Such an invitation!
We were invited to the unveiling of the full-size bronze sculpture of Virginia Woolf in Richmond (London) happening this week, on November 16, today to be exact. An event where Virginia’s great-great niece and her two-year-old son would be present, as well as Virginia’s husband Leonard’s great niece.
We came to the attention of project organizers at Aurora Metro Arts and Media Charity because of our posts about Breaking the Bronze Ceiling AND those about Virginia Woolf, the woman, and her writing.
Here are some of these posts:
Breaking the Bronze Ceiling: One Inspiring Public Sculpture at a Time
‘Journey to Freedom’: Harriet Tubman Still on the Move
Shattering Ceilings: Glass and Bronze!
Women Writers on Writing: Virginia Woolf and A Room of One’s Own
Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway: Being, Non-Being, and the Spiritual Continuum Holding up the World
Virginia Woolf’s The Years: Time, Presence and the “Conversational Nature of Reality”
Although we couldn’t be at the unveiling, our consolation was an opportunity to interview the person who initiated this project, Cheryl Robson. Cheryl lives in Richmond, a town in southwest London, just up the hill from where Virginia and Leonard Woolf lived for 10 years in the Hogarth House, which also became the Hogarth Press.
Cheryl Robson also runs a press, Aurora Metro Publications, “a local publisher with three decades of publishing original voices, championing diversity and equality, and promoting work in translation.”
Cheryl clearly has been hard at work doing so much good.
Since 2009, Aurora Metro Publication has sponsored a fiction writing contest, a “biennial Virginia Prize for Fiction…aiming to find new women novelists writing in English around the world.” The organization wanted a meaningful location in town to award the recipients, and when the idea for a sculpture of Virginia was mentioned to the crowd at the closing of a Richmond Literary Festival, there “was cheering and clapping.” Apparently, Cheryl wasn’t the only one who believed Richmond needed something more to honor Virginia Woolf!
Prior to this sculpture, about the only formal recognition of Virginia Woolf that existed in Richmond was a blue plaque on the Hogarth House, and on that plaque, Leonard is listed first. Cheryl remarked that the desire to do something more for Virginia was “nagging at me, every time I walked past” the Hogarth House.
And not only was this particular public statue long overdue but the creation and installation of it would help address the “recent audit of statues in London that showed there are more monuments depicting animals than there are in honour of named women.”
So, the seeds of a grand project were planted and the work began. After soliciting sculptors and their visions: “Award-winning sculptor Laury Dizengremel” was selected. Her “piece will feature Woolf in repose on a bench, where people can sit next to her while enjoying the Richmond riverside.”
Then came the fundraising because these projects don’t happen without great effort and funding, as well as unexpected barriers. Cheryl Robson explains:
“It’s been a long haul, five years of campaigning and trying to raise the funds. It wasn’t easy because first of all we had Brexit, then we had the pandemic, and now we’ve got a cost-of-living crisis here.
“So, people didn’t really want to hear about can I have some money for a statue, as there were more serious things going on.”
Unwilling to let the project stagnate, Cheryl and others took a creative approach to raise funds.
“We published a book about Virginia Woolf in Richmond, that was the first thing we did, to show how much she loved living here because there was some disagreement about that due to a film in which she was portrayed as not liking Richmond and being desperate to move back to Bloomsbury, which was untrue.
“Then we did another book, which was a handbook for women writers, and this was the first book we ever published 30 years ago, which we redid and we invited lots of women to contribute.
“Then we did an online gala, in which we also had a lot of authors giving their time and videoing themselves saying why Virginia Woolf was important to them.”
The publication and promotion of the books and the engaging online events kept the momentum going for 5 long years!
Not only did Cheryl want to dispel that Virginia Woolf didn’t enjoy living in Richmond, she wanted to challenge the notion of who she was in relation to her mental illness.
“I wanted to challenge the stereotype around the madness, the sort of trope about her being a tortured genius because she is often portrayed in films as just being mad and she wasn’t. As for part of our campaign, we interviewed Henrietta Garnett, who was the great-niece of Virginia Woolf and she said Virginia was a very witty person and great fun to be around and that she loved children. We wanted a different side of her shown and not for her to just be remembered for her mental illness.
“Her achievements are kind of taken down by that. Wanted to challenge the stereotype and present a different aspect of her…which is why our depiction of her is sitting on a bench by the river enjoying her day, just calmly taking it in and enjoying life. Which she did if you read her diaries. She often walked her dog along the river, she often went up the hill to the terraces and she used all that walking about Richmond as thinking time, to imagine her novels.”
By the way, Henrietta Garnett is Vanessa Bell’s daughter, who was Virginia Woolf’s sister. Read more about Vanessa here: Nasty Woman Artist Vanessa Bell: Life as Artform
Controversy, of course
There’s often controversy that accompanies art created for public spaces and this project is no exception. What kicked up here was that the location of this sculpture on a riverside was insensitive based on the fact that Virginia Woolf died by suicide in a river later in life. Cheryl explained that those voicing this objection were in the minority and primarily consisted of those not in favor of the statue in the first place. This seemed but a way to “damage the project,” as well as “trying to define her by her death, rather than celebrating her life and her achievements.”
But Cheryl, clearly not one to be drawn into drama, remarked, “No publicity is bad publicity,” because as a result, she was invited to speak on the radio about their project, ultimately stirring up more interest and support.
Another controversy, the one over Maggie Hambling’s Mary Wollstonecraft sculpture unveiled in 2020 and deemed inappropriate by many, yielded an uptick in donations for the Virginia Woolf project because many favored the “more representational” look of this statue, versus the abstract “everywoman” concept of Hambling’s Mary Wollstonecraft tribute.
Read more about this controversy here: Welcome, Controversy. We’ve been expecting you.
An Overdue Recognition in Richmond
Diehard fans of Virginia Woolf and now of Cheryl Robson, my sister Theresa and I are beyond thrilled to know her life-size representation is “on the upper terraces of the Richmond riverside,” an area that attracts many visitors. Those not familiar with Virginia will discover her, those familiar may be inspired to learn more, and those who know her brilliance, her contributions to women’s rights, and her many literary achievements can offer their respect and gratitude while seated beside her.
Now there exists an ideal place to confer the award for The Virginia Prize for Fiction to young women writers. Seems extremely fitting.
Thanks to Aurora Metro Arts and Media’s many volunteers who saw this project through! It’s also exciting to note Cheryl’s involvement with additional initiatives to create more statues that honor real women in public spaces. We plan to follow these developments and share them here.
Virginia Woolf is a Nasty Women Writer, inspiring women like Cheryl Robson, who supports and inspires many others. It is a web of women, strong and sustaining, one we continue to explore:
Virginia Woolf’s Far Reaching Network Within the Web of Women Writers
Invisible Connections: The Hidden Web of Women Writers
© Maria Dintino 2022
Aurora Metro Arts and Media Charity. “Virginia Woolf Statue Unveiling in Richmond.” Press Release, 16 Nov 2022. Accessed 3 Nov 2022.
Robson, Cheryl. Interview. Conducted by Maria and Theresa Dintino, 2 November 2022.