The Real Cindy Sherman

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Until 15th September 2019, the National Portrait Gallery is exploring the photography of Cindy Sherman in a retrospective that explores the development of Sherman’s work from the mid-1970s to the present day. With over 150 photographs on display, the exhibition focuses on the artist’s manipulation of her own appearance and range of cultural sources, and investigates the balance between façade and identity.

Despite investigating four decades worth of work, the NPG fails to tell visitors much about the photographer herself – a little personal digging is necessary for those wishing to know more. Cynthia Morris Sherman was born on 9th January 1954 in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, although shortly moved to Huntington Beach, Long Island. She was the fifth and youngest child of Dorothy and Charles Sherman. Her father was an engineer for Grumman Aircraft and her mother taught handicapped children to read.

From an early age, Sherman loved to dress up, particularly in clothing dating from the 1920s. As she got older, she enjoyed searching for costumes in second-hand shops and experimenting with make-up. She quickly learnt that by combining the right clothing and make-up, one could change one’s appearance entirely. This realisation was the starting point in Sherman’s career. Rather than photographing other people, she uses herself as a model wearing remarkably convincing costumes and inventing numerous personae.

The earliest works in the exhibition date from around 1975 during her university days. From 1972 until 1976, Cindy Sherman studied in the visual arts department at the State University College at Buffalo, New York. Initially, she began working with paint but felt frustrated with the limitations of the medium and soon abandoned it in favour of photography.

“[T]here was nothing more to say [through painting] … I was meticulously copying other art, and then I realized I could just use a camera and put my time into an idea instead.” – Cindy Sherman

It was during her time at university that Sherman’s interest in manipulating her appearance and creating alter egos took flight. Taking a photograph of herself impersonating the American actress Lucille Ball (1911-89) showed her the potential of transforming herself as a work of art. Rather than imitating other people, Sherman began inventing fictitious individuals, both female and male, practising with exaggerated use of make-up. The idea was to draw attention to the deceptive nature of appearance.

One of Sherman’s university works was inspired by murder mystery plays. After writing a plot for an 82-scene play involving thirteen characters, Sherman dressed up and photographed herself as each individual in a number of poses. Each character had a particular style of dress and she used make-up and wigs to create distinct appearances. For one character, she donned an apron and held a tea tray to transform herself into a maid, and for another, a blonde wig and heavy make-up changed her into an overexcited actress. Other characters included a detective, a butler, and a photographer amongst a range of suspects. The photos were originally cut out and stuck together to create a scene, however, the exhibition shows a handful of the original frames.

Sherman produced several series of similar works during her time at university and also experimented with film. Three short, grainy films show her acting the part of different personas. In one, she is an ambiguous young woman mouthing the words “I hate you” and eventually shedding tears. In another, she is dressed as “an unattractive prostitute that nobody finds appealing”. The third is a more successful stop-motion animation that depicts Sherman as a cut-out doll that dresses up and admires herself in a mirror.

After moving to New York in 1977, where she still lives and works, Sherman began working on a series called Untitled Film Stills. Continuing to be fascinated with her ability to change her appearance and create fictional personae, Sherman took 69 black-and-white photographs that resembled shots taken on film sets of stereotypical female roles in 1950’s and 60’s Hollywood, Film Noir and B Movies. Characters include librarians, office girls, housewives, seductresses and so forth in a variety of settings, including Sherman’s apartment and locations around the city.

Cindy Sherman never titled the individual photos, wishing to preserve their ambiguity. The model – Sherman herself – is always looking away from the camera, suggesting an unspecified narrative open for individual interpretation. In a reflection of her work, Sherman discussed her intentions, thoughts and feelings:

I was wrestling with some sort of turmoil of my own about understanding women. The characters weren’t dummies; they weren’t just airhead actresses. They were women struggling with something but I didn’t know what. The clothes make them seem a certain way, but then you look at their expression, however slight it may be, and wonder if maybe “they” are not what the clothes are communicating.”

Shortly after graduating from art school, Sherman created a series of works known as Cover Girls, which were displayed on the inside of the top deck of a bus in November 1976. The series incorporates the front covers of five women’s magazines: Cosmopolitan, Vogue, Family Circle, Redbook and Mademoiselle. Each magazine was represented by three similar covers; the first was the original but in the second, Sherman replaced the model’s face with her own, using cosmetics to make it look as similar as possible. The third cover also featured Sherman, however, this time, she pulled a “goofy face”.

Take, for example, the cover of Vogue. The original shows the heavily made-up model Jerry Hall (b.1956) staring into the camera. On the second cover is Cindy Sherman looking remarkably like Jerry Hall, replicating the same pose. In the third, however, Sherman pulls a face and winks, thus making a mockery of the original photograph. The idea was to emphasise the artificial nature of magazines, which constantly try to convey an impression of beauty, glamour and sophistication.

In the 1980s, Sherman began working with coloured photography. Similar to her Untitled Film Stills from the previous decade, Sherman produced a series of close-up photographs that appear to show an actress in a film against a projected background. The actresses, of course, are all pictures of Cindy Sherman with cosmetically altered features. Her idea was to show how artificial some films can appear, enhanced further by the inclusion of herself as a “fake” actress.

In 1981, Sherman was commissioned by Artforum magazine to produce photographs to spread across the centre pages. Rather than portraying sensual female models as the magazine expected, Sherman photographed herself in the guise of vulnerable-looking women. She tried to make it appear as though the (male) magazine readers were intruding on someone’s personal pain, sadness or reverie. The magazine eventually declined to publish the photographs.

Over time, Cindy Sherman has worked for a number of fashion magazines. This has involved working with various designers, such as Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, and Marc Jacobs. In 1983, Sherman was commissioned by the New York boutique owner Dianne Benson to produce the photographs to be used in advertisements for clothes by Jean Paul Gaultier and Comme des Garçons. Whilst Sherman did provide photos of the clothes worn by her personal model (i.e. herself), she created images that parody fashion photography. Her invented characters wear stylish designer-label clothes, however, they appear upset, unstable and absurd.

“I’m disgusted with how people get themselves to look beautiful … I was trying to make fun of fashion.” – Cindy Sherman

Sherman’s aim was to expose designer labels who claimed through fashion photography that their clothes could make you look elegant. As Sherman proved, this is not the case. Her photographs show that the clothes have not made her look particularly attractive; fashion photography is merely an illusion.

The following year, Sherman took this idea further when she was commissioned by the French fashion company Dorothée Bis to provide photographs for Vogue Paris. Again, she dressed her characters in designer outfits, however, she deliberately made herself look ugly, dishevelled or depressed. Despite her actions and dislike for the illusions of fashion, magazines continue to employ Sherman.

By the end of the 1980s, Cindy Sherman changed direction and looked to the past for inspiration. By this time, she was married to the French photographer Michael Auder (b.1945) and was the step-mother of Alexandra and Gaby Hoffman (b.1982). During the late eighties, Sherman spent two months in Rome where she turned her attention to the visual language and style of Old Master paintings.

Although prosthetics are now a common feature in Sherman’s work, her series of Historical Portraits was the first time she really employed such an extravagant range. By combining false noses, false breasts, wigs, make-up and costumes, Cindy managed to transform herself into over thirty women and men. Characters included aristocrats, ladies of leisure, royalty and the Virgin Mary. Whilst she was inspired by the Old Masters, Cindy tended to create completely made up portraits of fictitious people rather than replicating paintings she saw in Rome. There was, however, one exception.

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Madame Moitessier – Jean-Auguste-Dominique

Cindy particularly admired a painting by the French Neoclassical artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867). Madame Moitessier (1865) is a portrait of Marie-Clotilde-Inès Moitessier (1821-97), the wife of a rich banker and lace merchant. The sitter is dressed in detailed fabric and decorated with jewels. Her pose makes her appear graceful and is typical of the era.

In Cindy Sherman’s version, the sitter adopts a similar pose using a different hand and is dressed in silky material and jewels. Corresponding to the setting of Ingres’ painting, Sherman is sat in front of a mirror, so the back of her head can be seen. It is this same mirror that breaks the illusion of a historical painting because a piece of paper can be seen in the reflection.

Sherman’s deliberate parodies of historical paintings draw attention to the potential illusion of people’s appearances. Looking at Sherman’s photographs, we know she is wearing wigs and prosthetics and does not look that way in real life. The question is, how reliable are paintings from the pre-camera era? To what extent is the appearance of Ingres’ model truthful? How many inventions did Ingres add to the painting? Was Madame Moitessier really wearing that dress; did her cheeks really contain that much rouge; has her appearance been altered slightly to conform with social preferences about beauty? Sadly, we will never know.

As well as historical portraits, Sherman used fairy tales as inspiration for her work. For these, her style became more nightmarish and grotesque. Using prosthetics, Cindy created characters from the more sinister side of children’s stories, for instance, a man with a pig’s snout and a woman with dark eyes and sharp, pointed teeth.

Cindy Sherman and Michel Auder divorced in 1999 but this did not prevent Sherman from continuing with her photography projects. Between 1991 and 2005, she lived in a fifth-floor co-op loft in Manhattan until she bought two apartments overlooking the Hudson River. Today, she lives in one and uses the other for her studio. The National Portrait Gallery has recreated her studio in one of the rooms of the exhibition in order for visitors to understand how Sherman works.

From the mid-90s, perhaps developing on from her Fairy Tale series, Sherman produced numerous photographs that incorporated the use of masks. Some of the characters appear entirely artificial with, perhaps, one feature that reveals it is really Cindy Sherman. Whereas her previous work has dealt with the idea that appearances can be deceptive, the use of masks completely removes the opportunity to establish identity and other personal attributes.

Sherman was also interested in the appearance of clowns whose costumes and make-up create a whole new identity. The application of make-up or facepaint can completely change the demeanour of someone’s face. A natural expression can be transformed into a sinister-looking face or an overtly happy one.

As Cindy Sherman gets older and enters the new millennium, her photos become increasingly engrossed in the issues of age and social status. Whilst Sherman alters her appearance to appear ten or twenty years older, her characters are resorting to cosmetics to maintain an illusion of youthfulness. Despite their make-up, the women look their age, failing to appear any younger. They are also desperate to preserve their social status and appear sophisticated and wealthy.

These portraits are taken against elaborate backdrops to further enhance the impression of affluence and elegance. The attempt of these characters to appear youthful backfires and suggests they are full of insecurities about their age and position in life. Their haughty demeanour seems forced and fake, which is the opposite of their intentions.

Of course, these women are fictitious and Sherman is not yet as old as they appear. Nonetheless, as a photographer, Sherman is confronting an issue that will affect everyone in the future.

Cindy Sherman returns to the past in her most recent series of work. Taken between 2016 and 2018, Sherman experiments by dressing up as what she terms “flappers”. This term refers to young women after the First World War whose appearance and attitude went against convention. They cut their hair short, smoked in public, wore copious amounts of make-up and generally went against the norms of feminity.

Being a feminist herself, Sherman was drawn to these women, adopting hairstyles, make-up and fashion worn by women in the 1920s. The key difference is Sherman’s characters are clearly a lot older than the so-called “flappers”. This gives them the illusion of Hollywood grandes dames, desperately trying to hold on to their youth.

These latest photos also show Sherman’s professional development from a grainy, black-and-white camera to a full-colour, digitally-manipulated photograph. One image is made up of four portraits of Sherman in different costumes, grouped together as though posing for only one photograph. Again, the costumes date back to the 1920s and the similarities in appearance suggest the characters are sisters. Family acts were in vogue between the two world wars, although, in this instance, the sisters have aged considerably.

The theme of actresses runs throughout Cindy Sherman’s work, which is an apt metaphor for her own life. Despite there being hundreds of photographs of Sherman, none of them reveals her true identity. Whilst we can build up a visual appearance, we do not learn anything about her life or personality.

Having expressed her contempt for the “so vulgar” social media platforms, there is little to learn about Sherman’s true identity online. Wikipedia tells us she had a relationship with Scottish-American singer-songwriter David Byrne (b. 1952) between the years 2007 and 2011 and she enjoyed regular holidays in the Catskill Mountains.

Cindy Sherman currently serves on the artistic advisory committee of the dance firm Stephen Petronio Company. In 2012, she joined 150 artists, including Yoko Ono (b.1933), in the founding of Artists Against Fracking. This is in opposition to hydraulic fracturing in order to remove gas from underground deposits.

Despite detesting social media, Sherman has an Instagram account that documents her latest works and ideas. Other than this, there is very little insight into her life. Whilst Cindy Sherman appears in every photograph shown at the National Portrait Gallery, visitors ironically come away knowing very little about her.

The Cindy Sherman exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London is open until 15th September 2019. Tickets are priced at £18 for adults. On Fridays, under 25s can visit for £5 but be aware some images are unsuitable for children.

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A Lone Woolf

“I am rooted, but I flow.”

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Virginia Stephen (Woolf) in 1902 Photo: George Charles Beresford

Considered to be the most important modernist writer of the 20th-century, Virginia Woolf is continuing to inspire feminism long after her death. Born in an era when women were fighting to be seen as equals to men, Woolf was influenced by women’s rights movements whose ideals are reflected in many of her novels. Known for the phrase “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” from her essay A Room of One’s Own (1929), the author has been honoured by statues, societies and a building at the University of London in her name.

Whilst her popular novels and ongoing feminist movements keep her memory alive, her struggle with mental health problems and death by suicide, no longer the taboo subject it once was, is gradually being understood and accepted. Yet what is repeatedly overlooked is the woman herself. Who was Virginia Woolf? Everyone has heard of her regardless as to whether they have read her books, but who was the woman behind the pen?

Virginia Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen on 25th January 1882 in South Kensington, London. Her mother Julia (née Jackson) (1846–1895), originally from Calcutta, British India, had once been a model for the Pre-Raphaelites and had three children from a previous marriage: George (1868-1934), Stella (1869-97) and Gerald (1870-1937). An exhibition last year (2018) at the National Portrait Gallery, featured a photograph of Julia taken by her aunt and celebrated photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79).

Virginia’s father had also married prior to meeting her mother. Leslie Stephen (1832–1904), a writer, historian and mountaineer, married Harriet Marian (Minny) Thackeray (1840–1875), the youngest daughter of the famous novelist William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-63). Unfortunately, Minny died in childbirth leaving Leslie to care for their only child Laura (1870–1945) who, due to developmental handicaps, was eventually institutionalised.

Julia and Leslie were married on 26th March 1878 and welcomed their first child, Vanessa (1879-1961), the following year. The next four years saw the arrival of three more children: Thoby (1880-1906), Adrian (1883-1948) and the second youngest, Adeline Virginia in 1882. Fortunately, the family was wealthy enough to cope with eight children and, whilst the boys were sent off to schools and universities, the girls were homeschooled in subjects such as English classics and Victorian literature.

Most of the details about Virginia Woolf’s childhood can be found in her own writings. These include essays, such as A Sketch of the Past (1940), but she also alluded to some of her childhood memories in her fictional novels. Woolf also kept a diary for twelve years beginning in 1897, “the first really lived year of my life”.

Due to the nature of their father’s career, Virginia and her siblings were brought up in a household often frequented by well-known members of Victorian literature society. Amongst these were writers Henry James (1843-1916) and Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), the poet Alfred Tennyson (1809-92), and the pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98), Virginia’s honorary godfather. As a result, the Stephen children were keen readers and writers, making their own magazine in 1891 called Hyde Park Gate News to record the events that occurred within their family. Their mother was recorded saying the magazine was “Rather clever I think”.

Naturally, Virginia Woolf showed an early proclivity for writing and was later encouraged by her father to pursue a career as an author despite his disapproval of educated women. From the age of five, Woolf was penning letters and making up stories that she often recited to her father, which, along with her love of books, created a strong bond between them.

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Talland House, St. Ives, c. 1882–1895

Every year from 1882 until 1894, Leslie Stephen rented Talland House in St. Ives, Cornwall from mid-July to mid-September. He referred to it as “a pocket-paradise” and stated that his happiest memories were passed there. This was also the same for Virginia who, when writing about her childhood, mentioned fond memories of Talland House more than years spent in London. For Virginia and her brothers and sisters, it was the highlight of the year. It was also a setting that inspired a handful of Virginia’s novels, including To the Lighthouse (1927).

“Why am I so incredibly and incurably romantic about Cornwall? One’s past, I suppose; I see children running in the garden … The sound of the sea at night … almost forty years of life, all built on that, permeated by that: so much I could never explain.”
The Diary of Virginia Woolf Volume Two 1920–1924

Virginia Woolf’s childhood ended in 1895 with the death of her mother after a three-month battle with influenza. Having felt her life had fallen apart, this moment sparked the beginning of Woolf’s mental health issues that would plague her future. To make matters worse, her pregnant step-sister Stella, who took charge of the younger siblings died two years later. Suffering from nervous breakdowns, Woolf became dependant on her older sister, Vanessa.

In 1902, Leslie Stephen underwent an operation but never recovered, leaving his children as orphans in 1904. This sparked another breakdown for poor Virginia who later described the feeling of grief as being a “broken chrysalis”.

The family home was now a dark, gloomy place of mourning and the siblings were desperate to escape, which they did by travelling to the village of Manorbier on the Pembrokeshire coast in Wales. A couple of months later they decided to holiday in France and Italy, spending time with their friend Clive Bell (1881-1964), who would later become Vanessa Stephen’s husband. Unfortunately, Virginia’s mental health was still fragile and she suffered another nervous breakdown resulting in her first suicide attempt on 10th May 1904.

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46 Gordon Square

On returning to England, the Stephen children decided to sell their South Kensington property and look for accommodation elsewhere. Vanessa found a house in the leafy, bohemian district of Bloomsbury and she and Virginia moved into 46 Gordon Square before the end of the year. By now, Virginia had recovered from her most recent mental health ordeal.

Life began to feel more positive for Virginia, helped with the Thursday Club that her brother Thoby began hosting in the girls’ house from March 1905. This was initially made up of a group of Thoby’s intellectual friends from university, including writers such as Saxon Sydney-Turner (1880-1962) and Lytton Strachey (1880-1932). Together, they discussed various matters from literature and the importance of arts, to feminism and sexuality. The Thursday Club later became the famed Bloomsbury Circle, which included well-known members, for instance, the economist John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), whose English Heritage blue plaque can be seen in Gordon Square, the painter Ducan Grant (1885-1978), the novelist E. M. Forster (1879-1970), and the political theorist Leonard Woolf (1880-1969).

Later that year, Virginia began teaching at Morley College of adult education whilst Vanessa started up another group, the Friday Club, which met at their house to discuss the fine arts. Although things were beginning to look up for Virginia, she was soon to receive another blow. In 1906, Virginia lost her brother Thoby to typhoid fever, which he had caught on their recent holiday in Greece.

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29 Fitzroy Square

Whilst trying to come to terms with Thoby’s death, Virginia had to deal with the news that Vanessa had accepted Clive Bell’s proposal of marriage (his third attempt). The couple were married in 1907 and Virginia needed to find a new place to live. In April 1907, Virginia moved to the Fitzrovia district in central London, where she lived in a house once owned by the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) – 29 Fitzroy Square.

In her new home, Virginia and her brother Adrian resumed the Thursday Club, which began to explore more progressive ideas than before. More importantly, however, Virginia began working on her first novel. With the intended title of Melymbrosia but the eventual publication title of The Voyage Out (1915), it was “… a strange, tragic, inspired book whose scene is a South America not found on any map and reached by boat which would not float on any sea, an America whose spiritual boundaries touch Xanadu and Atlantis.” (E.M Forster, 1926)

Although living separately from her sister, Virginia continued to go on trips abroad with Vanessa, for instance, to the French capital and other areas of France and Italy. Unfortunately, there began to be a little rivalry between the sisters, perhaps spurned from jealousy, not helped by Virginia’s flirting with Clive. This may have contributed to the breakdown of Vanessa and Clive’s marriage, however, Vanessa’s affairs would have had a greater impact on the situation.

On 17th February 1909, Virginia was proposed to by Lytton Strachey but, although she accepted, he quickly withdrew the offer. This blow along with the stresses of daily life prompted her close family and friends to suggest that Virginia needed a quiet country retreat. Accompanied by her brother Adrian, Virginia had a brief stay in Lewes, Surrey, where she set about looking for a place to buy that would be easy to reach from London whenever she needed to retreat from the city. She eventually settled on a house in Firle, which she named Little Talland House.

Back in London, however, the lease was coming to an end of Virginia and Adrian’s house and they needed to move once again. Rather than buying a home just for the two of them, the brother and sister moved into a four-storey house in Bloomsbury, which they shared with Maynard Keynes and Duncan Grant. Their new home, 38 Brunswick Square, was adjacently opposite the Foundling Hospital, which Virginia found oddly amusing, however, the three-acre public garden provided the house with a beautiful view from the front facing windows.

In June 1911, Leonard Woolf, a friend of Thoby who Virginia had met in 1904 before he took up a position in the civil army in Ceylon, returned to London on a one-year leave. Yet, he was never to go back to the army. After renewing old friendships, Leonard met Virginia once again at Vanessa’s house along with many other members of the future Bloomsbury group. In fact, Leonard, when asked the date the Bloomsbury group formed, responded with the date of that very meeting – 3rd July 1911.

Leonard once described Virginia and Vanessa as “formidable and alarming”, recalling their “white dresses and large hats, with parasols in their hands, their beauty literally took one’s breath away”. Therefore, it did not take much persuasion to convince him to join Virginia at Little Talland House for a long weekend. By the end of the year, Leonard had moved into the Brunswick Square household and in less than a month had decided he was in love with Virginia.

On 11th January 1912, Leonard Woolf bared his heart to Virginia and asked her to marry him. With the failed engagement to Lytton Strachey still on her mind, Virginia told him she would think about it, however, time was running out for Leonard. The one-year period of leave from the civil army was coming to an end and despite continuing to pursue Virginia, she had not yet made up her mind. Leonard’s application to extend his period of leave was refused, so he sent in his letter of resignation instead.

Eventually, Virginia agreed to marry Leonard and their wedding took place on 10th August 1912 at the St Pancras Register Office. They continued living at Brunswick Square, however, Leonard was gradually becoming aware of Virginia’s mental health problems, which he had previously not known about. Within the next few months, Virginia’s mental ill health had increased rapidly and in 1913 she made another suicide attempt.

After these events, the couple decided to move away from Brunswick square, first in October 1914 to Richmond in the suburbs of London, and then, in early March 1915, to Hogarth House, Paradise Road also in Richmond.

Since the age of 19, Virginia had enjoyed bookbinding as a pastime. Knowing of his wife’s passion, Leonard suggested setting up a publishing company as well as publishing Virginia’s own works, thus The Voyage Out was published in 1915 – unfortunately followed by another suicide attempt. Hogarth Press, as it began to be called, was not fully set up until 1917, although, at this stage, it was merely a printing press on their dining room table.

The first publication under the name Hogarth Press was Two Stories which consisted of two short stories, one by Virginia, The Mark on the Wall, and one by Leonard, Three Jews. Although only 32 pages, the publication process took over two months, each of the 150 copies being hand bound and sewn. The stories were accompanied by woodcut illustrations designed by Dora Carrington (1893-1932), which helped to make the publication a great success. Other short stories quickly followed, such as Kew Gardens written by Virginia and illustrated by her sister Vanessa.

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Woolf’s bust in Tavistock Square

To begin with, Hogarth Press only concentrated on small publications, often works that commercial publishers would reject or overlook, however, the Press eventually moved on to bigger things. In 1924, the Woolfs took out a lease at 52 Tavistock Square, Bloomsbury where they used the basement space to run Hogarth Press in a more efficient manner. Virginia also had a personal room where she could concentrate on her writing, which was published by the Press. Subsequently, other notable authors began to approach Hogarth Press with their own work, particularly the poet T. S. Eliot (1888-1965).

A large number of publications by Hogarth Press were, of course, written by Virginia. Her second novel, Mrs Dalloway was published in 1925, which describes a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a middle-aged high-society woman in post–War England. The story, which is arguably Virginia’s best-known novel, alternates between Clarissa’s preparation for a party in the evening and the psychiatric problems of Septimus Warren Smith, a war veteran with severe PTSD.

Her third novel, To the Lighthouse (1927), was published the following year and rates at 15th place on the Modern Library’s 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century selected in 1998. The story focuses on the Ramsay family and their visits to the Isle of Skye, however, it contains very little dialogue or action. Instead, the novel is formed of a series of thoughts and observations that recall childhood memories and adult relationships. To the Lighthouse has many similarities with Virginia’s own childhood and it is believed she began writing it in order to deal with unresolved issues concerning both her late parents.

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Vita Sackville-West, 1934

Just as To the Lighthouse was inspired by her own life, her third novel Orlando (1928) was sparked after learning about the turbulent family history of her close friend and lover, Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962). Virginia and Vita’s relationship was recently studied at the Barbican Centre in an exhibition called Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde. Despite being married, Virginia began an intimate relationship with the poetess Vita after meeting her through Bloomsbury Group connections in December 1922.

Virginia and Vita’s relationship was strongest between 1925 and 1928 but by the 1930s they had evolved into good friends rather than intimate lovers. During this time, Vita attempted to raise Virginia’s self-esteem and, regardless as to whether she was successful, Virginia’s work began to flourish. As well as To the Lighthouse and Orlando, Virginia also completed The Waves (1931) and wrote a number of essays.

Orlando is an eponymous novel that describes the centuries-long adventures of a poet who changes sex from man to woman. Despite being a work of fiction, the reference to Vita was obvious, causing her son to comment “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.”

Around the same time as her relationship with Vita, Virginia lectured Women & Fiction at Cambridge University. As well as exploring her own sexuality, Virginia was concerned about the rights of women and the importance of independence. From these lectures, Virginia penned the essay A Room of One’s Own.

The 172-page essay published by the Hogarth Press in 1929, argues both literally and figuratively for a space for women writers in a world predominately dominated by men. At the time of publication, women had only just been given the freedom to vote in Britain and were still a long way off the rights that women in the western world have today. Thus, A Room of One’s Own quickly became an important feminist text.

Before the essay was published, Virginia was worried that she would be “attacked for a feminist & hinted at for a sapphist [lesbian]”, however, the theme of lesbianism was discussed in such a discreet way that it avoided complaints of obscenity.

Despite her lesbian tendencies – or, perhaps, bisexuality – Virginia remained married to Leonard for the remainder of her life. Unfortunately, these years were marred by her mental health, often suffering a nervous breakdown after the publication of each novel. After finishing the draft for her final book Between the Acts (published posthumously, 1941), Virginia fell into another bout of depression. Along with all the blows she had encountered in life, the war years had taken its toll of Virginia’s fragile mind. To make matters worse, the beginning of the Blitz saw the destruction of her London home, which, along with the death of a close friend, worsened her condition until she could no longer work.

During her final years, Virginia’s diaries were full of ramblings about death and in March 1941, she wrote a final letter to her devoted husband.

Dearest,

I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight it any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that—everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.

On 28th March 1941, Virginia Woolf walked into the River Ouse near her home in Sussex with her pockets full of stones. Her body, which was eventually found on 18th April was cremated and interred under an elm tree in the garden at Monk’s House, the Woolfs’ final home together in Rodmell, Sussex.

Since her death, Virginia’s mental health has received a lot of attention from professionals – the sort of attention that would have been more beneficial during her lifetime. Most psychiatrists agree that Virginia was suffering from Bipolar Disorder, also known as manic depression, which would account for her extreme mood swings and psychotic episodes.

Despite her untimely end, Virginia Woolf is known throughout the world for her contributions to twentieth-century literature, as well as the influence she has had on feminism. Many authors state Virginia as one of their greatest inspirations, including Margaret Atwood (b.1939) and Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014).

Virginia’s works have been adapted for the screen and her name has appeared in many other areas of popular culture. The play by Edward Albee (1928-2016) Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a prime example. Also, in 2014, an exhibition about Virginia Woolf was held at the National Portrait Gallery in London, and it is believed her portrait on a postcard has been the most sold than any other person in their gift shop.

In 2013, King’s College London honoured the writer with the opening of the Virginia Woolf Building on Kingsway. A plaque commemorating her work and contributions to the college is in pride of place on the building bearing her name. Sculptures of Virginia’s head and shoulders have also been errected near two places she once lived: Rodmell and Tavistock Square.

Virginia Woolf’s name and ideas will live on through her books, essays and organisations such as the Virginia Woolf Society and The Virginia Woolf Society of Japan. It is important, however, to remember Virginia as a human being and not just one of the greatest 20th-century writers. Everyone has struggles of one form or another but Virginia had more than her fair share. Nevertheless, this only goes to emphasise her talents; despite being very unwell, Virginia Woolf wrote and did things that people will respect forever.