24 June 2016

Virginia Woolf’s Kew Gardens

Virginia Woolf's short story Kew Gardens has received much acclaim since it was first published in 1919 and is still popular today, with a new edition released last year.

By Zoe Wolstenholme

A waterfall in the Rock Garden

Woolf on Kew

In 1919 Virginia Woolf published her short story Kew Gardens on the Hogarth Press that she and her husband Leonard Woolf had set up in their London home, Hogarth House in Richmond. From the top floor of their new home on Paradise Road she could glimpse Kew’s tall tree tops and the iconic Pagoda which now illustrates the new edition of the story published by Kew last year.

Reviewing the story in 1919, E.M. Forster wrote:

"It aims… at long loose sentences that sway and meander."

As Forster insinuates, the fiction meanders just as its characters do through the flower beds and past the lake. Their thoughts ramble from recollections of the past and considerations of where to have tea to contemplation of the natural world. This meandering of Woolf’s prose contributes to its impressionistic style, bringing images together to create a representation of the multi-layered nature of one moment en plein air in the Gardens.

The pattern of falling words

Sandra Kemp has noted that: “Woolf’s interest in the non-human voiced (the voice of silent objects or objects in nature) here, or elsewhere in the shorter fiction, shows her at her most experimental”. The Gardens provide the perfect backdrop to explore this intermingling of human and natural worlds and the story provides glimpses of moments where the two come together:

"The ponderous woman looked through the pattern of falling words at the flowers standing cool, firm, and upright in the earth, with a curious expression… So heavy the woman came to a standstill opposite the oval shaped flowerbed, and ceased even to pretend to listen to what the other woman was saying."

Woolf’s story thus weaves between the garden and its visitors.

“A thing of original and therefore strange beauty”

For the first edition of this painterly story Woolf’s sister, the artist Vanessa Bell, made a pair of woodcut prints to accompany the text. Bell was particularly interested in the form of the short story, writing to her sister in July 1917 “why don’t you write more short things…there is a kind of completeness about a thing like this that is very satisfactory and that you can hardly get in a novel”. Before Woolf began publishing her own works the sisters had worked independently, but this provided them both with the opportunity to collaborate and grow from each other’s practice. At the time the unique collaborative work in Kew Gardens was recognised as “a thing of original and therefore strange beauty, with its own “atmosphere”, its own "vital force”. 

First edition held at Kew

Kew’s Library Art and Archives collection holds a first edition of Woolf’s Kew Gardens with Bell’s original woodcut prints. This first edition was featured in the 2014/15 exhibition: Inspiring Kew at The Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art. Vanessa Bell’s prints, like Woolf’s prose, are busy and at first sight seem more of a pattern of shapes than a scene of the gardens. These slowly come into vision mirroring Woolf’s story which comes together over the process of the reading experience, through her own “pattern of falling words”.

Kew also holds a later edition of the short stories which are decorated by Bell with fluid illustrative lines. In this 1927 work Bell creates borders around and through the printed text, each page framed with a different scene. On the first page sprawling flowers reach up towards the text before spilling down the margins of the next pages creating borders of blooms just as the planting does along the paths at Kew itself. Next this morphs into tree-like illustrations with large leaves on slim straight trunks and Grecian temples like those of Aeolus or Bellona in the Gardens. Bell’s decorations take us on a visual tour of the Gardens accompanying Woolf’s story. Moreover, these works showcase Bell’s typical style, similar to her works for the Omega Workshops and decoration of her own home in East Sussex, Charleston. 

Woolf’s Kew Gardens today

The new edition of Woolf’s Kew Gardens, illustrated by Livi Mills, reinterprets Bell’s original illustrations. Her own borders that surround the text line the pages as Bell’s did in 1927 and express her fluid lines in a more geometric style. Mills takes the image of three flowers, an image prevalent in Bell’s oeuvre, and executes it in her own modern style. She also takes iconic images from Woolf’s story such as the dragonfly resting on the buckle of a shoe and the snail pushing his way under a leaf and repeats these throughout the book, just as images reoccur within the story.

Virginia Woolf’s Kew Gardens could still be the Kew of today, her stream-of-consciousness style capturing a timeless sense of contemplation and being surrounded by nature. Her flowers blowing pollen on the warm breeze above the heads of strolling couples reminiscing about past experiences in the Gardens is still a scene that can be glimpsed through the trees.

- Zoe Wolstenholme -

Gallery Assistant

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