Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf, 1911-12

From the National Gallery of Australia:

‘For now she need not think about anybody. She could be herself, by herself … All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself … Although she continued to knit, and sat upright, it was thus that she felt herself; and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures.’

When Virginia Woolf wrote this of her character Mrs Ramsay in To the lighthouse (1927), Woolf could just as easily have been describing herself as she was painted by her sister in this work. Bell’s portrait captured a moment of quiet intimacy between the sisters, with Virginia knitting or sewing, quite unselfconsciously ‘being herself’.

Virginia Woolf (1882–1941), c.1912. Vanessa Bell (English, 1879-1961). Oil on panel. National Trust, Monk’s House.

Nestled in the heart of rural Sussex, Monk’s House is a tranquil 17th-century weatherboarded cottage inhabited by Leonard and the novelist Virginia Woolf from 1919. Full of their favourite things, the house appears as if they just stepped out for a walk. The Woolfs bought Monk’s House for the ‘shape and fertility and wildness of the garden.’

It’s not only your kindness I miss; it’s your discipline. I get more and more disillusioned and random; often say the wrong things […] I have quarrelled with many people because of my bad manners; calling them wrong names by mistake, so you must take me to your arms and cover me with kisses—
—  Virginia Woolf, from a letter to Vanessa Bell