When I began selling rare books as a career, I specialized in English literature. More specifically, I specialized in Virginia Woolf and the eccentric writers, artists, and bohemians that made up her inner circle, the Bloomsbury Group. Mrs. Dalloway is, after all, my favorite book, and I dreamed of one day coming across a special association piece- perhaps something owned by a Bloomsbury group member, or a book from Virginia’s own library.
This dream came to fruition last fall, when I was able to purchase ten books from the library of Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister. They came by way of Bell’s two surviving granddaughters. Of association material, these are significant not just for familial and personal value, but also for literary value: Vanessa, Virginia’s only sister and confidante, was also her chief dust jacket designer.
This very special material lends value for research, giving us a glimpse into how these writers and artists lived, and additionally, how their books lived. How were their books regarded? Are they well-preserved, or worn to shreds? Are they dog-eared and full of marginalia, or barely touched? In the case of these ten books, I’ve been half-jokingly calling them “artist’s copies,” because most of them are rather worn and damaged, with tattered dust jackets if the jackets had been preserved at all. But if pieces of the dust jackets did survive, interestingly enough, the portions that bore Vanessa’s designs were the parts that were preserved.
Three of the ten books in this collection retain the Vanessa-designed front panels and spines; they have been adhered to the front pastedowns and endpapers of their respective books. It is difficult to say who exactly did the cutting and pasting, but regardless, it was evident that the artistic portions of the dust jackets held priority.
What we do know is that Vanessa liked to leave her mark in her books-- all have her ownership signature and one bears her initials. One is presented from Vanessa to Angelica, her daughter, Virginia’s niece.
One book in this collection was presented from Leonard Woolf to Vanessa. This book has perhaps the richest association value: as Virginia was not alive to present it, this copy, presented from husband to sister, represents the closest possible association for this title.
Part of what intrigues me so much about the Bloomsbury Group was how the books and art they created have a ‘handmade’ look to them, and how the entire ‘family’ would pitch in to produce the work. When Virginia and Leonard founded the Hogarth Press, Vanessa designed jackets and illustrations for Virginia, and for other writer friends including T. S. Eliot and Robert Graves, among others. Handmade papers used for Hogarth’s earliest publications came from the Omega Workshops, of which Vanessa, Roger Fry, and Duncan Grant were co-founders. Book-making and book-designing was always a collaborative effort, with Vanessa drawing, painting, or carving woodcuts, Leonard making suggestions for lettering, and Virginia choosing the colors. Vanessa also designed the wolf’s head that became Hogarth’s colophon. These elements helped the Hogarth Press achieve a cohesive look and distinct house style.
It is wonderful that Vanessa Bell’s library was preserved, no matter the condition. Being in the business of preservation, it is always exciting and gratifying to witness books moving from their original owners to more permanent homes, where they will continue to be appreciated and treasured.