POSSIBLY UNIQUE, BEAUTIFUL, AND HISTORICALLY SIGNIFICANT PLATINUM PRINT OF VIRGINIA WOOLF AND HER FATHER, LESLIE STEPHEN.
A view of Virginia Woolf (age 20) and her father, Leslie Stephen (age 69), from their July 1902 sitting with G.C. Beresford, the new but accomplished celebrity photographer of writers, artists, and politicians.
The sitting was arranged by Leslie’s stepson George Duckworth, to celebrate Leslie’s recent knighthood for his work on the Dictionary of National Biography – and, perhaps, to get a number of fine photographs of his half-sisters Virginia (20) and Vanessa (23) and their father before his cancer surgery. Thanks to that surgery, Leslie hung on for two more years. Shortly after his death, Virginia discussed the Beresford photographs:
"We had several taken just before his operation in December 1902. They are, I think, as good as photographs can be, though he looks more ill than he did afterwards."
The style of the photographs, in their strong manipulation of light and dark, is eerily reminiscent of those of Virginia’s great-aunt, Julia Margaret Cameron.
Woolf described her feelings towards her father as “ambivalent.” She felt that while he “would have blushed with pride” when she was offered the same Clark lectureship in 1932 that he held in 1883, had he lived longer, she reflected, “his life would have entirely ended mine…. No writing, no books; - inconceivable.”
Smith College, home to many Stephen family treasures, has woven together a revealing selection of Woolf’s words on her father:
My father fails to be described.
He was…especially when his hair was curled into a thick bob behind his ears, a very striking, indeed a magnificent figure; well dressed…very lean and tall and bent, with his beard flowing so that his little scraggy tie scarcely showed.
He had certain ruling passions. Off he would stride with his sandwiches for some tremendous walk. Out he would come with some fact, or opinion, no matter who was there. And he had very strong opinions; and he was extremely well informed. What he said was thus most respectfully listened to. There was something we had in common. “What have you got hold of?” he would say, looking over my shoulder at the book I was reading; and how proud, priggishly, I was, if he gave his little amused surprised snort, when he found me reading some book that no child of my age could understand. I was a snob no doubt, and read partly to make him think me a very clever little brat. And I remember his pleasure, how he stopped writing and got up and was very gentle and pleased when I came into the study.
When I read his books I get a critical grasp of him…I find not a subtle mind; not an imaginative mind; not a suggestive mind. But a strong mind; a healthy out of door, moor striding mind; an impatient, limited mind; a conventional mind entirely accepting his own standard of what is honest, what is moral.
I admire (laughingly) that Leslie Stephen; and sometimes…have envied him. Yet he is not a writer for whom I have natural taste…I take a bit of him medicinally, and there often steals in, not a filial, but a reader’s affection for him; for his courage, for his simplicity, for his strength and nonchalance, and neglect of appearances.
When Nessa and I inherited the rule of the house [after their mother’s death], it was the tyrant father – the exacting, the violent, the histrionic, the demonstrative, the self-centered, the self-pitying, the deaf, the appealing, the alternately loved and hated father – that dominated me…
Just as I rubbed out a good deal of the force of my mother’s memory by writing about her in To the Lighthouse, so I rubbed out much of his memory there too…Until I wrote it out, I would find my lips moving; I would be arguing with him, raging against him; saying to myself all that I never said to him. But in me, rage alternated with love. It was only the other day when I read Freud for the first time, that I discovered that this violently disturbing conflict of love and hate is a common feeling; and it is called ambivalence.
(“A Case Study: Virginia Woolf and Her Father,” text selected and edited by Michele Wick, Smith College).
Scarce, possibly a unique surviving print:
Bloomsbury arts scholar Wendy Hitchmough notes that commissioned photos such as these from the 1902 Beresford sitting were likely “loaned or given away, and as such they have been lost, almost without trace, over the years.” The only such images we can trace are in institutional hands – and no examples of this particular image. In fact, Woolf preserved in her album (now at the Houghton Library at Harvard) only one Beresford photo of herself with her father (similar to this one, except Woolf's eyes are looking downward):
"It is the least conventional and the image most indicative of her agency and originality as a young woman… Virginia leans in close, angling her face to his to accentuate the family likeness. The contrast between Sir Leslie’s sombre frailty and her own anxious, youthful face, claiming her heredity as an intellectual and a writer, is poignant…. Woolf fixed the double portrait with her father beneath two of Beresford’s finest photographs of Sir Leslie. Both sisters also dedicated full pages to the Beresford portraits of Thoby immediately adjacent to those bearing their own images. Within their album contexts these photographs offer extraordinary insights into the Edwardian currency of Bloomsbury photographs, and the ways in which Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell explored issues of image and identity on their own terms."
(Wendy Hitchmough, “Face Values: George Beresford’s Photographs of Virginia Woolf & Vanessa Bell”, Yale University).
London: George Charles Beresford, 1902. Platinotype (platinum print), printed by Beresford, with his name and address on the original backing. Original matte with abrasions above and below photograph (likely from remnants from adhesive); photo lifting from backing; photo itself in remarkably good condition, crisp and unfaded, with only two tiny creases in upper margin and a touch of wear around the edges. Housed in custom archival presentation folder.
A STUNNING AND IMPORTANT PHOTO.
Price: $20,000 .