A Summer Exhibition at the Virago Art Gallery

I’ve always loved putting together collections of Virago cover art, and I thought it was time to put together another.

There really are so many lovely artworks to see.

The covers are lovely, but the paintings come alive when they are released from their green frames. I’ve learned that often images have had to be cropped, and that sometimes that have been re-coloured, or altered a little in some other way to fit that frame. That may be the best way to make a good cover for a book, but it shouldn’t be the only way we see the work of these artists.

This time around I thought that I should have a theme, and so I have chosen art that I think matches the season.

I hope that you will enjoy looking at them.

* * * * * * *

This whole painting is so much more effective than the cropped cover image

‘Breakfast Piece’ by Herbert Badham


‘The Little Company’ by Eleanor Dark (#191)

It is 1941 and the storm clouds of war gather over Australia. In the mountains outside Sydney the Massey family are reunited by their father’s death. Gilbert is a successful novelist, struggling with a writer’s block in middle age. A socialist and intellectual, he shares his political understanding – and fears – with his sister Marty and Marxist brother Nick. But he is locked in an unhappy marriage with a woman of little imagination and obsessive respectability, and their daughters, Prue and Virginia, are as incompatible as their parents. With the bombing of Pearl Harbour war becomes a reality. As Gilbert and his family are overtaken by the forces of history they must come to terms with their personal and public failures, and watch as the new generation inevitably mirrors the contradictions and turmoil of the old.’

* * * * * * *

I wonder what she is thinking …

‘Portrait Of Lady Markham’ by Edward John Poynter


‘The Clever Women of the Family’ by Charlotte Mary Yonge (#188)

‘At the age of twenty-five Rachel Curtis, daughter of the squire of the Homestead, considers herself ‘the clever woman of he family’. Rejecting the idea of marriage, she seeks, instead, a mission in life. An avid reader of popular tracts, Rachel’s dream is to mould young minds with her high educational ideals. But her theories are not tempered by experience, and in a long and painful lesson she comes to learn that her true mission is not the one she had imagined. First published in 1865, this is a compelling novel by Charlotte Yonge, one of the greatest story-tellers of her age. Upholding the traditions of Victorian England, it gives a fascinating insight into the ways in which middle-class women were denied personal ambition and taught that devotion and self-sacrifice were the highest virtues to which a woman should aspire.’

* * * * * * *

I know this painting from the cover of one VMC and the cover of a different cover of another VMC

‘Showing A Preference’ by John Calcott Horsley.


‘The Rector and The Doctor’s Family’ by Margaret Oliphant (#227)

‘These two short novels raise the curtain on an entrancing new world for all who love Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Trollope’s “Barsetshire Chronicles”. The cast ranges from tradesmen to aristocracy and clergy… The Rector opens as Carlingford awaits the arrival of their new rector. Will he be high church or low? And – for there are numerous unmarried ladies in Carlingsford – will he be a bachelor? After fifteen years at All Souls the Rector fancies himself immune to womanhood: he is yet to encounter the blue ribbons and dimples of Miss Lucy Wodehouse. The Doctor’s Family introduces us to the newly built quarter of Carlingford where young Dr Rider seeks his living. Already burdened by his improvident brother’s return from Australia, he is appalled when his brother’s family and sister-in-law follow him to Carlingford. But the susceptible doctor is yet to discover Nettie’s attractions – and her indomitable Australian will.’

* * * * * * *

This book is sitting on my bedside table, ready to be read very soon

Far Away Thoughts by John William Godward


‘Maurice Guest’ by Henry Handel Richardson (#49)

‘Maurice Guest comes to Leipzig, the music capital of Europe, to realize his dream of becoming a great pianist.  However, in its bohemian and heady atmosphere he encounters not exaltation and inspiration but coarseness, greed and ambition.  For his muse he turns to Louise Dufrayer, an exotic and languid pianist.  Louise has recently been deserted by her own obsessive love, the resident composer and reigning genius, Schilsky.  Now her capricious demands on Maurice’s time and energy destroy whatever slight chance he may have had at distinguishing himself. The more he slides into failure, the more striking the contrast between him and the absent Schilsky, who still holds first place in Louise’s thoughts and feeling.  The degradation of their relationship runs its full course until jealousy and hatred are its only vital forms.’

* * * * * * *

This cover image really said ‘summer’ to me

Vogue  Cover Art (June 1922) by Meserole


The Way Things Are’ by E M Delafield (#290)

‘Laura has been married for seven years. On those occasions when an after-dinner snooze behind The Times seems preferable to her riveting conversation about their two small sons, Laura dismisses the notion that Alfred does not understand her, reflecting instead that they are what is called happily married. At thirty-four, Laura wonders if she’s ever been in love–a ridiculous thing to ask oneself. Then Duke Ayland enters her life and that vexing question refuses to remain unanswered . . . With Laura, beset by perplexing decisions about the supper menu, the difficulties of appeasing Nurse, and the necessity of maintaining face within the small village of Quinnerton, E.M. Delafield created her first “Provincial Lady”. And in the poignancy of Laura’s doubts about her marriage, she presents a dilemma which many women will recognise.’

* * * * * * *

I can easily believe that the lady in this painting is the heroine of the novel

Summer by John Atkinson Grimshaw


‘Joanna Godden’ by Sheila Kaye-Smith (#115)

‘Joanna Godden is a “damn fine woman.” On the death of her father in 1897 all her neighbors expect her to marry, for someone–some man–must run Little Ansdore, the Sussex farm she inherits. But Joanna is a person of independent mind, and decides to run it herself. Her spirit is almost broken by her defiance of convention and the inexorable demands of the land itself. But nothing can finally defeat her: she bounces off the page triumphant, one of the most ebullient, most attractive heroines in literature.’

* * * * * * *

This was the obvious book to close this summer exhibition

‘Mrs Hone’ by William Orpen


‘The Last of Summer’ by Kate O’Brien (#349)

‘Travelling through Ireland, French actress Angele Maury abandons her group of friends and takes herself instead to picturesque Drumaninch, the birthplace of her dead father. She has come to make sense of her past, and is absorbed into the strange, idiosyncratic world of her cousins, the Kernahans. Self-conscious with her pale, exotic beauty, Angele finds herself seduced first by the beauty of Ireland and then by the love of two men, as history threatens to repeat itself in a perfectly structured psychological love story.’

* * * * * * *

That’s the last painting in this little exhibition, but I’m already dusting off more for an autumn show.

Do let me know if you have any particular favourite cover paintings, or any suggestions for future exhibitions.

22 thoughts on “A Summer Exhibition at the Virago Art Gallery

  1. Lovely! Publishers used to take real pride in their cover art, but these days it’s mostly just Shutterstock and Getty Images. So it’s a pleasure to see these, thank you:)


    1. You’re very welcome. It’s become clear to me as I’ve looked at the credits of the back of old books that Virago used to go to a great deal of trouble to match books and covers, and that many of the paintings must have come from private collections and personal collections.


      1. Oxford University Press still do this with the World’s Classics series, with carefully selected details from beautiful paintings. It does make a difference to how I enjoy a book if it has a nice cover.


  2. Fabulous selection, of all those books I have only read The Rector and the Doctor’s family. I am kicking myself though because I saw an old battered hardback of that Joanna Godden a few days ago at a National trust second hand bookshop at Buckland Abbey. I have been buying so many books I put it back on the shelf. Wish I hadn’t now.


  3. These are beautiful. And, what a story “Showing A Preference” tells! Is the girl in the sunshine better off in the long run, despite her disappointed face? One of those pictures I can mull over for quite awhile. And I was delighted to find “Joanna” is available for free online, so I’ve added her to my TBR for later. Thanks!


  4. What gorgeous images and what a lovely post. I always love it when you do a collection of Virago cover images, Jane, but it always leaves me regretting the fact that VMCs no longer have these wonderful stunning covers. Thank you for this!


  5. Wow, what a gorgeous treasury of images – thank you so much! I love them all, but I think that Breakfast Piece is my favourite – I could look at it for hours! 🙂


  6. William Orpen’s work keeps popping up this summer; it’s beautiful. The Way Things Are by Delafield was my first Virago purchase. I had just started immersing myself in twentieth century literature and found out about Persephone Books. So you can imagine the grin…in my possession was a green Virago, a Delafield, and the introduction was by Nicola Beauman. Lovely post, Jane!


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