Spender on Woolf

In The Listener, April, 1941, there is a tribute by Stephen Spender on the death of Virginia Woolf. Below is the full text.


 Vanessa Bell’s Portrait of Virginia Woolf

In these dark times, the death of Virginia Woolf cannot strike her circle of friends and admirers except as a light which has gone out. Whatever its significance, her loss is irreparable. Her strength-and perhaps also her weakness lay in her rare mind and personality. Moreover, the quality of what she created had the undiluted purity of one of those essentially uncorrupted natures which seem set aside from the world for a special task by the strangest conjunction of fortune and misfortune.

Yet when one thinks of what Virginia Woolf achieved, her life appears far more a wonderful triumph over many difficulties than in any sense a defeat. In a different time or in different circumstances, she might well have died far younger and with far less finished. As it is, although she died at the height of her powers, she had completed the work of a lifetime. The history of other writers who have suffered from ill-health shows how much there is here to be grateful for.

Her best novels, or prose poems in the form of fiction, are The Voyage Out, Jacob’s Room, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, The Waves. Although all of these novels have tn common the qualities which distinguish her writing, they differ not merely in portraying different material, but in having different artistic aims. Indeed the artistic aims in Virginia Woolf‘s novels are far more varied than the material, which is somewhat narrow and limited.

Most novelists having achieved, by about their third novel, a mature style, continue to write novels in that style, but covering different aspects of experience. With Virginia Woolf, however, style, form and material are indivisible. With every new novel she was ‘trying to do something different’, especially with time. For example, the whole action of Mrs. Dalloway takes place in one day: the first long section of To the Lighthouse describes a scene lasting for perhaps an afternoon ; this is followed by a very short section describing the passage of several years, illustrated by the decay of an empty house. Orlando is a fantastic account of someone who lives for several hundred years. beginning as a man and turning into a woman. The Waves is a poetic account of people seen through each other’s minds through all their lives, speaking their thoughts in poetic imagery to each other. A new way of writing a book was simply a new way of looking at life for Virginia Woolf : she held life like a crystal which she turned over in her hands and looked at from another angle. But a crystal is too static an image; for, of course, she knew that the crystal flowed.

It is a well known device of composers to take a theme and write variations on it. The same tune which is trivial in one light passage in a major key is profound in a minor key scored differently; at times the original tune seems lost while the harmonies explore transcendent depths far beyond the character of the original theme; now the tune runs fleetingly past us; now it is held back so that time itself seems slowed down or stretched out. This musical quality is the essence of Virginia Woolf ’s writing. The characters she creates – Mrs. Dalloway, Mrs. Ramsay, Mr. Ramsay are well defined to be sure, but they are only the theme through which she explores quite other harmonics of time, death, poetry and a love which is more mysterious and less sensual than ordinary human love.

A passage from To the Lighthouse will illustrate the ’ beauty which she could achieve Mr. Ramsay, who is a philosopher – almost a great Victorian – faces the sense of his own an failure: and what are two thousand years? (asked Mr. Ramsay ironically staring at the hedge). What, indeed, if you look from a mountain top down the long wastes of the ages? The very stone one kicks with one’s boot will outlast Shakespeare. His own little light would shine, not very brightly, for a year or two, and would then be merged in some bigger light, and that in a bigger still. (He looked into the darkness, into the intricacy of the twigs.) Who then could blame the leader of that forlorn party which after all has climbed high enough to see the waste of the years and the perishing of stars, if before death stiffens his limbs beyond the power of movement he does a little consciously raise his numbed fingers to his brow, and square his shoulders, so that when the search party comes they will find him dead at his post, the line figure of a soldier. Mr. Ramsay squared his shoulders and stood very upright by the urn. This passage has all Virginia Woolf ’s virtues, and perhaps some of her defects. It starts off by being very faithful even in its irony to the thoughts of Mr. Ramsay. She takes one of those plunges beyond the present situation of her character into the past and the future which strikes one often in her writing as a night of pure poetic genius. But then the focus shifts and the writer has forgotten her character’s thoughts, or perhaps she is regarding him from the outside. But the image of the leader of the expedition in the snow is a little too general, and one begins to wonder whether she hasn’t strayed too far from the particular.

As with the impressionist painters, there are opposing tendencies in her novels. The one is centrifugal, the tendency for everything to dissolve into diffused light and in the brilliant detachment with which their surroundings flow through her characters’ minds. The other is centripetal-the tremendous preoccupation with form which nevertheless holds her novels together and makes them far more significant than if they were just the expression of a new way of looking at life. This doubtless reflects an acute nervous tension in her own mind between a two great sensitivity which tended to disintegrate into uncoordinated impressions, and a noble and sane determination not to lose hold of the central thread.

To have known Virginia Woolf is a great privilege, because it is to have known an extraordinary and poetic and beautiful human being. Some critics describe her as forbidding and austere. Her austerity was not that of a closed-in or a prudish mind. As with all genuinely intelligent people, one could discuss anything with her with the greatest frankness; she was far too interested in life to make narrow moral judgements. Perhaps she was a little too impatient towards stupidity and tactlessness; it is a gift to writers to suffer fools gladly. To be with her was a joy, because her delight and her awareness of everything around her communicated themselves easily and immediately to her friends. What was written on her beautiful unforgettable face was not severity at all, though there was some melancholy; but most of all there was the devotion and discipline which go with the task of poetic genius, together with the price in the way of nervous strain and physical weakness which doubtless she had to pay.

The Works of Mark Gertler

This is a press piece by Valentine Dobree some years after the suicide of Mark Gertler and on the eve of a retrospective at Leicester Galleries. Gertler gassed himself in his London studio in 1939. He was suffering at the time from increasing financial difficulties, his wife had recently left him, he had held a critically derided exhibition at the Lefevre Gallery, he was still depressed over the death of his mother and Carrington’s own suicide (both in 1932), and he was filled with fear over the imminent world war.

Valentine Dobrée was born Gladys May Mabel Brooke-Pechell in India. She studied art under Andre Derain but had no further formal education in art. In 1913 she married Bonamy Dobrée. From April 1914 until the outbreak of the War they lived in Florence. Returning to England she led a Bohemian life – she had an affair with Mark Gertler, who painted her portrait in 1919 and 1920, and became a close friend of Roland Penrose and Dora Carrington. In 1920 she exhibited with the London Group. Between 1921-25 the Dobrées lived in a French village in the Pyrenees. She published many books, the first novel was ‘Your Cuckoo Sings by Kind’. This was followed in 1929 by a second novel ‘The Emperor’s Tigers’. In the same year the Dobrées returned to England, settling at Mendham Priory, Harleston, Norfolk, near Diss. In her literary capacity, Dobrée was admired by T. S. Eliot and Graham Greene, she died in 1974.

The Works of Mark Gertler

The Leicester Galleries are holding a comprehensive exhibition of Mark Gertler’s painting. Even a year or two may help one to get a better perspective often artist’s work, and see him against the background of his time; especially now when the time of entre deux guerres has by the present violence been shunted to a premature past. The people who lived and worked in it, made it, and no longer seem its victims. All have become part of the continuity, and questions of development, experiments, influences seem to vanish as a mirage, for it is a very new past. Some of these questions don’t seem very important in Gerder’s work. He is a lonely figure, and followed his own way and was not often_ tempted to leave it. Because he was so highly individual, one cannot help thinking it will take some time before he is really appreciated. It is the penalty for not being in any particular movement ; the field is wide with no others to plot out or strike their claim in this or that area. But since he was an artist of great integrity, and since he made no easy communications, it might be worth while to examine one aspect of this integrity.


 Mark Gertler – Portrait of a Girl, 1912

Christian Zervos reports that Picasso, in conversation, said: ‘It is my misfortune and perhaps my joy that I give things their place according to my love for them. What an unhappy plight for a painter who loves blonde women, but who feels himself forbidden to put them in the picture because they don’t go with the basket of fruit! What misery for a painter who detests apples to feel obliged to use them always because they go with the table-cloth. I put in my pictures all the things that I love. Tant pis pour les chases, they just have to settle it between themselves’.


 Mark Gertler – Mandolinist, 1934.

There is one of the roots of integrity, and if Gertler could speak now, and look back with us on his life’s work, that might very well be what he would say, ‘I put in my pictures all the things that I love’. And as is so often the way, the things that he loved were the things of his youth: the interior, the lace-veiled front room, with its ornaments, the bright ruched cushions, the slightly dusty artificial flowers, all a little crowded, and presided over by the monumental figure of his mother. The grandeur, the scale, were those a child sees. Anyone, who knew him at the time, will remember his delighted discovery, when he felt that he could discard the unpractical, because fleeting, real flower for the artificial one, which would always be there. Practical? Yes. His technique was evolved from a long and careful study of the object, and he nearly always painted from life.


 Mark Gertler – The Artist’s Mother, 1911.

But also something more than practical; he painted those cotton roses and tulips with zest. This zest too is evident in his best portraits: those of simple people, the little servant girl, the Scots nursemaid, and above all his mother. The same bias is shown in some of his’ landscapes; the most successful being when the scene itself collaborated, and was as still as an interior. Looking at the present exhibition, it seems that here is an interesting and powerful link with the Victorian age. Fin de siécle sounds a curious word ‘to use for such a vigorous painter, yet in one sense it fits very aptly: in the sense that the glory had passed, and artificial silk had come on the market. One feels, here is a man who loved permanence; permanence in the way a Victorian would have understood it; the permanence achieved by making as complete a statement as possible. Nearly all his pictures are highly wrought.‘ 

Genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains, comes. into one’s mind, and with it all the mockery that has been aimed at the first rate swotter. Yet, if the taking pains is fortified by a constant and enduring passion, this is certainly the right description. This constant and enduring passion of Gertler showed itself in his refusal to be lured away by movements or fashions. It shows itself in one of those last magnificent still-lives: the work of a man who is prepared to take every step of the way, and who has held back nothing. Success opened to him the doors of London the metropolis , at heart, though, he remained the provincial Londoner. He accepted what was often intractable material, he had no agility in avoiding problems , but he had wisdom, for he knew that the artist is the most fated of mortals. He must remain faithful to the first imprint, retain his innocence. The pattern may refine, develop, extend, but in an artist of integrity, and there are no others, the pattern is not distorted or blurred; such as it is, it shines out.


 Mark Gertler – Violin Case and Flowers, 1930.

The Listener, 15th May 1941.
Wikipedia – Mark Gertler
Valentine Dobree – Liss Fine Art

Minton against Homophobia


 A photograph of John Minton.

In the Volumes of ‘The Listener’ that I own are curious features and letters. Below is a set-to between Dr. Marie Stopes and John Minton in the letters pages about Oscar Wilde’s homosexuality and the views of homosexuality as a whole in British society.

Homosexuality was still illegal in Great Britain in 1950 and yet John Minton was openly gay and lived at this time with his partner Ricky Stride, a bodybuilding ex-sailor. Marie Stopes set up the first birth control clinic as a way to implement eugenic beliefs she had within the Galton Institute (Even in the 50s long after it was ‘fashionable-thought’). She cut her son out of her will as he married a short-sighted woman (the daughter of ‘dam buster’ Barnes Wallis) and that she believed his children would inherit this condition.

The homophobic views of Stopes are ones that have echoed throughout time unjustly and Minton’s defence is bold. Ten years later it would be the London of David Hockney and free love, but in post-war Britain, the prejudices and intolerance where rife as the country struggled with Christianity and meaning for what they had just ‘fought for’.

Re: Oscar Wilde and Alfred Douglas – January, 5th, 1950.
  Sir, It is indeed extraordinary that Herbert Read should state in your pages that ‘Lord Alfred Douglas emerges as the most complete cad in history’ simply on the basis of the hysterical and deranged outpourings of Oscar Wilde in prison. Wilde was then in a condition which any psychiatrist can recognise as bordering on insanity owing to the excessive shock to his self-esteem of prison, and the exposure of the abnormal and filthy practices which he had been indulging in with stable boys.

One has only to look at the portrait of the gross middle-aged abnormal man in his forties beside the exquisite body and face of the young man in the early twenties who is supposed to have ruined the experienced elder to realise that Herbert Read has a curious sense of values.
Lord Alfred Douglas’ magnificent sonnets (broadcast not long ago as being second only to those of Shakespeare) and the facts of his sensitiveness and his generosity to Wilde will outlive such malignancy as is current at the moment.
– Yours, etc. Dr Marie Stopes. Dorking

Re: Dr Marie Stopes – January, 12th, 1950.
  Sir, In her letter concerning Wilde and Douglas it is indeed distressing that someone of Dr. Marie Stopes’ eminence should refer to Wilde’s homosexuality with such bigoted moral fervour. The enormous contribution made throughout history, particularly in the arts-to society by homosexuals should surely make for a more tolerant and sympathetic understanding than to refer with such scorn to Wilde’s ‘abnormal and filthy practices’. In this country where the same vicious law which imprisoned Wilde still operates one looks to those with pretensions to a scientific approach not to be victims of prejudice and intolerance but to give a lead for at least a saner and more comprehensive attitude towards the homosexual in society.
– Yours, etc. John Minton. London, N.W.8


 John Minton – Ricky Stride.

† The Listener – 1950. Vol XLIII #1093
‡ The Listener – 1950. Vol XLIV #1094

The Vision of Paul Nash

Below is an article by John Russell from The Listener magazine in November 1948. It’s mostly a promotional piece rather than a review, for the book ‘Paul Nash: Paintings, Drawings and Illustrations, 1948′. 

The publication of the book was timed with a retrospective exhibition of Nash’s work at the Tate Gallery two years after his death in 1946 of heart failure, as a result of his long-term asthma.


 Paul Nash – Landscape of the Vernal Equinox, 1943.

The Vision of Paul Nash by John Russell
In a moment of confidence (reproduced in June 1938 in that most fastidious of occasional periodicals, Signature) Paul Nash described how, as a very young man, he broke free from the thraldom of Rossetti. No violence was done; for he still trembled in sympathy with the luckless personages of that Italianate imagination, and was anxious to effect an unobtrusive retreat. ’I might have spared my caution’, he noted afterwards. ‘No one and no thing noticed either my presence or its departure. The lovers stayed locked in their anguished embrace, the chained monkey continued to pick the rose to pieces, the boar-hound of unsure anatomy still slept by the side of the lance and shield. On the window-sill the dove lay dead. Outside the door I passed the frenzied eavesdropper among the shadows’.

The man who could regard his own early attachments – and indeed the whole of life – with such ceremonious irony could not but appreciate the predicament of those who, in future years, will attempt to penetrate the imaginative world of Paul Nash himself. We who have grown up in this world, and marked each of its phases in turn, feel no such difficulty. The dis-peopled landscape of this painter’s art has long been accepted by us; and we know that for Paul Nash the conjunction of a toadstool and a tennis-ball  was as significant as the encounter of Lancelot and Guinevere. (He told us so, moreover-remarking that ‘for me at least, the forms of natural objects and the features of landscape were sufficient without the intrusion of human beings, or even animals’.)


 Paul Nash – Equivalents for the Megaliths, 1935.

To this conviction we owe the long series of painting in which he underprivileged members of the natural world were given the stature of heroic beings. It is in these works that the conventional order of landscape painting is reversed, and the fungus, the pebble and the diving-board are presented as triumphal features. In the last years of his life, when illness took from him all freedom of movement, he removed, in imagination, still further from the landscapes available to the casual eye. ‘What the body is denied’, he wrote at this time, ‘the mind must achieve’.

Many a friend and acquaintance of Paul Nash must recall how this painter, remarkable as ever for his anachronistic elegance of dress and diction, would expound in the sedate recesses of north Oxford the new visions on which he was working – the cluster of hellebores aslant the night sky, or the underground fortress of the mole. For those who knew, however slightly, this finest of men, it is natural to wish, and in wishing to assume, that the quality and intensity of his imagination have been perfectly reproduced in his work.


 Paul Nash – Iron steps, 106 Banbury Road, Oxford (Nash’s Home).

The wish, if not the assumption, has animated, for example, the majestic memorial volume which Messrs. Lund Humphries have rescued from dereliction. Miss Eates, the general editor, has followed in outline the plans laid down by the artist himself; the publishers, less fortunate, have inherited a quantity of plates, and a quality of paper, that one would not normally associate with their imprint. In default of those last personal ornaments which Paul Nash would have known so well how to give, Miss Eates has called upon four distinguished enthusiasts to contribute essays upon various aspects of the artist’s activity. Mr. Read, Mr. Rothenstein, Miss Ramsden and Mr. Philip James discharge their duties in able and affectionate style; there is a good, though not a complete catalogue of known paintings by Paul Nash; and 132 plates, of which twenty are in colour.

Paul Nash’s pictures are peculiarly difficult to reproduce. The unvarnished surface of his oils inclines to look thin and dry when transposed into monochrome; and as for the key-cold delicacy of his watercolours, there can be few signatures which so constantly evade the reproducer’s craft.

Some periods come off well in this memorial volume – the exacerbated realism, for instance, of the paintings brought home from Flanders in 1918; the patient geometry of the late nineteen-twenties; and some of the pictures which it is possible to regard as his finest work- the series done at Dymchurch between 1922 and 1924, in a landscape where, as Nash later remarked, ‘natural and artificial forms have equal pictorial significance, even amounting to architectural beauty’. As against this, there are many reproductions which can only give, to those who do not known the originals, a derisory impression of the science and devotion which made Paul Nash not merely an original fantasticator, but also the best straightforward water-colourist of his generation.


 Paul Nash – The Wall, Dymchurch, 1923.

Nash was that rarest of beings – an English water-colourist who got better and better; and he was never so good as when, during the last holiday of his life, he painted at Cleeve Hill, near Cheltenham, the series of sunset studies which, by their mastery of tone and variety of attack, can rank in the company of Girtin and Cotman. Of these paintings, unluckily, a grotesque amount is given, and one can hardly conceive that the artist would have sanctioned their appearance. One can only be grateful for the enthusiasm and the disregard for commercial obstacles which have gone to the making of this book, and its plates include many works which are rare, and some which have been destroyed; but it remains legitimate to hope that before long somebody will publish Paul Nash’s fragmentary memoirs, and a substantial collection of his admirable letters, for in these shines out the preservative irony which will help the best of his work to survive the hazards of reputation.


 Paul Nash – The Pyramids in the Sea, 1912.

Here are fragments of text by Andrew Causey about Nash’s preparations on the book, that turned into a his memorial publication.

Paul Nash had been preparing for at least two years before his death in 1946 material for the book which Lund Humphries would publish in due course. He collected black-and-white prints from owners, some of them images he had not seen since before the First World War. And though he did not finish the project, he invested considerable time and energy in it, creating the skeleton of a book of which he may be considered part-author, and in which he could take much pride. 

The book signalled an advance on the conventional art book at that point: apart from the various authors’ texts, it contained supplementary information, including chronologies of Nash exhibitions and a list of Nash’s paintings and drawings in public collections in Britain and around the world. It was produced under difficult postwar conditions, marked especially by the shortage of paper of appropriate quality. ‡

The correspondence during the Second World War years surrounding Nash’s assembly of plates for what was to become the Lund Humphries book, shows how highly he valued his early drawings made around the family’s home at Iver Heath and how much his emotions were stirred by reliving his early life through his drawings. The paradox is that a book so personal to the artist and so full of references to his own life should not have been seen by Nash in its finished form. 


 Paul Nash: Paintings, Drawings and Illustrations, 1948.

† The Listener, November 1948. The Vision of Paul Nash by John Russell
‡ Lund Humphries – Celebrating 75 Years of Art Book Publishing. 1939–2014. – Paul Nash by Andrew Causey