Open today 12pm–5pm
Buy tickets

The Stephen sisters as young photographers

Canvas Issue 15 by Maggie Humm

In a letter to the New Statesman on 28 October 1933,Virginia Woolf deplored the intrusive paparazzi photographers of the 1930s.‘The click of the camera is heard behind the altar rails…;[people’s] homes are photographed, their families, their gardens, their studios, their bedrooms and [most worrying to Woolf] their writing tables’ (L5, 237- 8). Many of Woolf’s male contemporaries thought photography aesthetically undistinguished. Clive Bell,Vanessa’s husband, dismissed photographs because ‘we expect a work of plastic art to have more in common with a piece of music than a coloured photograph.’ i

But from an early age Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell were avid amateur photographers, creatively recording their view of the world both as a historical record and as a repository for their personal memories.Virginia’s first diaries describe the sisters’ excited visits to a range of visual treats including Rontgen Rays (X-rays), Animatographs (cinema) and ‘photographs of normal hands and diseased hands’ (PA 10). For most of the sisters’ lives, photography was, if not an obsession, then a continual ritual, one shared by family and friends including Lady Ottoline Morrell and Lytton Strachey, at a time when photography was permeating popular culture. Photography was also a part of their visual inheritance from the famous Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, their great-aunt, and the photo albums of their father Leslie Stephen and their half-sister Stella Duckworth.The sisters’ constant photography and photo album construction, throughout their careers, reveal two visually creative women articulating aesthetic and personal experiences in a range of photographic genres.

 Julia, Leslie and Virginia Stephen in the library at Talland House, 1892. Reprinted by permission of Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library.

Julia, Leslie and Virginia Stephen in the library at Talland House, 1892. Reprinted by permission of Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library.

The first use of the term ‘album’ in the 1840s to describe collections of photographs came forty years before Woolf’s birth, and the first commercial albums were for collecting cartes-de-visite.At the height of the carte-de-visite’s popularity nearly three hundred studios operated in London, including the many studios used by the Stephen family: Lock and Whitfield, A. & G.Taylor, W.Wright, H.H. Cameron (Julia Margaret Cameron’s son) and George Beresford.ii But the practice of collecting images, including cartes-de-visite, into fully authored albums only became wide-spread in the 1890s, the moment when the Stephen sisters began to take, develop, print and mount photographs in albums.Viewed in sequence in albums, cartes-de-visite, together with snapshot photographs, offered album compilers the possibility of setting family and historical evidence into a public yet subjective context.

Simon, February 1897. Copyright Tate, London, 2004.

Simon, February 1897. Copyright Tate, London, 2004.

The opportunities offered by the new medium of photography were particularly attractive to women. With the introduction of Kodaks with built-in rolls of negative paper in 1888 and the first commercial transparent celluloid roll film in the 1890s,Kodak cameras and camera paraphernalia were promoted specifically to women.iii Kodaks were transportable (one of Woolf’s pocket Kodaks measured only 1½ by 4½ by 6¾ inches) and ‘Daylight’ Kodaks could be easily loaded — in daylight. In the first issue of Amateur Photographer in October 1884 the editor Harris Stone specifically invited ‘amateur photographers of either sex’, stating that the number of amateur photographers ‘vastly exceeds that of professional photographers’ and that ‘ladies make excellent manipulators’. He added that ‘some of the most successful photographs that have ever been taken are the work of amateurs’. iv By 1903 a third of the competitors in London’s Wembley Park photography competition were women and in September 1905, with four million amateur photographers in Britain, The Photographic News reported that ‘thousands of Birmingham girls are scattered about the holiday resorts of Britain this month, and a very large percentage of them are armed with cameras’. v

Adrian,Thoby,Vanessa and Virginia Stephen at St Ives, c.1892. Reprinted by permission of Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library.

Adrian,Thoby,Vanessa and Virginia Stephen at St Ives, c.1892. Reprinted by permission of Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library.

One of the Stephen sisters’ first cameras was the Frena, introduced by R. and J. Beck in March 1896, a camera Woolf frequently mentions in her early writings and which the sisters appear to have shared.‘Simon
[a dog] was photographed in a fur coat and hat and pipe; but at a second photograph we discovered that our Frend (sic) was broken’ (PA 31). And Woolf delights in describing a full panoply of photographic materials, recording in August 1897,‘The Beck things arrived. Here is a list with their prices if we want them again.Album 6.6.[6s 6d] Negative Album 2.6 [2s 6d]. Byrds printing frames 1s each. Masks 6. box of Eastman’s solid paper 144 pieces 1.10.[1s 10d] The size of our Frend (sic) is 3½ x 2 5/8′. At 2002 prices 6s 6d is £22.55 and the total shows the Stephen sisters’ considerable investment in photography (PA 120).

Adrian possessed his own camera too, and all the children spent as much money on photography as on birthday presents.‘We shall have to be very economical. What with photographs, birthdays etc’ (PA 12). On holiday with ‘Georgie’ Duckworth in 1896,Vanessa prioritised photography over mention of a potentially erotic play.‘We took a lot of photographs, but we haven’t had time to develop any yet…on Saturday we went to a very improper French play’.vi The sisters took on differing but complementary technical skills, just as they pursued different artistic careers.‘We found that the Frend (sic) would not work…when Nessa wound the shutter, and mended it…I have toned all the other photographs’ (PA 38).The Frena employed a complicated notched film and ‘eccentric’ handle and by 1899 the style was modified. From its inception photography was particularly resonant for many writers, both metaphorically and in practice. In the nineteenth century Edgar Allen Poe and Walt Whitman, and in the twentieth century Marcel Proust and George Bernard Shaw (himself an occasional contributor to Amateur Photographer) chose photography as an emblematic way of representing their worlds. In Woolf and Bell’s later circle of friends Roger Fry proved a pedestrian amateur photographer, while Lytton Strachey made skilful use of shade and light in his photographs of Cassis and Aix-en-Provence.

During their formative years, until the death of their father Leslie Stephen in 1904, the sisters regularly took and developed photographs, sometimes at the family home Hyde Park Gate but more often, like other amateurs, at holiday locales: St Ives,Warboys and Fritham.There are more than twenty references to photography in the initial year (1897) of entries to Woolf’s first published journal. A favourite card game was played with family photographs in which the ugliest took the trick.

Woolf’s diary entries provide irrefutable evidence of the significance of photography to the Stephen sisters. In March 1897 ‘Marny [Vaughan] came to tea with us, and asked about Stella’s wedding present — to be a photograph or a picture’ (PA 60). Photography’s role as memorial of major events such as weddings extended into more diurnal moments. On holiday at the Old Vicarage, Painswick, in August 1897,‘Marney[sic] & Emma arrived to pay us a visit.We photographed them.We developed after they were gone. Some rather good ones of the bridge etc.’ (PA 121).The sisters shared a growing exploration of photography. Virginia and Vanessa almost always photographed when together, sharing one camera. At Bognor in February 1897,‘the Frend (sic) arrived from Becks, in a new box, all rubbed up and beautiful, smelling strongly of Jargonel.We tried shutting Nessa up in the cupboard to put in the films, but there were too many chinks.Then she suggested being covered by her quilt, and everything else that I could lay hands on — She was accordingly, buried in dresses and dressing gowns, till no light could penetrate. Soon she emerged almost stifled having forgotten how to put the film in’ (PA 34). It is however at their favourite home, Talland House, St Ives, where the sisters, with their family, photographed continuously, documenting everyone who visited. Leslie Stephen had discovered Talland House on a walking expedition taken in 1881, just before Virginia’s birth, when the older children were aged between thirteen (George) and one (Thoby). For thirteen summers the children shared butterfly-chasing, cricket and rock-climbing as well as photography and exploring the gardens of Talland House in ‘intense domestic happiness’.vii

In 1892 Vanessa took a key photograph of Virginia together with their mother Julia and father sitting in the library at Talland House.viii All three sisters’ albums — those of Virginia,Vanessa and Stella — contain this 1892 photograph. Leslie Stephen also memorialises the photograph as a perfect image of Julia in his Mausoleum Book written about the dead Julia, and includes it in his photo album (although dating the photograph 1893).‘When I look at certain little photographs — at one in which I am reading by her side at St. Ives with Virginia… I see as with my bodily eyes the love, the holy and tender love’.ix Virginia uses the photograph as a major frontispiece in Monk’s House Album 3 immediately after a very large photograph of Julia Jackson circa 1863-5.x Frances Spalding suggests that Vanessa’s visual consciousness (just as Virginia’s) grew out of ‘a need to repair a sense of loss, to reconstruct that sense of oneness with the world experienced by infants at the breast’ after the death of Julia when Virginia was thirteen and Vanessa fifteen.xi

Virginia Stephen, Stella and Gerald Duckworth, Hindhead, August 1896. Copyright Tate, London, 2004.

Virginia Stephen, Stella and Gerald Duckworth, Hindhead, August 1896. Copyright Tate, London, 2004.

Virginia’s attachment to Vanessa, Stella and Violet Dickinson recreated or recast to some extent her attachment to her own mother. Stella Duckworth was a quasi-mother figure for Virginia, who accompanied Stella and her fiancé Jack Hills to Bognor (the holiday during which ‘Nessa’ was covered with her quilt). Her album in the Berg Collection contains fifty-five photographs which repeat many of those in the Woolf and Bell albums, although Stella’s contains additional photographs of their mother Julia. One of these, together with the 1892 photograph, is mounted on a heavy protective card, as Woolf does with her photograph of Julia in the later Monk’s House Album 3, as if their mother’s photographs are significant icons.

Violet Dickinson cared for Virginia during her second breakdown after her father’s death in 1904. Violet was Virginia’s ‘woman’, addressed by her with playful erotic intimacy as ‘kangaroo’ after their initial meeting in 1902. Dickinson’s undated small photo album in the Berg Collection New York Public Library does not contain photographs of Julia or the 1892 photograph, but does have photographs of Woolf on both frontispiece and cover as well as containing Woolf’s erotic euphemisms: ‘I hope to see you, Sparroy is firmly planted in that cabbage patch you call your heart’. In Violet’s separate autograph book Virginia,Vanessa,Thoby, Adrian, George and Gerald Duckworth have all signed autographs for the year 1904.

Virginia Stephen and George Duckworth, Freshwater, c.1895. Reprinted by permission of Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library.

Virginia Stephen and George Duckworth, Freshwater, c.1895. Reprinted by permission of Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library.

Other photographs taken during the sisters’ adolescence are also palpably resonant. In photographs of George Duckworth with his sisters ‘he is always standing too close to them’, as Hermione Lee suggests.xii When Julia Stephen died George was twenty-seven and from then, and increasingly after Leslie Stephen’s death, became the sisters’ ‘unofficial guardian and their passport to the outside world’.xiii Other photographs taken during the sisters’ childhood are less disturbing. George was secretary to Charles Booth, the social reformer and author of Life and Labour of the People in London, and Booth was photographed visiting St Ives together with J.A. Symonds, the painter and critic who taught Roger Fry.Virginia remembered ‘looking down from the landing at Talland House’ at J.A. Symonds and ‘noting his nerve-drawn white face’.xiv A more cosmopolitan friend was the Florentine Rezia Rasponi who married a Corsini prince and brought her husband to meet the Stephens at Fritham House one summer.The group photograph shows a relaxed and smiling Virginia. Vanessa later painted an incomplete, and now missing, portrait of Rezia in Florence in 1909. Photographs, like portraits, are also selective records and fictions. But photographs were important mementos for Virginia and Vanessa. In 1898, writing to Thoby,Woolf thought that a photograph of ‘Nessa by Cousin Henry’ [Henry Herschel Cameron, the son of their great-aunt Julia Margaret Cameron] would be ‘the best present I can think of’ (L1, 18).Woolf was more self-conscious about her own photographic representations, which were often ‘like an ancient beast of my acquaintance’ she wrote, aged seventeen (L1, 29).

By the time the sisters entered womanhood following the move to Bloomsbury in 1904, photography was a constant element in their lives and a constant reflection of their evolving visual consciousness.And it was photography, particularly the mass circulation of Kodaks, that made, arguably, the greatest contribution to the changing visual consciousness of modernity as a whole.The widespread dissemination of photographs, together with the general public’s increasing knowledge of photographic processes, marked a change in modern perceptions symbolised domestically by the Stephen sisters’ happy relocation to the white, light interiors of Bloomsbury, albeit hung with their Cameron photographs, away from the dark interiors of Hyde Park Gate.

Maggie Humm’s Snapshots of Bloomsbury:The Private Lives of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. Rutgers University Press and Tate (just published), contains 200 of the Woolf and Bell photographs and the first catalogue of the Woolfs’ 1,000 domestic photographs.

i Bell, Clive. Art, London, 1914, p.349.

ii Lemagny, Jean-Claud and Rouille,Andre (eds.) A History of Photography, trans. J. Lloyd. Cambridge, 1987.

iii McKeown, Jim and Joan. The Collectors’ Guide to Kodak Cameras, Grantsburg Wisconsin: Centennial Photo Service, 1981.

iv Coward-Williams, Garry. ‘AP’s Great Triumvirate’,Amateur Photographer, 30 October 2004, p.40.

v Coe, Brian and Gates, Paul. The Snapshot Photograph, London, 1977, p.28.

vi Bell,Vanessa. Selected Letters of Vanessa Bell, ed. R. Marler. London, 1993, p. 6.

vii Stephen, Leslie. Sir Leslie Stephen’s Mausoleum Book, ed.A. Bell. Oxford, 1977, p. 63.

viii Humm, Maggie. Modernist Women and Visual Cultures:Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Photography and Cinema, Edinburgh, 2002.

ix Stephen, Leslie. Sir Leslie Stephen’s Mausoleum Book, p.58.

x This photograph, I have ascertained, is certainly taken at the same sitting as a similar photograph, attributed to O. J. Rejlander, in the Mia Album that Julia Margaret Cameron gave to her sister Maria Jackson (Mia).The Monk’s House Albums, of which there are 7 (only 5 mounted by Virginia) are in the Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard.

xi Spalding, Frances. Vanessa Bell, London, 1983, p.19.

xii Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woolf. London, 1996, p.151.

xiii Ibid, p.151.

xiv Woolf,Virginia. ‘A Sketch of the Past’. In Moments of Being, ed. J. Schulkind, London, 1976, p.136.

Woolf,Virginia. The Letters of Virginia Woolf. 6 vols, eds. N. Nicolson and J.Trautmann, New York, 1975-1980.Woolf,Virginia. A Passionate Apprentice, ed. M.A. Leaska, New York, 1977.

What's on

27 Nov
Woodcut Christmas Card workshop

Due to popular demand we’ve added a second Woodcut Christmas Card session with artist Helen Brown. Helen More

Paper Cutting workshop 01 Dec
Paper Cutting workshop

Tutor Su Blackwell will guide you through the delicate art of paper cutting and sculpting, working More

Christmas wreath workshop 04 Dec
Christmas Wreaths and Garlands workshop

This day long workshop will guide you step by step through the art of Christmas wreath More


Get involved