Items from Smith's Virginia Woolf Collections on Display in London

This Christmas card made by Virginia Woolf's sister, Vanessa Bell, is among the items from Smith's Woolf collections now on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Nearly a century ago, British author Virginia Woolf is said to have refused to sit for a likeness for the National Portrait Gallery in London because of the absence of paintings of women on the walls.

She assumed her own portrait would simply languish in a drawer.

But on July 10, with help from Smith College’s library collections, an exhibition celebrating Woolf’s life through portraiture opened at the London gallery.

“Now we’ve got her,” Frances Spalding, the show’s curator, told a reporter for


An image of Virginia and Leonard Woolf from July 1912 that is part of the online exhibition in Smith’s Mortimer Rare Book Room.

Among the 140 items on display through October 26 as part of “Virignia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision” are 11 original letters, hand-printed books and photographs from Smith’s collections.

In June, those rare archival items were packed into a specially designed crate and escorted on a flight to London by an agent from a fine art shipping firm, said Karen Kukil, associate curator of special collections at Neilson Library.

A bronze bust of Woolf “supervised” the packing at the library, Kukil added, with a smile.

Kukil said planning for the loan to the London gallery began two years ago, when Spalding visited Smith’s Mortimer Rare Book Room to select items for the Woolf exhibition.

Spalding was familiar with Smith’s collections, having been on campus in 2010 to give a talk in conjunction with “A Room of Their Own,” an exhibition of works by Bloomsbury artists at the Smith College Museum of Art.

Kukil said Smith is pleased to have contributed to the breadth of the new show in London.

“What’s nice about the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is that it’s not only paintings and portraits, but also archival items,” she noted. “Things that capture really important moments in Woolf’s life.”

One of the items on loan from Smith, for example, is a Feb. 17, 1909, letter to Woolf (then Virginia Stephen) from fellow Bloomsbury Group writer Lytton Strachey. Strachey had proposed to Woolf but withdrew the offer almost immediately when he realized they were not in love, Kukil said. His letter to Woolf states that “the important thing is that we should like each other.”

Strachey remained lifelong friends with Woolf and her husband, Leonard, whom she married in 1912. When the couple got engaged, they wrote Strachey a two-word letter, “Ha! Ha!” which is also on loan from Smith in the London show.

Strachey’s letters are part of Smith’s Frances Hooper Collection of Virginia Woolf Books and Manuscripts, which was bequeathed to the college in 1986 by Smith alumna Frances Hooper, class of 1914.

Kukil said Smith is also lending the London gallery an original Julia Margaret Cameron photograph of Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen, along with a number of digitized images from Stephen’s photograph album.

Smith alumna Elizabeth P. Richardson ’43 presented the album and other items comprising the Elizabeth P. Richardson Bloomsbury Iconography Collection to the college in 1998.  

The show at the National Portrait Gallery also contains archival items from the British Library and the New York Public Library, including two suicide letters and the walking stick that Woolf’s husband discovered the day she went missing in 1941. Her body was discovered a month later on the banks of the River Ouse. (Click here for an illustrated timeline).

Among those attending a July 8 private viewing of the London exhibition was alumna Julia MacKenzie, Am.S.Dipl, ’79.

In an email to Kukil, MacKenzie said she had not only “spotted many of the Smith items” on display, but also had a chance to greet Olivia Bell, wife of Woolf’s nephew, Quentin, “who was there in a wheelchair at the age of 98.”