Virginia Woolf and artistic legacy
Memorials are based on retrospective interpretations of the past. How, then, can one stop the present from muddying the past? Catherine Nock assesses the difficulties of upholding artistic legacy and the controversy surrounding a planned Virginia Woolf statue.
Hidden in an alleyway just off Oxford’s Hollywell Street is a blue plaque commemorating Jane Burden, marked with two intriguing and dated occupations: Pre-Raphaelite Muse and Embroiderer. Thanks to her role as a model, or Muse, this quiet little blue plaque is not the only way the wife of William Morris survives – she peers from the sycamore leaves of oneiric paintings such as Rossetti’s The Day Dream (1880), and physical traces of her remain in the stitches of her embroidery. Her maiden name shines out in large lettering; her married name lingers more subtly below – as if a second, or separate, identity.
Blue plaques are a uniform, respectful way to conserve artistic legacy, anchored onto the walls of birthplaces to remind us whose shoes once walked there. However, memorialising does not always take one shape. Memorials may be even quieter than this, barer and more essential – as is the case for Sylvia Plath. The foremost physical memorial of Plath is a small headstone in Yorkshire, with her married name of ‘Hughes’ repeatedly chipped off by readers incensed on her behalf – a controversial piece due to its very smallness. On the other side of the scale, it may, like the Shelley memorial (also in Oxford), take the form of the entire human body. The dramatic marble effigy of the drowned body of Percy Shelley is displayed in the same college Shelley was expelled from, and has been frequently pranked using paints, flooding, and goldfish.
There are more statues of animals than of women in London
In similar size and stature is the planned Virginia Woolf memorial, designed by artist Laury Dizengremel and which Richmond council has planned to position gazing out at the Thames. More commemoration of female artists is badly needed – especially in light of the Guardian’s revelation that there are more statues of animals than of women in London. Even among this limited population, the women represented are much more likely to be mythological or royal figures – over 97% more likely, to be precise.
However, the planned Woolf memorial has come under fire for its resonance with the writer’s suicide; Woolf died by drowning herself in the River Ouse in East Sussex, 1941. Barry May, the chair of the Richmond society, vocalises concerns about the statue’s planned location by the Thames – a bold decision with clear, and potentially uncomfortable, links to Woolf’s death.
Supporters of the statue cite its ability to raise discussions about mental health, which the intentionality of its placement refuses to shy away from – the location of a memorial is just as significant as its content. However, there is a risk that the statue will contribute to a re-definition of Woolf as ‘an artist who committed suicide’ by gesturing so strongly to her death – a move that many have branded insensitive.
Using statues to memorialise is a powerful way to, as Antony Gormley writes, ‘use the physical means to talk about the spirit’. The planned statue, despite gesturing so strongly to death, nevertheless engages with the sheer happiness that Woolf sometimes writes about and often felt. The relaxed stance and gentle smile are intentional features that work at capturing the entirety of Woolf’s ‘spirit’.