When looking at this bronze bust of the writer Virginia Woolf, you may be taken aback by her aghast expression.
This bust (shelfmark BLWA 45), from 1990, is a recreation of a 1931 original by sculptor Stephen Tomlin. You can see it outside the Rare Books and Music Reading Room.
Although Woolf was painted on several occasions and was photographed throughout her life, she despised being peered at and was wary of having her portrait made. Tomlin first proposed sculpting her in 1924, but it was not until 1931 that she finally, and reluctantly, agreed.
When the six sittings began, Woolf had just finished her most experimental novel, The Waves and she was nervously awaiting the arrival of proofs. She is said to have found the experience torturous, as Tomlin's working method was slow and exhausting and she hated the remorseless and intense scrutinisation.
She complained in her diary that sitting for him on six afternoons made her feel ‘like a piece of whalebone bent’.
Eventually Woolf ended the sittings early, refusing to continue. Her husband, Leonard Woolf claimed that 'a shadow of her misery’ was ‘frozen into the clay of the portrait'.
Virginia Woolf was one of the most significant and influential modernist writers of the 20th century. Her writings were published between 1915 and 1941, the year in which she drowned herself in the River Ouse.
She is known for using a 'stream of consciousness’ technique in her novels, which take a non-linear approach with little plot, but instead focus on conveying the thoughts, memories and sensory experiences of her characters.
Contributed by Catherine Smith
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