Bust of Virginia Woolf by Stephen Tomlin

The Studio: The sculptor Stephen Tomlin created this bust of writer Virginia Woolf, sister to Vanessa Bell, in 1931.  Woolf had found success as a novelist in the latter half of the 1920s with works including Mrs DallowayTo The Lighthouse, and Orlando.  Written in 1928, Orlandois an imagined biography in which the protagonist’s life spans both centuries and sexes, and is regarded as a love letter to Vita Sackville-West, with whom Woolf was involved romantically for a decade.

Virginia Woolf bust by Stephen Tomlin

Virginia Woolf bust by Stephen Tomlin, photo by P Fewster

Vita Sackville-West had an open marriage to her husband Harold Nicolson, both engaging in same-sex affairs. Leonard Woolf, too, was in full knowledge of the affair between Vita and his wife, Virginia, however her sister Vanessa was only enlightened in 1929 after the affair ended.

Woolf wrote of the moment to Sackville-West in a letter, revealing that curiosity rather than opinion was aroused in Bell: ‘I told Nessa the story of our passion in a chemists shop the other day. “But do you really like going to bed with women” she said – taking her change. “And how’d you do it?” and so she bought her pills to take abroad, talking as loud as a parrot.[1]

Nigel Nicolson, the son of Vita Sackville-West, wrote of Orlando, ‘The effect of Vita on Virginia is all contained in Orlando, the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which she explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her.’[2]

After their affair ended, the two women remained friends until Woolf’s death in 1941.

[1] Karyn Sproles, Desiring Women: The Partnership of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West Toronto; Buffalo : University of Toronto Press, 2006, p. 4.
[2] Harry Blamires, A Guide to twentieth century literature in English London; New York: Methuen, 1983, p. 307.

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