The Luminary Postgraduate Magazine Lancaster University

The Unveiling of Hidden Voices in Vanessa Bell’s illustrations for Virginia Woolf’s Kew Gardens

Hana Leaper


‘Voices, yes, voices, wordless voices, breaking the silence…breaking the silence? But there was no silence’ (Virginia Woolf, Kew Gardens)

The close sororal bond between the artist Vanessa Bell and her younger sister, the writer Virginia Woolf, was a fundamental element of their professional practice. It enabled their emancipation from restrictive Victorian social codes, the formation and endurance of the Bloomsbury group, and their respective creative processes. The idea that Woolf's ekphrastic writing style is in part influenced by Bell's visual aesthetics has been investigated by a number of critics, including Diane Filby Gillespie in The Sisters' Arts, Jane Dunn in A Very Close Conspiracy, and Jane Goldman in The Feminist Aesthetics of Virginia Woolf.1 Gillespie’s study explores her claim that: ‘Much of Woolf’s self-conscious exploration of her medium arises from her continual awareness of what her sister and other modern painters are doing’ (8); whilst Dunn sees their relationship ‘complementary and impassioned, as the source at times of an almost mythic power’ (5-6); and Goldman views Woolf’s writing of the twenties and thirties within a ‘contextualising account of the emergence and development of theories of Post-Impressionism,’ theories which were, for a time, at the heart of Bell’s practice (2).

This paper will examine Bell’s embellishment of the 3rd edition of Woolf’s story Kew Gardens, published in 1927, in order to further explore this collaboration between artist and writer, image and word, silence and speech, and the effect of these collusions on the reader’s experience of the story. It will build upon previous studies to show that this reciprocity was not simply theoretical, but that Bell’s images – which are not simply illustrations directly reflecting the content of the text, but designs that act as borders, punctuation, bridges or disruptions – significantly modify the process of reading the page, in comparison with the previous two unadorned editions of the same text. They become an important feature of the text, acting as a visual meta-commentary that allows the complex pre-cognitive emotions hinted at in the writing to be more fully realized.

In July 1926, a year before the 3rd edition of Kew Gardens was published, Roger Fry, a close colleague of Bell and Woolf, considered by both to be the leading art critic of the age, described the relationship between ‘the Author and the Artist’ in book illustration, as ‘a battle-ground, a no man’s land raked by alternate fires from the artist and the writer, claimed by both, sometimes nearly conquered by one but only to be half recaptured by the other’ (9). Fry had extensive experience of these struggles, having illustrated several books for friends, and publishing four more under the Omega imprint.2 He went on to propose that although: ‘real illustration in the sense of reinforcing the author’s verbal expression is quite impossible,’ it may be possible to ‘embroider’ the author’s ideas. Such enriching marginalia, Fry suggested, encourages deeper discourse between the reader and the text. He called leading graphic artist E.McKnight Kauffer ‘the most witty of interrupters’ – not interpreters, but interrupters. Fry proposes that, in the case of Kauffer’s woodcuts for Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, the graphics, which embroider, and in the process, interrupt the text, speak to the reader about the author’s writing ‘in a voice which the old man cannot overhear.’ The ‘old man’ in this case has been dead for hundreds of years, but this concept of silent imagery possessing the agency to speak about the text in ways that the author has not consciously licenced is just as relevant to Woolf and Bell’s 1927 Kew Gardens, a text produced by contemporary artists working collaboratively. However, in the case of Kew Gardens, author and artist collude together to release these voices, with the author agreeing to the artist’s presence on the page.

It is striking that despite Bell’s supposedly active role as a pioneer of ‘Significant Form’ – that is, of eliminating story telling in visual artwork – she provided artwork for a number of her sister’s short stories and designed all of her book jackets.3 Bell’s letters show she was sensitive to the nuances of her sister’s more experimental writing, revealing in a letter written in 1927: ‘it is so shattering to find oneself face to face with those two again that I can hardly consider anything else’ after reading Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse (Bell Selected Letters 317). Her response to Woolf’s more conventionally realist novel Night and Day was less warm. In 1917 she wrote to Roger Fry: ‘I think the most interesting character is evidently my mother, who is made exactly like Lady Ritchie, down to every detail apparently. Everyone will know who it is, of course’ (Bell Selected Letters 205). Bell’s accompaniments to Woolf’s works show that despite her rejection of illustrative or allegorical painting, preference for Woolf’s less realist writing, and her silence on many subjects, she recognized the expressive, pre-linguistic potency of visual art, and the capacity of marks on a page to extrapolate further meaning from a text. Woolf, as we shall see, was convinced that Bell’s formally premised artwork held ‘no truck with words,’ yet Bell’s images communicate strongly to us, showing that silences, and wordless voices, carry powerful expressive charges (Woolf ‘Foreword’). Kew Gardens, as the quote at the beginning of this essays shows, is a story that carefully considers the rich meanings latent within silence, just as much of Bell’s artwork articulates human and aesthetic experience using formal, rather than verbal or representational means.

The Hogarth Press, owned and run by Virginia and Leonard Woolf, often incorporated images into narrative structures, a practice inspired by Woolf’s sensitivity to the visual world. The nuances of human existence and behaviour that there are words to describe are a major theme of her writing and Patricia Ondek Laurence argues that, in their own way, Woolf’s novels also hold little ‘truck with words.’ She posits that they are in fact, structured by several different categories of silence, the ‘unsaid,’ the ‘unspoken,’ and the ‘unsayable':

Distinctions are made in her [Woolf’s] novels between what is left ‘unsaid,’ something one might have felt but does not say; the ‘unspoken,’ something not yet formulated or expressed in voiced words; and the ‘unsayable,’ something not sayable based on the social taboos of Victorian propriety or something about life that is ineffable. (1)

Woolf experimented with articulating different kinds of silence within Kew Gardens, and the young couple in the story, themselves plant-like, ‘in that season which precedes the prime of youth,’ struggle to understand one another verbally:

‘What’s “it”–what do you mean by “it”?’
‘O, anything–I mean–you know what I mean.’  (Woolf Kew Gardens 15)

‘Long pauses came between each of these remarks’ uttered in ‘toneless and monotonous voices’ (Woolf Kew Gardens 15). Their broken conversation is compelled by several categories of silence: the ‘unsaid’ things they both feel, but do not speak; the ‘unspoken’ not yet fully formulated ideas of their youth; and the ‘unsayable’ pronouncements they are unable to make due to the prohibitive social codes of the public park, and also due to the inability of language to express the life within and around them. Woolf’s description of the ‘unsayable’ nature of their conversation reveals language as being simultaneously limiting, and also containing within it vast realms of possibility. The couple exchange:

words with short wings for their heavy body of meaning, inadequate to carry them far and thus alighting awkwardly upon the very common objects that surrounded them, and were to their inexperienced touch so massive; but who knows (so they thought as they pressed the parasol into the earth) what precipices aren’t concealed in them, or what slopes of ice don’t shine in the sun on the other side? Who knows? (Woolf Kew Gardens 16)

Their joint actions throughout this conversation aid their voices, bringing them towards a moment of knowledge – a moment where language may be transcended and the other become comprehensible. Pressing her parasol into the flower bed together (Bell’s page border creating an evocative semi-circular gap beneath the description of this action), with his hand on top of hers – a subtly subversive action that can be read as both containing sexual overtones, and defying park rules – ‘expressed their feelings in a strange way, as these short insignificant words also expressed something’ (ibid.). The young man ‘felt that something loomed up behind her words and stood vast and solid behind them,’ but as ‘the mist very slowly rose and uncovered,’ we are cut off mid-sentence (ibid). The revelation does not arrive, as he is distracted by the café scene before him. In the 1927 version, Bell’s imagery articulates this unverbalised, but pivotal snap in continuation for the reader, interrupting this nascent unveiling with a space at the bottom of the page, bordered by circles within circles and a scalloped edge. The next page begins with Bell’s double border, separating the young man’s unrealized internal moment on the previous page with his external observations on the next page. Illustration, Fry seductively posited, ‘lures the imagination on... on a loose tether’ (12). Bell’s arrangements for Kew Gardens guide the reader through the text, and on occasion, leave blank spaces within the field of the page for this discourse between reader and page to proceed, undirected by the writer; Bell’s images accompany the reader through realms of silent contemplation that the writer cannot convey through language.

The ‘sisterly silences’ of the title operate on two levels within Kew Gardens. As Gillespie elucidates in The Sisters’ Arts, ‘Woolf and Bell formed an artistic sisterhood and practiced in art media conceived of, metaphorically, as sisters’ (4). Silence is an important structural component and tool for creating spaces of reflection within each woman’s work, and lives, and so the silences within their collaborative project can be conceived of as sisterly in both the sense that they were engineered by sisters, and that the media used complement one another, and speak to one another’s silences.The ‘unsaid,’ ‘unspoken,’ and ‘unsayable’ elements that these silences articulate, or ‘unveil’ (just as the young man felt an imminent rising of a shroud of mist, an uncovering of the ‘vast and solid’ something ‘behind her words’ (Woolf Kew Gardens 16)) are not desolate wastelands, but fecund gardens of ineffable human experience, revealed by the human activity of the story. The ‘wordless voices, breaking the silence’ are rooted, like the Stephen sisters’ relationship in the most fundamental areas of the human mind and soul (Woolf Kew Gardens 21).

The relationship between the Stephen sisters was as complex as the relationship between text and image in their work. A mystique of impenetrable silence surrounds accounts of Bell, partly engineered by Woolf as a counterpoint to her own reputation as a wordsmith and quicksilver conversationalist. Woolf was ever willing to fill these silences, mythologizing her enigmatic and immensely attractive elder sister in the process, and we must be cautious of allowing her to speak over Bell – even, or perhaps, especially when her commentary springs from their sustained exchange of ideas and mutual aesthetic appreciation.

Spalding connects the silence attributed to Bell by her sister to her artwork and contrasts this with Woolf’s felicity for verbal expression: ‘Her [Vanessa’s] private, inner life, connected with the silent realm of form and colour, was set against Virginia’s chatter and love of words’ (Spalding 20). Yet, this seemingly clear opposition between the silent and visual, against the verbose and literary is called into question by the reciprocity between Bell and Woolf’s aesthetics, by the silences in Woolf’s fiction, the vocality of Bell’s letters, and by Woolf’s admiration for silence and attempt to master this realm: ‘everyone I most honour is silent – Nessa, Lytton, Leonard, Maynard: all silent, and so I have trained myself to silence; induced to it by the terror I have of my own unlimited capacity for feeling’ (Woolf Letters IV 422). She grudgingly, though patronisingly, admired ‘talkers’ for what she imaged was their lack of access to this realm of feeling, unprotected by the filter of language: ‘They don’t know what feeling is, happily for them’ (Woolf Letters IV 422). Contrary to any straightforward opposition between Bell and Woolf, silence and words, image and text, Patricia Ondek Laurence suggests that Woolf incorporated silence in her novels ‘as if silence were of the same order as the readable, the same order as words on the page. She express silence, its nature, its meanings, its uses’ (Ondek Laurence 5).

Whilst there are many examples of Bell’s silences, her inability, or unwillingness to communicate was not considered a defect in her chosen social circle, nor was it a preserve of Bell alone. She noted: ‘Virginia, in fact, in those days, was apt to be very silent, nor could Lytton be relied upon to take any trouble in conversation’ (Bell ‘Notes on Bloomsbury’ 102). This indicates that within their friendship group, silence was recognized as a space of reflection rather than as a mental absence. But this was not always an austere, soundless world; conversation flourished. Debunking the myth of her silence somewhat, Bell recalled:

Talk we all did, it’s true, till all hours of the night. Not always, of course, about the meaning of good. Sometimes about books or painting or anything that occurred to one – or told the company of one’s daily doings and adventures. (Bell ‘Notes on Bloomsbury’ 101-2)

Bell could obviously be an active talker at times, and although she did not produce a manifesto to explicitly define an aesthetic system, she constantly exchanged thoughts, aims, appreciations and criticisms in her letters and memoirs, which in effect detail her aesthetic agenda.

Woolf’s writings about her sister’s artwork show her fascination with Bell’s silent art, but also the frustration she felt in attempting to describe it in words. She proposes to gain ‘some idea of Mrs Bell herself and by thus trespassing, crack the kernel of her art’ but finds her efforts at invasion futile. She declares herself, and verbal language, defeated in the attempt to describe in words works which undo the primacy of the signifier:

The puzzle is that while Mrs. Bell’s pictures are immensely expressive, their expressiveness has no truck with words. Her vision excites a strong emotion and yet when we have dramatised it, or poetised it or translated it into all the blues and greens, and fines and exquisites and subtleties of our vocabulary, the picture itself escapes. It goes on saying something of its own. (Woolf ‘Foreword’)

The potency of Bell’s ability to extrapolate expression from the order of language, giving form to the ‘unsaid,’ the ‘unspoken’ and the ‘unsayable’ (Ondek Laurence 1) is symbolised by the silent, mysterious integrity Woolf attributed to her: ‘But Mrs. Bell says nothing. Mrs. Bell is as silent as the grave. Her pictures do not betray her. Their reticence is inviolable’ (Woolf ‘Foreword’).

Bell’s atmospheric and enigmatic 1913-16 painting A Conversation demonstrates this ‘inviolable’ reticence. It creates a dynamic tension between the talk of the women pictured and the silence of the painting, which Gillian Beer sees as ‘teasing’ the viewer (Beer). This work provides a strategic starting point – an opening vista – for an investigation of the way conversation and imagery are brought together by Bell and Woolf in Kew Gardens.

Woolf praised Bell’s A Conversation (which Woolf refers to as Three Women), admitting to feeling a hint of envy at Bell’s ability to synthesize form and psychological acuity. ‘I think you are a most remarkable painter’ she wrote, high praise in itself. ‘But I maintain’ she went on, at a time when Bell was at the peak of her Modernist formalism, an aesthetic movement defined in opposition to narrative content in painting, that:

… you are into the bargain, a satirist, a conveyor of impressions about human life: a short story writer of great wit and able to bring off a situation in a way that rouses my envy. I wonder if I could write the Three Women in prose.  (Woolf Letters III 498-9)

Woolf’s insistence that Bell was a ‘story writer’ initially seems at odds with the non-anecdotal premise of Bell’s work. When one begins to understand that Woof’s conception of storytelling is as much about relaying an experience of the world than creating a narrative, one can see why she was so deeply fascinated by Bell. Fittingly, as Jean Hagstrum notes, the relationship between visual and verbal artistry is a competitive one; Likewise, Bell and Woolf’s relationship held competitive elements – especially on the younger sister’s side. Woolf felt that professional success was her due, as her sister had had the children she was denied ‘Nessa has all that I should like to have’ (Woolf Letters I 334). Gillespie notes that Woolf’s habit of attempting to master her sister resulted in the recuperation of the very silences she attempted to translate:

Virginia interrupts and interprets Vanessa’s silence with words; yet paradoxically, by writing about what transcends language and by choosing and arranging her words with care, Virginia aspires to a parallel silence. (Gillespie 8)

These ‘parallel silences’ produced a formalist painter who can be described as ‘a short story writer,’ and a wordsmith whose work is structured around silence.

A few years after Woolf’s admiring letter, Bell became one of the first readers of Woolf’s 1918 Kew Gardens. She read it in manuscript form in July 1918 (it was first published in May 1919) when she suffering from morning sickness four months into her third (full-term) pregnancy, living frugally on war rations, troubled by servants and vexed by her brother Adrian’s relationship crisis. ‘It’s a relief to turn to your story,’ she informed her sister, ‘although some of the conversation – she says, I says, sugar – I know too well!’ (Bell Letters 214) She thought it ‘fascinating and a great success’ and her thoughts immediately turned to illustrating it: ‘I wonder if I could do a drawing for it’ (Ibid).

These responses to one another’s work show that both sisters understood each other’s quest for balance between formal arrangement and conveying ‘impressions about human life’ (Woolf Letters III 498-9). Woolf understood that though Bell’s work did not carry an overtly political message, her formalism arose from the desire to distil, to present a concentrated vision of life, rather than discount or deny experience.4 Their implicit and unique sympathy to one another’s aesthetic aims resulted in an inevitable symmetry in their desire to augment one another’s work: ‘I wonder if;’ ‘I wonder if.’

Although enthused about the project to produce woodcuts for Kew Gardens, Bell was wary of allowing Woolf’s publishing house, the Hogarth Press, to handle her work. Dora Carrington’s woodcuts for Two Stories (containing Leonard Woolf’s short story ‘Three Jews’ and Virginia Woolf’s ‘The Mark on the Wall,’ (1917) had received little sympathy or respect, with Woolf confessing to vandalising them to fit the press: ‘Our difficulty was that the margins would mark; we bought a chisel, and chopped away, I am afraid rather spoiling one edge’ (Woolf Letters 2 162-63). The Hogarth Press had been due to publish prints by artists from the Omega workshops, but due to the fundamental lack of deference shown to Carrington’s work, Bell vetoed this joint project between the writers and artists.

Despite these misgivings, Bell changed her mind, perhaps convinced by Woolf’s enthusiasm that her woodcuts would receive better treatment. Unfortunately, they did not, and the experience of working on the first edition of Kew Gardens was not reciprocally enjoyable. Although they were in constant correspondence regarding the woodcuts (‘I see that these woodcuts make almost daily letters necessary’ (Bell Letters 219)), Bell was left ‘infuriated by the uneven printing of the woodcuts’ (Spalding 159). Woolf recorded Bell’s ire in her diary:

Nessa and I quarrelled as nearly as we ever do quarrel now over the get up of Kew Gardens, both type & woodcuts; & she firmly refused to illustrate any more stories of mine under those circumstances & went so far as to doubt the value of the Hogarth Press altogether.  (Woolf Diary I 279)

Bell’s indignation was provoked by what she perceived as the amateurish over-inking and poor positioning of the prints, indicative of a fundamental lack of respect for their value on Woolf’s part. Woolf’s cavalier treatment of both Carrington and Bell’s woodcuts suggests that she perceived them as ancillary to the text. This treatment left Bell feeling silenced and relegated to a badly printed footnote, whereas her vision had been for a mutually sustaining dialogue between text and image.

A second edition of Kew Gardens was published through a professional printing press in June 1919, but Woolf felt that the results were not that much better than those she and Leonard Woolf had achieved. Under the circumstances, it is unclear why Bell changed her mind about working with Woolf again, though she went on to provide four woodcuts for the short-story collection Monday or Tuesday (1921), and, in 1927 for a third edition of Kew Gardens.5 Published by the Hogarth Press this new edition featured an entirely fresh set of woodcuts that enhance the text in a very different manner to the more representational images of the first edition.

When Bell had first started to discuss the possibility of providing illustrations for Kew Gardens in 1919, she had half warned, half informed Woolf that they ‘might not have very much to do with the text, but that wouldn’t matter’ (Bell Letters 214). The 1927 designs do not actually illustrate any of the ‘action’ of Kew Gardens. Since it is essentially without plot in the traditional narrative sense and simply meanders through the gardens, giving us glimpses of the lives of various sets of people, this unconventional approach is entirely sympathetic to the ethos of the writing. Instead, they provide a silent companion during our sojourn in the space and a gently stimulating space of extra-linguistic reflection.

Awareness of the subtle way these woodcuts function to enhance the experience of Woolf’s story can be heightened through comparison with the first edition prints. The Kew Gardens ‘sugar conversation,’ as it has become known, is situated on the sixth page of the writing (page 10, that is, the tenth numbered page) of the 1919 edition, and the twelfth page of the 1927. In the 1919 version Bell’s accompanying image is situated on page four of the booklet, before the story begins on page five. It is not included anywhere in the 1927 version. It recounts a conversation between ‘two elderly women of the lower middle class, one stout and ponderous, the other rosy cheeked and nimble’:

After they had scrutinised the old man’s back in silence for a moment and given each other a queer, sly look, they went on energetically piecing together their very complicated dialogue:
‘Nell, Bert, Lot, Cess, Phil, Pa, he says, I says, she says, I says, I says, I says-’
‘My Bert, Sis, Bill, Grandad, the old man, sugar,
Sugar, flour, kippers, greens,
Sugar, sugar, sugar.’ (6/10 in 1919 version; 12 in the 1927 version)

The nature of this exchange appealed directly to Bell, and it was this aspect of the short story that she proposed to her sister that she should illustrate: ‘Do you remember’ she asked Woolf, whilst referring directly to ‘the sugar conversation,’ ‘a picture I showed at the Omega of 3 [sic] women talking with a flower bed seen out of the window behind? It might almost but not quite do as an illustration’ (Bell Letters 214). Bell’s instantaneous association of ‘the sugar conversation’ with Three Women [A Conversation] not only indicates that Woolf successfully achieved her ambition (as we saw earlier, Woolf had wondered ‘if I could write the Three Women [A Conversation] in prose’ (Woolf Letters III 498-9)), but highlights the reciprocity of their aesthetic ambitions.

The Sugar Conversation (one of two woodcuts Bell produced for the first edition of Kew Gardens) closely follows A Conversation, which depicts three women in front of a window. The women’s heads are bent together, the one on the left gesticulates, the two on the right observe avidly. Through the window, bright flowers in three colours bloom from a petrol-green field. The curtains frame both the women and the flowers; the orange sky and the ground meet at an intersection that defies the laws of perspective, putting the flowers and women onto the same plane. The flowers then, are not background detail, but a vital part of the scene. This, along with the careful use of complementary tones, suggests a dialogue between the inside and outside. However, the viewer is cut off from their exchange by the position of the foregrounded woman’s body, as the curves of her shoulder and knee meet with those of the woman on the left, blocking any attempt to join their conversation. The woodcut The Sugar Conversation again foregrounds the women with a background of flowers; however, the perspectives are, again, flattened so that the women and flowers share the same plain. It is hard to differentiate the women from their surroundings, just as in the writing it is difficult to work out their conversation. The reader must accept that their conversation is schematically imperfect, fragmentary. It relies upon the women’s intimate knowledge of one another’s personalities and lives – and the reader’s intuitive recognition of this, and of the fluctuating relationships between language and meaning. The perceived and the spoken, the unconscious and the conscious, and interior and exterior worlds, meet and meld within the scene – as people and environment do within the story.

Bell’s additions to the 1927 version do not include either of the prints from the 1919 edition, and the page numbering and layout of the type are completely redefined. Instead of illustrating episodes, the woodcuts function to make the scene-by-scene cinematic structure of the story clear. Each scene becomes distinctly defined by its new borders, and the pace of the story is re-set as the images enclose or separate, or loop in and out of each scene. These border devices control the flow of the text, subdividing the story into specific episodes. The 1919 edition is printed in a small sixteen page booklet (not including the jacket – itself a fascinating visual statement); page one is a title page with the author and illustrators names; its verso, page two, contains publishing information; page three is blank; page four is ‘the sugar conversation’ woodcut; pages five to fourteen contains ten pages of writing. On the final page, the writing takes up about a third of the page and ‘the caterpillar’ woodcut takes up about the same amount of space underneath it. However, in the 1927 version the writing takes up twenty-one pages, all divided carefully into independent units by type-setting and accompanying images. A striking example of how this restructures the reading experience comes on the first page. The first page of the 1919 version ends, somewhat clumsily, with only one sentence left of a paragraph: we were being guided through the park by a ‘summer breeze’, but here the action of the breeze is truncated. The reader must disrupt the flow in order to turn the page. In contrast, the first page of the 1927 version consists of only the first sentence:

FROM THE OVAL-SHAPED flower-bed there rose perhaps a hundred stalks spreading into heart-shaped or tongue-shaped leaves half way up and unfurling at the tip red or blue or yellow petals marked with spots of colour raised upon the surface; and from the red, blue or yellow gloom of the throat emerged a straight bar, rough with gold dust and slightly clubbed at the end.

Bell’s print takes up much more of the page space than this richly heliotropic sentence, introducing the mutually supportive relationship between text and image from the beginning. The flowers and swirling leaves are semi-abstract, yet from ‘the throat’ of just a couple emerge a ‘straight bar,’ as described in Woolf’s writing.

E.M. Forster’s 1919 review of Woolf’s short stories The Mark on the Wall and Kew Gardens recognizes and strongly foregrounds the visual nature of the stories. Forster began his review by paying close attention to the word ‘vision,’ ‘rescuing’ it from its common English use, which he defined as: ‘to mean something that ought to exist, but certainly doesn’t, like a legacy or an angel’ and re-establishing what he called its ‘proper sense,’ as ‘merely something that has been seen, and in this sense Mrs. Woolf’s two stories are visions’ (Forster 68). He firmly recuperates vision from the realm of the supernatural and insists on it as an observed, if undeniably subjective phenomenon, seen from the pages of Woolf’s text.

Forster’s definition of vision here veers towards the aesthetic theories of Roger Fry and Clive Bell. Forster claims that ‘Vision’ is outside of the bounds of conventional morality, that its value is in appearance, rather than meaning, the:

…verdict whether right or wrong, is not in the least value. For in this queer world of Vision it is the surfaces of things, not their names or natures that matter; it has no connection with the worlds of practical or philosophic truth, it is the world of the Eye. (Forster 68)

‘Vision,’ and the associated ‘world of the Eye’ – of form, colour and line, not denotation and connotation – is key to Bell’s visual practice. In her ‘Lecture Given at Leighton Park School’ – one of her few direct statements about art – she told her audience that:

Some of the greatest painters, in my opinion, that have ever lived have often been contented to try to tell us only how exciting and moving to them have been the formal relations of a few kitchen pots and pans, fruits and vegetables [here she showed slides of still lifes by Chardin and Cezanne]. It is so exciting and so absorbing, this painters’ world of form and colour, that once you are at its mercy you are in grave danger of forgetting all other aspects of the material world. (Bell ‘Lecture Given at Leighton Park School’ 157)

In Bell’s artistic ‘painters’ world,’ as in Woolf’s writerly ‘world of the Eye,’ perceptual experience overrides the practical concerns of the material world. When these two worlds are brought together in an integrated whole, a heightened realm of vision ensues.

The unified vision expressed through visual and verbal collaboration in the 1927 Kew Gardens offers access to a realm of human feelings and experiences, which are extremely difficult to transpose. Bell’s interventions around ‘the sugar conversation’ restructure the page, clarifying Woolf’s vision through interrupting and mediating her text. This episode shares a page with two other scenes in the 1919 publications, but becomes an independent scene, set across one page in the 1927 edition. In the 1919 text the page starts and finishes midway through sentences. In the 1927 version, the page begins with a complete sentence, introducing a fresh paragraph about the two women. The end of the page signals the end of their conversation. The next page also focuses on the same two women, yet the barriers interposed by the woodcuts guide us to the understanding that this is a different scene, a different psychological space. The conversation has ended, as one of women (the stout and ponderous one) has entered a different mood: she ‘looked through the pattern of falling words’ and eventually ‘ceased even to pretend to listen to what the other woman was saying’ as she found herself having what can be interpreted as an aesthetic experience (Woolf Kew Gardens 13). That is she saw the ‘Significant Form’ – the essential and unmediated vision, the ‘painters’ world of form and colour’ – in the visual scene before her, in a similar way to which the reader experiences the words on the page.

Woolf has taken care to situate the class and implied lack of education of these women on the previous page (‘women of the lower middle class... Like most people of their station they were frankly fascinated by any signs of eccentricity betokening a disordered brain, especially in the well-to-do’) showing that this kind of experience in vision is a common human one, and not the preserve of a social or intellectual elite. The hidden voices of the ‘world of the Eye’ are a simple, egalitarian pleasure that do not require an extensive education in the Arts to access. She describes this experience in terms similar to those used by Clive Bell and Roger Fry to describe the accessibility of post-impressionist visual art. Woolf uses a simile which involves a simple household object, a candlestick – the woman saw the flowers anew ‘as a sleeper waking from a heavy sleep sees a brass candlestick;’ Clive Bell employed a coal scuttle to describe the Post-Impressionist’s aesthetic process: ‘How then does the Post-Impressionist regard a coal-scuttle? He regards it as an end in itself, as a significant form ... not means of suggesting emotion but objects of emotion… plastic not descriptive’ (Bell ‘Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition’ 10). Fry also used a candlestick to describe how different artists have different visions: ‘Walter Sickert is likely to have a Sickert in his eye when he gives us a panegyric on a bedroom candlestick’ (Fry 51).

Bell accompanies the woman’s visual experience, her profoundly moving ‘aesthetic emotion,’ by punctuating the text with visuals, which guide the reader’s appreciation of this experience (Bell Art 3). Simple interlaced curves consisting of a single line each form an arch at the top of the page. The writing does not curve with this arch, but crosses straight across the page leaving a small, blank semi-circle hanging above the action taking place further down the page, creating a space for reflective contemplation. The reader has a space to rest their eyes as their thoughts bubble up from the page, a space contained within the page by this arch so that one does not have to leave the confines of the book in order to contemplate the story. At the edges of the main body of writing, the curves meet up with small bunches of flowers interlinked by thicker, furry vertical black lines. Every few lines, one of these smaller flowers impinges on the regular pattern of the writing, causing a word to become indented – guiding the stresses in the passage. At the centre of page one, a single, large flower stands ‘cool, firm and upright,’ dividing up the writing into two columns, one on either side of it. The writing on the page is guided, centred by this flower, as the woman’s (and post-impressionist painter’s) experience is by the candlestick. At the bottom of the page, in the final four rows of written text, small single flowers further disrupt the continuous flow of the writing, evoking the way in which the woman ‘looked through the pattern of falling words and flowers,’ and suggesting the trance-like pattern of the woman’s state of mind:

backwards and [flower] forwards, [central flower] looking at the [new line] flowers. [small flower] Then [central flower] she suggested that [new line] they [small flower] should [central flower] find a seat [new line] and [small flower] [small flower] have [central flower] their [small flower] tea.

These interruptions in the flow of writing introduce pauses which further integrate the visual experience the woman is undergoing into the reader’s imagination – perhaps to a more fundamental degree than the descriptive language could alone. The fragmentation suggests that the woman’s focus is weaving between the interior and exterior worlds; the world of flowers and aesthetic emotions; and the world her friend is anchoring her in, of tea and conversation. Yet, this weaving shows that they are parts of the same world, just as silence and speech are.

Whilst the top four fifths of the page seems to rise up, growing heliotropically like its central flower, the design at the bottom suggests root-like growth into a bed. This again links the exterior and interior: this bed is both soil and the imagination, the fertile space beneath the surface, the sustaining silence beneath the patina of speech. Each of the pages has its own ‘bed.’ Most differ slightly from the designs on the remainder of the page – signalling an end to the scene – a repository of its ideas, its consciousness, its silent being.

Bell’s images are not used as a subservient party, reiterating Woolf’s words with a visual equivalent. Instead, they further expand the world of the story and the meaning of the writing, creating an integrated text. Despite the problems with the technical production of the 1919 edition, the notion of furious struggle between author and illustrator is laid to rest in the 1927 Kew Gardens. Bell’s decorations significantly alter the reader’s experience of Woolf’s short story, without simply proposing to interpret it in a visual format. Kew Gardens becomes a vision shared across two formats, deepened and enriched in the process, not merely a translation, under siege from both sides and belonging properly to neither. [The sisters’ collaboration on Kew Gardens – born of a deep appreciation of one another’s art – did not re-stage Fry’s vision of embattled antagonism between word and image, sound and silence, but created a further discursive space through embroidering the text, a punctuation of silence that allows the hidden voices of the work to become tangible, and interrupts the text with further voices.


1 Nuala Hancock’s rich and evocative work - Charleston and Monk’s House: The Intimate House Museum of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012 - reads the sisters’ house museums for biographical traces of their lives, finding embodied resonances of each at both locations; whilst Susan Sellers’ Vanessa and Virginia (London: Two Ravens Press, 2008) fictionalises the relationship between the pair.

2 Fry’s work included illustrations for CR Ashbee's From Whitechapel to Camelot (1892) and the title pages for Robert Trevelyan's 1901 and 1908 collections of poetry. Books with illustrations published by the Omega included: Arthur Clutton-Brock's Simpson's Choice, with woodcut illustrations by Roald Kristian, published 1916; Pierre-Jean Jouve's Men of Europe, with woodcut illustrations by Roald Kristian, published 1916; Titus Lucretius Carus' Lucretius on Death, translated by R.C. Trevelyan, cover design by Roger Fry, executed by Dora Carrington, published 1917; and Original Woodcut by Various Artists, Fry (4), Bell (2), Grant (2), McKnight Kauffer (1), Kristian (2), Wolf (2), 75 copies published 1918.

3 Bell’s husband, the art critic Clive Bell, defined significant form as: ‘lines and colours combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of forms stir our aesthetic emotions. These relations and combinations of lines and colour, these aesthetically moving form, I call “Significant Form”; and “Significant Form” is the one quality common to all works of visual art’ (Art 8).

4 See Lisa Tickner ‘Vanessa Bell: Studland Beach, Domesticity and ‘Significant Form’ in Modern Life and Modern Subjects (Singapore: Yale University Press, 2000. 117-14) for analysis of Bell’s distillation of experience in her Studland Beach series.

5 A Society, A Haunted House, An Unwritten Novel and The String Quartet each correlate to a short story in the collection Monday or Tuesday (1921).

Works Cited

Bell, Clive. Art. London: Chatto & Windus, 1914.

Bell, Clive. ‘Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition.’ London: Grafton Galleries, 1913.

Bell, Vanessa.  Selected Letters of Vanessa Bell. Ed. Regina Marler. London: Moyer Bell, 1998.

Bell, Vanessa. Sketches in Pen and Ink. Ed. Lia Giachero. London: Pimlico, 1998.

Beer, Gillian. ‘Gillian Beer on A Conversation by Vanessa Bell.’ The Guardian, 24 February 2009. Web. 17 July 2014.

Dunn, Jane. Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell: A Very Close Conspiracy. London: Virago, 2000.

Filby Gilespie, Diane. The Sisters’ Arts: The Writing and Painting of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1988.

Forster, E.M.  ‘Visions.’ Daily News, 31 July 1919, in Virginia Woolf, The Critical Heritage, Ed. Robin Majumdar & Allen McClaurin. Routledge, 1997. 68-70.

Fry, Roger. ‘The Artist’s Vision.’ Vision and Design. London: Chatto & Windus, 1920. Reprinted Penguin, 1960.

Fry, Roger. ‘The Author and the Artist.’The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 49. 280 (1926): 9-12.

Goldman, Jane. The Feminist Aesthetics of Virginia Woolf, Modernism, Post-Impressionism and the Politics of the Visual. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Hagstrum, Jean. The Sister Arts: The Tradition of Literary Pictorialism and English Poetry from Dryden to Gray. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.

Ondek Laurence, Patricia, The Reading of Silence, Virginia Woolf in The English Tradition. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002.

Schiff, Karen L. The Look of the Book: Visual Elements in the Experience of Read from Tristram Shandy to Contemporary Artists’ Books, Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Pennsylvania, 1998.

Spalding, Frances. Vanessa Bell, 3rd edition. London: Tempus 2006.

Woolf, Virginia, ‘Foreword,’ Recent Paintings by Vanessa Bell. London: The London Artists’ Association, 1930.

Woolf, Virginia. Kew Gardens. Richmond: The Hogarth Press, 1919.

Woolf, Virginia. Kew Gardens. Richmond: The Hogarth Press, 1927.

Woolf, Virginia. The Letters of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Nigel Nicholson and Joanne Trautmann (5 vols). London: Hogarth Press, 1975.

Back to Issue>>

Journal Home | Department Home | Editorial Board | Open Access Statement