The Daily Heller: Virginia Woolf’s Book Jackets Were a Family Affair

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For some random rationale I was recently reading (and highly recommend) Sigrid Nunez’s charming Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury, a whimsical tale about a mini monkey that was a beloved pet to Leonard and Virginia Woolf. It’s one of the very few books that I admit actually reading about the storied Bloomsbury circle. Through COVID induced convoluted reasoning, it has caused me to become interested in the jacket design unique to Virginia Woolf’s books.

There are only a handful of authors in the marketing maze of publishing who are allowed to choose the designer of their book jackets. Among those, there are even fewer who would select their relatives for the job. Imagine the worst client-writer-designer relationship possible; with the added bonus of familial issues, it has the makings of a disaster. This did not happen, however, for sisters Woolf and Vanessa Bell.

One of the great writers of the 20th century (who was also a proprietor of the Hogarth Press, alongside her husband), Woolf’s books are unabashedly recognizable by virtue of the fact that they were all designed by Bell, an accomplished Impressionist painter and print maker.

Far from being either conventional or experimental, Bell’s handcrafted, roughly rendered designs were always abstract. In fact, Bell rarely ever read the manuscripts before doing the jackets. But she did do every single one of Woolf’s books, with the exception of her first.

Though they were universally disliked by the London booksellers, Woolf appeared to be very pleased with the aesthetic quality they brought to her body of work and the overall identity that was achieved when seen en masse. As Mary Jane Karnes has recounted: “Virginia Woolf once told Bell, ‘Your style is unique, because so truthful, and therefore it upsets one completely.’” Whether by happenstance or design, Bell’s expressive visual shorthand was the quintessence of modernistic simplicity and an unmistakable style for the Bloomsbury sensibility.

Vanessa Bell, 1925.
Vanessa Bell, 1943.