 239–240) of painting, writing and photographing, theorizing about the one while using the idioms about the other. She was also aware that theories are made to be tested and the biographies written simultaneously were precisely conceived as means to put her theories into practice.11

  • 12 . Paradoxically quite a number of editions of Flush, Orlando and Roger Fry have omitted to reproduc (...)
  • 13 . In ‘The New Biography’ she argues that each of Nicolson’s subjects holds up in his or her bright (...)
  • 14 . See in particular, Aleksiuk, Dickey, Faber Oestreich, Flesher, Tasher and Wussow.

10It is now a well-known fact that Orlando and Flush were as much an overthrow of the genre as playful reminders of the constitutive generic hybridity of biography.12 They were fairly similar in their subversive approach of the biographical subject, they were both devised in a light vein, as a writer’s holiday, or a farce, their satirical and ‘caricature’ value being flaunted in Woolf’s letters and diaries when she conceived them. At the origins of Orlando and Flush, humour and pictures were summoned as essential ingredients in keeping with the method of writing biographies initiated by Harold Nicolson and praised by Woolf in ‘The New Biography’. This brings to mind her 1905 essay, ‘The Value of Laughter’ where she argued that to paint human nature truly, one must strike a balance between comedy and tragedy. Laughter preserves our sense of proportion which is vital to the exercise of biography (Woolf 1927, 231). The metaphor of mirrors is extensively used both in her essays about biography and in ‘The Value of Laughter’, where Woolf argues that ‘humour holds a bright little mirror to us’ (Woolf 1905, 59).13 I would therefore argue that the photographs in Orlando act as many distorting mirrors reflecting a different Vita each time. Quite a number of articles have been devoted to the relationship between text and image in this mock-biography,14 but I would agree in particular with Aleksiuk’s interpretation of the use of photographic images: they offer a multiplicity of angles whose contradictions create ‘ironic friction’ (Aleksiuk 125). Several types of friction may be said to be at work: frictions between the text and the images it is aligned with, frictions between the readers’ expectations and what they get, frictions between the caption and the photographs. In Orlando, photographs present false evidence that undermine the supposed faithfulness of a biography towards its subject. They also make visual Woolf’s experimentation with the overlap between non-fictional and fictional elements. In this regard as in many others, Flush was truly a continuation of the joke played on Vita Sackville-West in Orlando. It was the dog Pinka, given to Woolf by Vita, who eventually became Flush. And once more the essay ‘The Value of Laughter’ comes to mind as Woolf playfully imagined how horrified we would be if we saw a dog laugh (Woolf 1905, 59). In Flush, Woolf went beyond the limitations of biography by endowing the dog with more than just laughter, with the ability to feel and see what his mistress Elizabeth Barrett Browning cannot. The photograph in the frontispiece cleverly sets the dog among folds of draperies reminiscent of those evoked by Woolf in ‘The New Biography’, preventing the reader from perceiving the real subject of the biography. Flush is central on the photograph and seems to be wearing a crinoline; only on second sight do we see the hand of the mistress that emerges on the right hand-side. Flush is therefore humanized and feminized, whereas Elizabeth Barrett Browning is literally out of frame, decentred, marginalized. Similarly, in the text, Flush comes to embody the biographer who attempts to decipher the thoughts and ideas of the biographee (Miss Barrett), his own metatextual ‘thoughts’ on the art of biography becoming central to the text. Thus the use of photographs in Flush and in Orlando illustrates the comic spirit defined by Woolf in her 1905 essay: both texts concern themselves indeed with ‘oddities and eccentricities and deviations from the recognized pattern’ (59). Both are carnivalesque iconotexts, touched off with merriment and irreverence where disguise and masquerade are the main modes of representation.

11Roger Fry, conversely, written at the express request of Margery Fry, (one of Roger’s sisters) proved to be a horrible ‘grind’ or a ‘drudgery’ (two of the most frequent words recurring throughout Woolf’s Letters and Diary during its fairly long gestation) and is largely considered as a more traditional biography. The circumstances surrounding the gestation are well-known and explain why Woolf found herself in the position of the biographer tied and constrained by documents, friends and family. In terms of choice, lay-out or content, the photographs chosen by Woolf are a far cry from the oddities and fantasies of the photographs in her previous biographies. The illustrations are all gathered in a bulk in the middle of the biography as is still frequently the case for questions of cost and practicality, and read almost independently from the text like a photo album. Unlike Flush and Orlando, where the photographs and portraits create a rich interplay between text and image, the traditional lay-out of the illustrations in Roger Fry precludes any relationship between the two. The photographs are reduced to the status of illustrations, in keeping with her belittlement of photograph as a craft in her concomitant essay ‘The Art of Biography’. In Roger Fry, the most expressive portrait is a self-portrait, not a photograph of the art-critic and artist, a means for Woolf both to pay homage to her friend’s gifts as a painter and to side with his contempt of photographic representation.

12These differences, in mood, structure, intent and in the various ways in which the photographs were arranged in the texts are fundamental and point at the hiatus between factual biography and creative biography. Woolf’s use of photographs in her biographies is both highly consistent but also somewhat contradictory with the essays they are aligned with. In the twenties, she experimented with the new art, both in her biographies and her essay, hailing the new visual power and the possibilities offered by photography and toying with them. By the end of the thirties however, she had come to embrace the derogatory stance of her artistic milieu and conformed to a much more reductive use of photographs in her biography of Fry, at loggerheads even with her own experimentations as an avid photographer. Roger Fry was an irrefutable proof that the limitations weighing on the Victorian biographers had not been completely lifted by her own modernist attempts to revolutionize the genre.

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Wussow, Helen, ‘Virginia Woolf and the Problematic Nature of the Photographic Image,’ Twentieth Century Literature 40. 1 (Spring 1994): 1–14.

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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.

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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 21 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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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).

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