Printable version

Painting The Words”:

A Version of Lily Briscoe’s painting from To The Lighthouse.

Suzanne Bellamy

(A version of this essay was published in Virginia Woolf Across The Centuries.Selected Papers of the International Virginia Woolf Conference, (ed.) Anne Ardis and Bonnie Kime Scott. Pace Univ Press. 2000)

Words and images, writing and visual art, writers and artists. The space between is as anarchic and vulnerable as the table in Lily’s mind when she thinks of Mr. Ramsay. “It lodged now in the fork of a pear tree, its four legs in the air.”(TTL 27) This complex geography, the domain of dual creativity, preoccupies me as an artist, writer, and Woolf researcher. Lily Briscoe’s oeuvre and existence in Woolf is the diamond mine to which I return often, looking for the treasure, the place where the words and the painting meet.Woolf’s great experiment with Lily Briscoe, creating the painter, the paintings, the process, the resolution of forms, continues to open to new exploration. It was probably only a matter of time before transference happened, and I crossed the anarchic line.

The idea to paint Lily’s painting came to me on a walk down a dusty Australian country road early one morning. I have read To The Lighthouse many times,and felt growing in my brain the images enmeshed in the text. Now I wanted to see if there was really a more formal approach to this embedded visual text in the novel. Had anyone else painted the paintings? I knew only of the old video of TTL in a 1980’s BBC production, with a misjudged impressionistic image of Lily’s painting. I knew that wasn’t right. What did it look like? There’s the question. And of course I knew that Woolf had the ultimate freedom in this, because she could have several paintings floating at once, and had no restriction on producing the thing itself, the solid artifact.I felt, however, that she was serious about the painting in the novel, that it carried the form beyond the words, was the parallel text, or multiple text. The non-verbal gave deep structure to the work, and yet what can this mean in a book of words?

How complex this is. On the one hand there seems to be an acknowledgement, shared with Proust, that there is a territory where words cannot go, where something else must become the vehicle.At the same time, Woolf moves into the world I am calling the visual surreal, the place where visual form is forged out of a use of words that touches all the senses and bridges to a plane of multiple fusions. Cheryl Mares, in “Reading Proust: Woolf and the Painter’s Perspective” explores this rich territory of the two writers’ relationship to painting.Was this a literary game for Woolf, or could the paintings be made to work parallel to the words, in a parallel universe? The parallel universe can also work both ways, and the words themselves and their structures are changed by their dance with the visual.

Lily’s paintings in the novel exist in several forms, in two versions ten years apart, and textually can also be seen as incorporating all her visual and thought impressions as she plays the part of the eyes of the novel.As an example, her vision of Mr. Ramsay’s work as a scrubbed kitchen table, upsidedown in a pear tree, is pure surrealism and can be painted as such. Lily’s paintings are her formal canvas, and her continuous process of seeing/feeling/thinking/transforming become her canvas-in-action, that place as she experiences her life, where everything changes, where alchemy happens. “It was when she took her brush in hand that the whole thing changed.”(TTL 21.)

It became a creative game between us, Lily and I, her elusive painting and my attempts to follow the signs and proceed to manifestation. There was an element of play from the beginning, hide and seek, synchronicity, the one in the other, all surrealist techniques (Chadwick). The surrealist form became the theme of the whole project. I did not want to illustrate the novel, I wanted to take Lily’s journey in paint, and for this I wanted a companion.

Rules of the Game.

I had met artist Isota Tucker Epes at the Woolf conference in St Louis the previous year, and I immediately wrote to her to join me in the project. Each of us had produced art series on Woolf, and were equally very much intellectual in our approach as well. Two versions of this project, independently produced, would be a good base for this experiment. There would always be another way to see, to paint Lily’s work, and Woolf’s vision. Two was a good starting point. Our agreed brief was to paint Lily’s painting, and in the process we would hope to shed some new light on the novel, perhaps to find another or parallel reading. Little did I know at that time that Isota and I would go on a complex journey, produce several paintings,destroy some, and even at the end know we hadn’t really finished. This has been a rich mine indeed. The game involved Isota, me and Virginia. Our agreement was to work completely uninfluenced by each other, an ocean apart for the whole time, and only finally to see each other’s work when we opened our session at the conference. We kept to this deal, and only after the session, with J.J.Wilson, at a pub in Newark, could we unburden ourselves of the unexpected creative stresses of the journey. So intense were these that we are now embarking on The Waves, for 2000.

My Paintings... Method

The influence of my long and accumulated reading around the questions of Lily’s painting had to be faced head on at this point.I had to move into the studio and away from the books and ideas, to let the form happen as Lily let it, in the mix of witness, thought and process, down with the salt cellars and the tablecloth (TTL 100). From the start, in my mind I saw three paintings. No matter what I did, there they sat in my brain. I tried to blend them into one, in an early rejected version, which was useful and gave me the idea of the floating triangles/sails, but couldn’t hold the power of the eclipse, which would not be denied.

I thought about Panthea Reid’s description of the novel as “tripartite”(Reid 285), which had lodged in my mind like the table in the tree, but I disagreed with Reid’s emphasis on Roger Fry as the dominant influence on Woolf/Briscoe.Lily was not in Fry territory any more. Something new was being discovered about the creative process and the new conflicting territories of modernism. I felt Woolf taking from many sources, deliberately and in a prefiguring way, with echoes not only of Cezanne but Matisse, Picasso, Kandinsky perhaps, and some early form of female surrealism, later flowering in Fini, Kahlo, Leonora Carrington (Chadwick).

I wasn’t painting the novel though, I was adamant, but it sat there, in three, with one dominant starting point. And the dominant image was always the central panel, which in the beginning was black, a black panel. Clearly I was seeing the structure of the novel as a whole, and like an oriental triptych it could be read left to right, right to left, or focussed on the present middle with wings of past memory and future vision. Here the central panel was the deepest vision, contemporaneous presents. Here was the choice. Was this Lily’s painting or Woolf’s, and were they one? Lily became Woolf became Lily, and I became a voyager.

I wasn’t painting the novel, I repeated, and all the more emphatically as it became clearer in rereadings that several other embedded paintings floated within the text. In fact the whole novel bursts with individual creative projects. While Lily has the brushes and the easel, others paint in their minds, principally Mrs. Ramsay herself, who sees through the frame of the window at night and on the stairs, in the reverse to Lily.(TTL 129-132)

The Panels

A lot of surrealist synchronicity followed. As I reread the novel, I was struck by the multiplicity of references to light and shadow, by the sun eclipsed, by the whole idea of the eclipse, after which shadows disappear, and a new light is born.(eg.TTL 88,133,143-147,234-235) I knew Woolf had taken the 1927 journey to see the eclipse in Yorkshire, with Vita. The central panel, in my painting and in the novel, the thing which held it all together, was an eclipse, absence, the death of Mrs Ramsay, the war, the loss of light and the loss of Vita? ... an absent presence. Then my reading and seeing brought a different source of light to the foreground. It was not all black, it was not absence, it was not dark. My painting began to glow like a dark jewel, triangulations of deep purple and red light, an eclipsed solar light making it possible to SEE the inner forms of generated light in the earth, in life , inner life... it became exciting.I was seeing a densely alive void between states of ordinary perception.Was this the time before the solar god of patriarchy, a glimpse of the oldest earth energies, or the renewal or birthing of a new light source?

But then the oddest things began to happen.I had been reading Peter Conrad’s Modern Times.Modern Places (Conrad, 61) and imagining conversations between Stein, Einstein, Woolf, Proust,Marinetti on accelleration of time and the birth of new light and new colorfields. Diane Gillespie kindly answered email requests for comment. She told me about the new Jane Goldman book on Woolf (Feminist Aesthetics),and I immediately got it. Sun and Fish, Eclipse, Prismatics, Colour Theory. I was thrilled. Then I realised that the 1927 eclipse journey happened after TTL came out, a few months after in fact. Was it then the 1919 eclipse to which she was referring? Was she somehow prefiguring the 1927 eclipse?All through TTL there is a palpable experience of eclipse, of being there.

And then, one day on the radio, I heard that there was to be another eclipse in the UK, this year, the first full one on the mainland since 1927...August 11th 1999, and right over Talland House too. Was this a sign? Enough for me!

The other sections of the triptych then fell into place. The first became Lily’s original attempt, her “unfinished” painting, and it was here I felt I allowed Lily to paint her thoughts, and to be the true surrealist painter I now came to see her to be.In an unfinished and perhaps unsuccessful attempt, Lily loads the painting with all the elements of the scene, house, window, chair, bay, black rock, lighthouse, the white wall and the jacmanna, the purple shadow on the steps, the light source from within (deliberate or a writer’s folly?), and the tree with the upended table.Whether Woolf had at this time seen surrealist art or read surrealist material is still uncertain.Manuela Palacios has raised these general questions about Woolf and surrealism in recent conversations on the email Woolf list, deciding Woolf had not seen Dali’s work before 1931, and suggesting surrealism may have been “pollinating different artists in different countries in the same period of time.”(Woolflist,29Sept 1999).

I was aware from reading Reid, Gillespie and Hussey, that there was much speculation as to the possible source of the painting. Debates about the Madonna form of Mrs. Ramsay and James abound, and are uncontested by me, as well as the extant photos of Woolf, her mother and brother on the steps of Talland House. I have incorporated a sketchy James and the wicker chair in the window, For me though, and for Lily, they are unfinished, unresolved, and in the final panel they disappear entirely, for all of us.There are other interesting new ideas about who Lily might be modelled upon, including the ideas of Jocelynne Harris from New Zealand who raises issues about the New Zealand painter Frances Hodgkins, at the 1999 Conference. There was also an Australian painter, Clarice Beckett, whose style and sensibility seemed to make her an ideal Lily model for me until I found that there was no clear evidence she had travelled abroad. Another Australian painter, Stella Bowen, visited Bloomsbury in the 20’s, knew Mansfield and may have met Woolf. Her painting style certainly resonates with what we know about Lily (Modjeska). These are questions for future work, and I mention them here to make the point that older certainties are not settled on these issues.I take Diane Gillespie’s argument that the influence of Fry on Woolf’s ideas was declining by this time in the 20’s, and she was drawing on many possible diverse sources and models. The creation of Lily Briscoe seems now to have been a truly multitudinous form.

Influenced by so many theories, rejecting old ways of seeing, (including Mr Paunceforte),Lily nonetheless was not an abstract painter, not quite Vanessa Bell or Roger Fry, she was grasping for a new form. (Diane Gillespie remarked to me via email that she often thought of Lily’s painting as like Vanessa Bell’s painting “Studland Beach”, the rounded forms and color of that work.) I let Lily’s way of seeing in the novel determine how she painted. She says that it’s the jump between what one sees and what one can get down on the canvas, where the failure happens. I let her try to fuse the two. She sees with a surrealist gaze, for me at least, but I don’t want to overstate this to the exclusion of her formal committment to modernist colorfields, energy patterns and the decentred human. While the final painting is clearly fueled by memory, she also invokes her inner vision of the original scene to move towards a form of abstraction that has a mystical/transcendent aspect. It is a form of abstraction imbued with loving.

Mrs. Ramsay is the subject of her heart, her loving passion,clearly, and the core of the work, but the paintings bear witness also to the explosive dissolving of Mrs. Ramsay from the scene, from the composition. Or do they? Interestingly Isota and I both reached the dilemma of this central image, in the scene with Mrs Ramsay to one side. Both of us took a predominantly surrealist approach, (table in the tree and floating /buried triangle) and both of us grappled with the mystery about the shadow, the inner sources of light, both from within the window and from within the earth’s surface.Never will I forget, in the session, Isota calmly telling us, “I finally found I had to murder Mrs Ramsay.” Tough love.

I would wake up each morning and see the panels in my mind. From the start, as well as the central black one, I also saw them standing vertically not horizontally. This also defied the convention of the horizontal/horizon, long inner views rather than wide scapes, a method used mainly by Oriental painters or those influenced by same. Only then did I see the matter of Lily’s“Chinese eyes”, in three references.(eg.TTL 19,121) this somehow gave me the clue to how I was seeing the construction of the landscape itself, for there was a landscape... a view to the lighthouse... It was not a Western horizon at all, the paintings became oriental in their depiction of the scene, travelling up and out to sea, like a Chinese road painting. Like Lily, I was freed from perspective altogether.This positioning held also for the eclipse view.

In each panel the solar light, afternoon, dark night, then morning, held the top right. Perspective shifted, but the formal elements of the story remained. Not abstraction, not impressionism, not strictly post impressionist formalism either. A fusion perhaps, but with , for me, a form closest to surrealism. This is clearest in the central panel, where the floating window holds the foreground emitting a golden inner light but which is also just a shell.The earth is shrouded in the patterns of the overlayed lace tablecloth (Mrs. Ramsay, a whole way of life, the table), lit by the interior diamond clusters, crystalline forms of purple. The line of the coast, similar in each of the panels, draws in the energy of the outer earth, is shaped by it, and holds it like a crucible.Triangles unite all three panels, as do windows, and the fugitive sun.

The third painting in the triptych held the key to the fate of Lily and the emotional form of the novel’s resolution. I personally then realized in my reading I had moved from the elegiac, the loss of Lily’s bject of love, to her release and freedom, the birth of her free creative self in passing through the eclipse and to a new seeing, her own, on the white wall, a clean white canvas, “white and uncompromising.” (TTL 181) Here again, after the work was done, I saw the role of the white wall in a new light. In the first painting, the wall is counterpoint to Mrs. Ramsay’s triangular shadow in the window. The wall is white, bright, but also showcase to the brilliant jacmanna ( clematis jacmannii, a very showey purple clematis popular in pre-war gardens.) 1. In my third panel, in Lily’s new vision, the wall is empty, is open. It is her new canvas. Just as the purple triangle has been released from the window, so too the wall is no longer carrying anything but its own potency, its white emptiness, ready for new work.

The triangulations, which move from the shadow of Mrs. Ramsay in my first panel, through the deep glowing triangulations of the eclipse world, now burst from the window into the air, across the ocean , become the sails of the sea and up past the sun itself. Lily as artist and as independent woman is born in the process of seeing, painting, letting go and returning to her new vision, post eclipse. It is surrealist transformation.


As an experiment in transgression, this project has been very fruitful. In the end, no explanations here can encompass what is happening in the artwork. Things happened in the paintings which were not arbitrary, but which are not open to easy interpretation. Triangulations abounded, in the novel, in the paintings, in the collaboration with Isota and Virginia, in the biographical dimensions between Lily, Virginia and Vanessa. So much of this project has also had the sense of homage. Mine to Woolf, Woolf’s to Vanessa, Lily’s to Mrs Ramsay. What better form of loving than to enter the journey of creative process ? Part of Woolf’s achievement in To The Lighthouse surely is this one, to try to describe the path to creation through the field of the heart.

Something had happened to me in the process of the painting itself. Before I began, I had read Lily as still enmeshed in her loss and love for Mrs. Ramsay, and the words took me there. Now, through the paint, I had come to see Lily the artist as not enclosed in grieving at all, but that she had painted her way to a separate rebellious independent place, with a new and open white canvas. Is this an indication of a creative tension in the novel, a contradiction, or the true center of Woolf’s vision for Lily? The latter I think, and certainly the conclusion of my own journey.


1. Clematis jacmannii, the jacmanna prominent in the first section of the novel, and in my panel by the white wall, acting as counterpoint to the purple shadow of Mrs. Ramsay,created a lively discussion in the session. I had thought it was “Nelly Moser” but several people, principally Jean Moorecroft-Wilson emphatically asserted otherwise.It seemed somehow significant that Woolf scholars also knew a lot about clematis, more perhaps than Woolf herself. The clematis mystery game deepened for me when I was on my last flight, across America, before the Conference, seated next to a woman reading a French manuscript. At baggage claim in Baltimore, she picked up a huge box. “What’s in there?”, I asked. “Clematis” she said. Mmmmm.

Works Cited

Chadwick, Whitney.Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement.London:Thames and Hudson,1985.

Conrad,Peter.Modern Times,Modern Places.Life and Art in the 20th Century. Hong Kong: Thmes and Hudson, 1998.

Gillespie,Diane.F.,Ed.. The Multiple Muses of Virginia Woolf. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 1993.

The Sisters’ Arts. The Writing and Painting of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell.New York:Syracuse University Press, 1988.

(ed.). Roger Fry.Oxford: Shakespeare Head Press,Blackwell,1995.

>Goldman,Jane. The Feminist Aesthetics of Virginia Woolf.Modernism, Post-Impressionism and the Politics of the Visual.Cambridge:Cambridge University Press,1998.

>Hussey,Mark.Virginia Woolf A to Z. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press,1995.

Mares,Cheryl. “Reading Proust : Woolf and the Painter’s Perspective.” Pp. 58-89. In Gillespie, The Multiple Muses of Virginia Woolf. Columbia and London. University of Missouri Press, 1993.

Modjeska,Drusilla. Stravinsky’s Lunch. Pan Macmillan Australia 1999.

>Reid,Panthea. Art and Affection.A Life of Virginia Woolf. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press,1996.

>Woolf,Virginia. To The Lighthouse. London:Dent, Everyman’s Library,1938.