A Visit to the Virago Art Gallery

Sometime in the autumn of 2015 a painting caught my eye, and I realised that I recognised it because it was on the cover of one of my collection of green Virago Modern Classics. I picked up my book to find out the name of the artist and the artwork, and that sparked an idea.

The book covers are lovely, but the paintings really come alive when they are released from their green frames. Sometimes just a detail has been chosen, or the painting has been cropped because it wasn’t book-shaped. 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 art-work.

I put together a post to celebrate the books and the art that was carefully chosen to adorn them.

It was very well received and so I did another and another and another ….

The more I look through my collection, the more interesting artists and artwork I find; and so here is another little exhibition.

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I don’t think I could have cropped this image

‘At The Dressing Table’ by Harold Harvey


‘Chatterton Square by E. H. Young (#242)

Fastidious Mr. Blackett rules his home in Upper Radstowe with a gloomy and niggardly spirit, and his wife Bertha and their three daughters succumb to his dictates unquestioningly — until the arrival next door of the Fraser family ‘with no apparent male chieftain at the head of it’. The delightful, unconventional Rosamund presides over this unruly household with shocking tolerance and good humour, and Herbert Blackett is both fascinated and repelled by his sensuous and ‘unprincipled’ neighbour. But whilst he struts in the background, allegiances form between Rosamund and Bertha and their children, bringing changes to Chatterton Square which, in the months leading up to the Second World War, are intensified by the certainty that nothing can be taken for granted.

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The lesser known sequel to a rather famous book

‘Waiting’ by Gordon Coutts


My Career Goes Bung’ by Miles Franklin (#52)

In this, Miles Franklin’s sequel to her famous novel My Brilliant Career, once again we encounter the enchanting Sybylla Melvyn. She’s a little older now, catapulted from bush obscurity into sudden fame with the publication of her autobiography. Meekly attired in white muslin and cashmere stockings, she goes to fashionable Sydney to become a literary lioness, but her patrons, her critics and her innumerable suitors meet more than they bargained for in the irrepressible Sybylla. When Sybylla complains of her lot as a woman, Ma has always said “You’ll have to get used to it, there is no sense in acting like one possessed of a devil.” But Sybylla is, she clamours for LIFE, and refuses to tolerate anything which stands in her way. She recounts her experiences, most particularly her love affairs, with the same spirit, sensitivity and forthright attack which characterised her first volume of memoirs and emerges once again undaunted: the most exceptional fictional heroine of her time, and ours.

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One of a number of similar paintings – I had to look carefully to be sure I had the right one

‘Wild Flowers With The Mussenden Temple In View’ by Andrew Nicholl


‘In a Summer Season’ by Elizabeth Taylor (#112)

Kate Heron is a wealthy charming widow who marries a man ten years her junior: the attractive, feckless Dermot. They live in commuter country, an hour from London. Theirs is an unconventional marriage, but a happy one. Their special love arms them against the disapproval of conservative friends and neighbors – until the return of Kate’s old friend Charles, intelligent, kind, now widowed with a beautiful daughter. Happily, she watches as their two families are drawn together, finding his presence reassuringly familiar. But then one night she dreams a strange and sensual dream: a dream that disturbs the calm surface of their friendship – foreshadowing dramas fate holds in store for them all.

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Maureen Lipman chose this paiting as a her favourite for Country Life. She said: ‘Its alabaster stillness, like a dream caught in time, appealed to my middle-class imagination’

‘A Game of Patience’ by Meredith Frampton


‘Year Before Last’ by Kay Boyle (#225)

Hannah leaves her husband to be with the brilliant writer and editor, Martin, in a chateau on the French Riviera. He had planned to buy lobster in celebration of her arrival, but there are unpaid bills and they must live hand to mouth. Drifting through these sensuous early days, they are pursued by Hannah’s memories and the more vigilant shadow of Eve, Martin’s rich and possessive aunt. And as their relationship develops life becomes a tangle of hotel rooms and prying eyes, caught between the luxuriance of love and Eve’s malicious jealousy. This richly-textured novel, first published in 1932, reveals Kay Boyle’s strength as an innovative Modernist writer. Exploring love – and the death of love – it is delicate, precise and lyrical.

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Another book that I still haven’t read ….

‘Lupins & Cactus’ by Paul Nash


‘The Grain of Truth’ by Nina Bawden (#387)

Emma’s anxious and manipulative plea, ‘Someone listen to me’, opens – and closes – this deliciously uncomfortable novel in which Nina Bawden explores myriad emotional disguises with her characteristeric acuity. When Emma’s father-in-law falls down the stairs to his death, she is convinced she pushed him in an act of wish-fulfulment. To her husband Henry and her close friend Holly, this is unthinkable. Guilt is simply Emma’s obsession in a humdrum domestic existence enlivened by romantic fantasy. For Holly, who successfully fields a string of love affairs, sexual pleasures are more easily attainable, whereas Henry, a divorce lawyer, prides himself on being a realist. Each tells their story in turn, illuminating and distorting their separate versions of the truth. As they do so, an intricate jigsaw of the private deceits with which they shore up daily life emerges.

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The unfinished final book in a trilogy that was to be a quartet

‘Glitter’ by William McGregor Paxton


‘Cousin Rosamund’ by Rebecca West (#303)

Cousin Rosamund unfolds the final chapters of the saga that began with The Fountain Overflows, Rebecca West’s acknowleged masterpiece, and continued with This Real Night. As the glitter of the 1920s gives way to the Depression, Rose and Mary find themselves feted and successful pianists. But their happiness is diminished by their cousin’s unfathomable marriage to a man they perceive as grotesque.Lacking her cousin Rosamund’s intuitive understanding, Rose looks to the surrogate wisdom of Mr Morpurgo, while quiet days with Aunt Lily and the Darcys at their pub on the Thames offer respite from the tensions of foreign concert tours. With approaching middle age Rose gains in perspective. Yet the most exciting development still awaits her: the discovery of and delight in her own sexuality.

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A cover from the colletcion of the Imperial War Museum

‘Spitfires attacking Flying Bombs 1944’ by Thomas Monnington


‘On the Side of the Angels’ by Betty Miller (#197)

Honor Carmichael and her two young children are uprooted to Lanfield, where her husband Colin, a dapper, small-town doctor, is stationed at the RAMC hospital. She is visited by her sister Claudia, whose friend, Andrew, waits to be invalided out of the Army. Whilst Andrew dismisses himsely as “damaged goods”, Colin beomes absorbed by the petty feuds and power games of uniformed life – most particulary with the arrival of Captain Herriot, a commando and the C.O.’s current favourite. Apparantly peripheral to this “male pirouetting”, Honor and Claudia are nevertheless deeply affected by this war. For its threat to notions of masculinity forces both women to reassess the roles they’ve always played.

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That’s the last painting in this exhibition; but there will be more collections to see as the seasons change, because I still have paintings and illustrations waiting in the wings …

11 thoughts on “A Visit to the Virago Art Gallery

  1. Oh, this is lovely, I do so enjoy books that have perfectly chosen art works on their covers. (The Oxford World’s Classics do the same, their selections for the Zolas I’ve rad have been gorgeous.)
    The one for Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career sent me off to my shelves – and my memory served me well, my copy has the same painting although my edition is an Imprint Classic published by Angus & Robertson Australia in 1990. It says that the painting is in the Art Gallery of NSW, where I shall inspect it next time I’m in Sydney!


  2. Gorgeous! You’re right about these artworks – they really do look magnificent when viewed in their entirety. I wonder why the McGregor Paxton was cropped so much for the cover of Cousin Rosamund, particularly as it conveys such an evocative image?


  3. My heart always gives a little leap when I see one of your ‘gallery’ posts in my in-box. This is another treat, Jane, thank you. I love all the images, and feel the need to scurry away to get all the books. But I will resist for now and content myself with these lovely pictures!


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