A MAJOR new display at Chichester’s Pallant House Gallery takes Virginia Woolf’s seminal writing as its starting point. EDWIN GILSON finds out more

WHEN she was 13, Laura Smith, along with her two sisters, was given a copy of Virginia Woolf’s feminist classic A Room Of One’s Own by her mother.

It was a pretty cool way for the “massive hippy”, in Laura’s words, to introduce her daughters to teenage life.

Woolf’s lengthy essay, published in 1929, persuasively argues for the value of creative space and freedom of expression, especially for women in a patriarchal world.

The sometime Sussex-based author had already explored such tropes, and much more besides, in her novels Mrs Dalloway, To The Lighthouse and Orlando, all of which are now considered among the most ground-breaking modernist texts.

It will no doubt fill Laura’s mother with pride to know that her daughter, a prominent gallery curator, is preparing to open an exhibition based around Woolf’s work and ideology in the county where she spent large parts of her life.

Woolf often stayed with her husband Leonard in Monk’s House in Rodmell, near Lewes, and committed suicide in the River Ouse.

Laura’s display Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition Inspired By Her Writings launches in Chichester this weekend. It was dreamt up by Laura before she went for the job of curator at Tate St Ives, another place that holds great relevance for Woolf.

She holidayed with her family in the Cornish town and the lighthouse off the coast was immortalised in To The Lighthouse, the novel’s family finally sailing out to the shining beacon after an extended delay (if you’ve read it, you’ll know what I mean).

“I proposed this show in my interview at St Ives because of its links to Woolf,” says Laura, who is “looking after” the exhibition as it tours. She calls it “my baby”.

“St Ives has a history of speaking to visual artists but we never talk about the writers who visited. Woolf was there every summer until she was 13 and returned a lot as an adult. The lighthouse features in The Waves and Jacob’s Room as well as To The Lighthouse.”

While Laura’s enthusiasm for Woolf’s work is evident, she was actually drawn to St Ives initially through her interest in avant-garde poet Hilda Dolittle, commonly referred to as H.D, who spent time on the Isles Of Scilly.

H.D experienced a moment of revelation while in Cornwall, hallucinating that she was “enclosed by an amorphous, transparent dome” – an episode she referred to as the “jellyfish experience”. This set Laura on a quest to find out more about the connection between St Ives (and surrounding area) and great writers.

“I started looking into more feminist, modernist authors that had stayed there or near,” says Laura, “and I thought about making a show that included all of them.”

Laura’s display is expansive, entailing work by female artists from the modernist era at the start of the 20th century to the present day, and the curator admits that not every piece has a direct link to Woolf.

In fact, if Laura had her way, she might not have included the author in the show’s title at all. “Really honestly, Tate needs a name to hang a show on, and that name had to be Virginia Woolf,” she says.

This is to say that the themes contained within the display are too wide-reaching to be filed into a narrow category – and, at any rate, one of Laura’s main aims was to avoid the “works in the show becoming illustrations” of Woolf’s writing. The exhibition is loosely ordered in four sections: Landscape and place; still life, the home and a room of one’s own; the self in public; and the self in private.

The nature of the show means that many of the paintings could fit under a few of these labels. Dame Laura Knight’s The Dark Pool, for instance, the main picture above, shows a woman looking out to sea while apparently locked in deep introspection.

Gwen John’s Self-Portrait, top right, examines both private and public identity while View Of The Pond at Charleston by Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell, one of the more obvious inclusions, is effectively still life but also portrays nature.

“Not every single artist in the exhibition is inspired by Virginia Woolf,” says Laura. “It’s not that simple or didactic. It’s about creating a shared language and experience.”

Laura read Woolf’s poetic-prose book The Waves as a teenager only to find it “too dense”. She re-read many of her novels in preparation for this display with an extra studiousness, including A Room Of One’s Own, which provided an inspirational line. “At one point she writes, ‘creative women must think back through their mothers’” says Laura. “She tries to chart matriarchal history.

“My starting point came from thinking, “what would that matriarchal history look like, from modernist practice to contemporary art?’” Woolf’s (often subtle) feminist message has endured through the generations, placed under scrutiny by academics and even used for motivational slogans.

“I will take my mind out of its iron cage and let it swim” is one such quotable line, but one that also reveals Woolf’s preoccupation with the natural world and its potential for freedom. Laura very much sought to tease that theme out in her exhibition.

“She saw landscape as a site of emancipation,” she says. “I’m not saying she equates women with landscape, but she sees nature as something outside of patriarchal rules and expectation.”

Monk’s House pays testament to Woolf’s focus on domestic space, too, and the well-preserved writing cabin in the garden of the cottage is a poignant reminder of the importance of, well, having a room of one’s own. It’s the same with Charleston, the farmhouse once home to Vanessa Bell and adorned with her vibrant painting.

“Virginia and Vanessa set up their homes in a way that tried to break away from Victorian tradition that kept women indoors and chaperoned them, stopping them from reading and writing,” says Laura. “The re-appropriation of the domestic sphere was vital to them both.”

The Chichester exhibition will explore the legacy of Virginia’s commitment to her work and boundless creativity.

Who knows, perhaps the work on display will encourage young girls to pick up a pen or paintbrush and follow their own path to artistic fulfilment.