Virginia Woolf in Cornwall

And the Artist Alfred Wallis

Virginia and her Father. Image: timetoast

When driving into Cornwall, and leaving Bodmin Moor behind, then squeezing down into the toe of the county the air pressure changes, as does the light, and as you drive above and beyond Carbis Bay, you are, after a nasty left-hand bend, suddenly confronted with the curving amphitheatre that is Porthminster Beach, St Ives. A view that Virginia Stephen, as a child, would have looked forward to seeing as she, along with the rest of the Stephen family, made their slow journey by train from London to St Ives back in those long hot summers of the 1890s.

And what a welcome change from London it must have been for Adeline Virginia Stephen — later Virginia Woolf.

Virginia was born at 22 Hyde Park Gate, London, on the 25th of January, 1882. Her father was Leslie Stephen, a prolific author and the first editor of The Dictionary of National Biography. Virginia’s mother was Julia Duckworth, whose aunt was the famous photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron.

Both of Virgina’s parents had been married before, her father to the daughter of William Makepiece Thakeray, the novelist. Virginia’s mother, Julia, was firstly married to Herbert Duckworth QC, with the couple producing two sons and a daughter: George, born in 1868, and Gerald (who later started the publishing house of Duckworths) in 1870, with their daughter Stella, born in 1869. Leslie Stephen and Julia had a further four children, with Vanessa born in 1879, Thoby in 1880, Virginia in 1882, and Adrian in 1883. It was a mad-cap household with all of the eight children living in the Kensington house. Come the summer the whole clan, plus at least ten servants, decamped to St Ives and Talland House.

As Jane Dunn describes in her Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell — A Very Close Conspiracy:

“ Talland House stood behind its escallonia hedge on a hill just outside St Ives with a perfect view of the sea. A solid square-built white villa, it was surrounded by gardens sloping away in lawns and terraces. Hedges and its natural topography divided the garden up into a series of smaller gardens, named by the children: the coffee garden, the love garden, the fountain, the kitchen garden, the cricket lawn, providing spaces for family communal activities or for shady escape and the promise of mystery. The sound of the sea could be heard in every room and the Godrevy Lighthouse, with its pulsing light by night and distant presence by day, became a totem for them all.”

For all the joy that St Ives and Talland House seemed to bring the Stephen family seemed to be preoccupied by depression and grief, and after her mother’s death in 1895, and her half sister Stella’s death in 1897, Virginia suffered repeated bouts of clinical depression that only seemed to be alleviated by her writing that, nevertheless, subconsciously insisted she set the plots of her novels as far away from St Ives as possible, as if somehow distancing her art from what had seemed the happiest part of her life. And although there have been suggestions that Virginia was sexually abused whilst at Talland House, my own feeling is that Virginia simply wanted to keep the memories of St Ives safely isolated from the rest of her life, thereby giving her some sort of mental relief from her ever encroaching depression.

The St Ives that Virginia Woolf knew as a girl in the 1890s was also the St Ives of artist Alfred Wallis who had been sent there by a Mr Denley to open a marine rag-and-bone business along the same lines as the one he already ran for Denley in Penzance. And as the writer, painter and sculpter Sven Berlin writes in his 1949 biography of Wallis:

“ Denley knew what he was doing: in 1890 St Ives was the centre and home of a thriving industry — the fishing community was at its most prosperous. The little harbour was packed with boats tier upon tier, and the Porthminster Beach, adjacent to the harbour, was then the home of the seining boats, which were concerned entirely with pilchard fishing. It is now given over to holiday-makers.

“ From old photographs it is possible to gain some idea of the wharf as it was at that time. In contrast with the present sea-wall and promenade one is struck by the broken rocks over which the waves beat right up to the houses…”

There can be no doubt that the young Virginia would have known, at least by sight, the diminutive Alfred Wallis as he went about his rag-and-bone business in the small know-all-town that was, and is, St Ives. And the young girl (who was unafraid to wander the narrow streets and be inquisitive to the point of irritation) and the sunburned ex-sailor (who didn’t take up painting until after the death of his wife in 1922), they were both soaking in the sights and sounds of that small corner of Cornwall that, albeit in different genres, created work that is, to my eyes at least, very similar in feel and temperament, especially in its awkwardness and simplicity, in its immediacy and corresponding depth that is both comforting and frightening.

When we read a Virginia Woolf novel today, or look at an Alfred Wallis painting we experience something that feels, although small in size, stretched to infinity. And by so doing we also encounter ourselves: our vulnerability, our strength, our fears, our hopes, and ultimately our end. And as Jane Dunn suggests in her biography of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell:

“ Perhaps To The Lighthouse was the work of Virginia’s which in its entirety was most like a painting, and in which she explored most directly the painterly eye and instinct. She was exercised by the structure of the whole novel, with how to connect the past and present by constructing the section ‘Time Passes’ as the central core — just as her fictional artist Lily Briscoe struggles with the relationship in her painting between the masses of the wall, the hedge and the tree…”

Wallis. Image: bookroomartpress

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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