Published in 1927, this is the third edition of Kew Gardens, a short story by Virginia Woolf. Set over the course of a hot July afternoon in a flower bed, the story moves from descriptions of plant and insect life to snatches of overhead conversations.

Although 'Kew Gardens' captures vivid scenes of natural beauty, the conversations speak of past regrets, disappointment, and empty relationships. The two men bring death and World War One into the frame, and the jerking movement of the older man suggests shell shock.

Vanessa Bell’s designs

First published by the Hogarth Press in 1919, Vanessa Bell was unhappy with the end result of her two original woodcut illustrations, thinking them ‘very bad’.[1] Both the story and illustrations were reviewed favourably, however. The Times Literary Supplement described the book as ‘a thing of original and therefore strange beauty, with its own “atmosphere”, its own vital force’.[2]

This hardback edition contains new ‘decorations’ by Bell that adorn the cover and each page of text. Bell’s decorations entwine with Woolf’s text, changing its physical form on the page. In addition to the stylised flowers and natural forms, several pages feature Bell’s favourite motifs such as the cross-hatch and circle. Other designs contain literal nods to the text, such as the circle with spokes on the final page that seems to echo ‘the motor omnibuses … turning their wheels’.

‘Kew Gardens’ and the visual arts

Letters and diary entries reveal Virginia Woolf's strong interest in the visual arts. ‘Kew Gardens’ has often been seen as an example of Woolf’s ‘painterly’ technique. Woolf’s descriptions are full of interactions between shape, light and colour, such as in the final passage:

Yellow and black, pink and snow white, shapes of all these colours, men, women, and children were spotted for a second upon the horizon, and then, seeing the breadth of yellow that lay upon the grass, they wavered and sought shade beneath the trees, dissolving like drops of water in the yellow and green atmosphere, staining it faintly with red and blue.

Scholars have made links between ‘Kew Gardens’ and Impressionism, the 19th-century French art movement which included artists such as Claude Monet and Paul Cézanne.

[1] The Diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. by Anne Oliver Bell and Andrew McNeillie (London: Hogarth Press, 1977–84), Vol. I, p. 279, quoted by Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf (London: Vintage, 1997), p. 369.

[2] Times Literary Supplement, 29 May 1919, pp. 66–67, quoted by Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf (London: Vintage, 1997), p. 369.