Visual Responses to Virginia Woolf
Elisa Kay Sparks
Dept of English
March 1, 2005
In the Fall of 2004, I taught a graduate seminar on Modernist London. Since the class was covering not only writers
such as Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield, and E.M. Forster but also visual artists such as the Vorticist
Wyndham Lewis, the art critic Roger Fry, and the painters, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, I wanted my students to
have a visual as well as a verbal way to respond to the course , so I assigned a visual journal/ altered book:
Everyone will assemble a visual journal/ altered book, a collaged visual notebook, including quotations from
writers and critics and fellow seminarians.
I made the visual journal 10% of the course grade, to be assessed twice during the semester Not having done this
before, I had few expectations and gave little or no guidance. I did provide. some starter materials, stocking a “goodies
box,” with color printouts of various images from old books on London I had collected, and a CD with about 600
photographic images collected from years of trips to England.
Perhaps the most important inspiration for my students’ visual journals came, however, from a colleague, Deb Morton,
who had received an altered book as a gift.– Knowing my interest in the visual arts she had shown it to me. and,
enchanted by its beauty and its variety of techniques, I asked to show it to my class. As a result, 12 of the 15 students in
my seminar chose to fulfill their visual journal assignment by doing an altered book. The results were so interesting
conceptually that they have inspired this paper. I have continued to use and adapt this assignment.
Definition of an Altered Book
What is an “altered book?” The International Society of Altered Book Artists (ISABA), which has a web site gallery
displaying the work of over 60 artists, defines an altered book as:
Any book, old or new that has been recycled by creative means into a work of art. They can be ... rebound,
painted, cut, burned, folded, added to, collaged in, gold-leafed, rubber stamped, drilled or otherwise adorned ..
Altered Books are a librarian’s worst nightmare., pierced, and torn pages can be painted, collaged, stamped, and written A Brief History of Altered Books (click on Link for full illustrations)
on. Elements in pages can be manipulated and popped out in all directions. Objects can be glued, stapled, sewed, or
tucked into various folds and pockets, and blocks of pages can be glued or wired together to make carved windows,
niches, and boxes, and even small drawers made out of matchboxes.
But what separates altered books from scrapbooks and collages – and, in my opinion, makes them particularly exciting
as a pedagogical medium -- is the relationship of the visual elements to the text of the original book. Text can be hidden
by collage elements, and those same elements can be used to isolate and highlight particular pieces of text. Pages can
be painted except for masked elements. Sometimes a single line or two of text provides the inspiration for an entire
collaged image. Other times the page becomes an interpretation of a poem or passage. Ad sometimes new text is
Because of the labor-intensity of the materials used, many of the earliest books are altered books. When Greek A Sample Altered Book on To the Lighthouse (click on Link for full illustrations)
scribes washed, scraped, and rEsurfaced pieces of parchment to recycle the expensive animal hides, traces of previous
text often bled through, creating what we call a “palimpsest.”
Several different traditions came together in the Victorian period. to set the stage for the modern altered book. Since
the 17thC, commonplace books -- collections of favorite sayings and sometimes impromptu drawings inscribed by
friends and acquaintances -- had been popular. (they continued to be popular with the Bloomsbury set; commonplace
books were published by E.M. Forster, and Leonard Woolf as well as Vita Sackville West)
The Victorians expanded the visual and decorative range of this idea by creating scrap albums of pictures, often cut from
store catalogues. You may have thought “clip art” was an invention of the computer age, but Victorian stationers sold
“scraps,” sheets of pictures which could be cut out and put in albums, much like the stickers of today. Sometimes
Victorians bought special albums, but often they pasted their scraps in existing books – much as the character in Michael
Ondaatje’s The English Patient gradually fills his Herodotus with images, poems, notes and other memorabilia of his life.
The modern altered book has two parents. The first is a leader in the Book Arts movement of the 1970’s (The Center for
the Book Arts was founded in 1973), the British artist Tom Philips, who in 1966 bought for thrupence the Victorian novel, A
Human Document by W. H. Mallock , and began transforming it page by page into his own A Humument, selectively
painting over the original text to create his own poetic, gnomic tale, complete with characters. A founding work in the
genre now called Artist’s Books, A Humument continues to be a work in progress, with pages added every year.
The other, less legitimate, non-academic, and mostly female parent of the altered book is the contemporary craft
interest in stamping and scrapbooking, which has ballooned in the last 3-5 years into a major industry, moving from the
aisles of Michaels into Target and Office Depot and even the local grocery store shelves. ast year, a televised tour of the
national craft vendors show pronounced altered books the hottest new trend in scrapbooking, and since 2003 almost a
dozen how-to books on techniques have been published.
In her 2003 review of the first ten years of the Journal of Artist’s Books (JAB), Johanna Drucker, a major theorist of the
genre, talks about the lack of integration between “craft values, fine print values, and conception values.” While she
celebrates the widespread popularization of artist’s books through the book arts centers that provide classes in how to
make them as objects, she also laments the lack of emphasis on thematic and conceptual concerns. The situation with
altered books seems even more extreme with craft and how-to examples sometimes almost empty of content or filled
with greeting card quotations and hackneyed poetic sentiments that hardly rise above the level of verbal clip art. Trying to
adapt altered books for classroom use holds the double promise then of raising the conceptual level of the genre while
also potentially enriching the creative life of the students.
After trying out some of the techniques, I began my first serious Virginia Woolf-related altered book. I knew I wanted to
do a book about To the Lighthouse, because I had taken many photographs of Talland House and St. Ives and was
looking for a way to display them that was a bit more creative than a photo album or a PowerPoint. . I went to a local used
bookstore, looking for a base or foundation book. that was fairly large, with a good quality, sewn binding, and fairly strong
paper. I wanted it to have some connection to Woolf’s novel, but I had no idea what that would be.
The book I chose was called Anyone Can Draw. Slide 28 I picked this book in part because its title struck me as a
great antidote to Lily’s sense of inhibition and the many masculine injunctions against female creativity, but also because
I saw some textual correlations, and I liked the idea of a book about drawing being the base for a book about a woman
artist. Once I had the book, I began to make lists of passages in Woolf’s book that I wanted to illustrate, choosing them
both for their importance in Woolf’s texts and their illustrateability. I also began going through the foundation book,
looking for passages and illustrations which correlated to the Woolf novel, and tearing out about ¼ to 1/3 of the pages.
(You have to tear out a fair number of pages in order to make room for the bulk added by painting and collaging.)
The title page had an image of the anatomy of a woman’s torso that I wanted to include, so I washed over it with
transparent paints and printed over it all the quotations from the novel that spoke about the limitations of women’s
creativity: kind of as a way of talking about Freud’s idea that anatomy is destiny.
Inspired by the 3D quality of Allison’s book, I began part I: The Window Slide 29 with a digital photograph I had taken
of the French windows at Talland House that lead out from the sitting room to the garden. I digitally pasted in some
images of climbing clemitis and inserted images of the lighthouse into the glass. The doors open to a picture of Julia
Stephen, Slide 30—Eurydice originally taken at Talland House but combined with a Georgia O’Keeffe arch to make an
image I had previously titled “Eurydice.” The mother and child images in the background are another digital print of mine.
The page on James (Slide 31) is one which uses the text of the foundation book, juxtaposing the book’s discussion
of the natural connection between wishing, drawing, and writing with the scene of James “sitting on the floor cutting out
pictures from the catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores”: As I read the passage, I am sure you will sense the
serendipitous connections that can be made between it and the concerns of Woolf’s novel:
When the child laboriously traces the crude outlines of the engine he would like to have , or the toy truck he saw in a store
window, he is merely following an impulse that had its origin in the beginning of civilization This urge to present a wish
pictorially is, perhaps, as old as visual memory and the ability to wish, So primary is this desire that it has found its
refinement in the written symbols of languages, The earlier a people’s civilization, the more apt we are to find its written
language in the form of ideagraphs., In this connection, it is interesting to observe that the Greeks seem to have
considered drawing and writing as essentially the same process, using the same word (goajein) for
.As this page developed, I realized that the passage from To the Lighthouse was particularly relevant and appropriate for
beginning my whole book because James was in fact scrapbooking. So I used some of the imagery of Victorian
scrapbooking as well.
Another page Slide 32 is about Mrs. Ramsey’s daughters, the “infidel ideas which they had brewed for themselves of
a life different from hers; in Paris, perhaps; a wilder life; not always taking care of some man or other. “ (TTL ) I chose this
passage because I wanted to emphasize the book’s awareness of the shift in gender roles that is enacted across the
generations. I used a Margaret Cameron photograph of the Prinsep sisters, and the illustration on the right is from a
1921 book on London, showing a bohemian café in Chelsea., (A London Mosaic, text by W.L. George, pictures by Phillipe
Forbes-Robinson., NY_ Frederick A Stokes, 1921).
Slide 33—St Ives This page illustrates the walk that Mrs. Ramsey and Mr. Carmichael take into the village, with pictures I
took of Porthminster Beach (immediately below Talland House) and of the view of the main harbor of St. Ives.
Slide 34 – Mrs. Ramsey This is one of my favorite pages. Whenever I read this passage where Mr. Carmichael thinks of
Mrs. Ramsey as a kind of goddess “with stars in her eyes and veils in her hair, with cyclamen and wild violets-“ (TTL) I
had always thought of this picture of Julia taken by Margaret Cameron. Just before she appears as a goddess, Mrs.
Ramsey stands for a moment in front of an image of “Queen Victoria wearing the blue ribbon of the Garter”, and when I
found this image on line, I thought there was an interesting resemblance to the Julia Stephens photo, which I like to
image was taken in front of this garden door at Talland House..
Slide 35—Doors and windows Here is one last page, composed of pictures I took of the doors and windows at Talland
Adaptations (click on Link for full illustrations)
As you can see from these examples, doing an altered book is a fairly large commitment of time, especially if you really
want to think about the content. There are certainly smaller, quicker versions of this assignment which can be done. For
example, in Spring 2005, I introduced the idea of a Round-Robin altered book to a junior level Intro to Writing Critically
About Literature course. I chose the foundation book --Julian Jayne’s The Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown
of the Bi-Cameral Mind because I thought the basic thesis of the book: -- that what we perceive as consciousness and
conscience have evolved as the two halves of the brain began to communicate with each other – seemed directly
analogous to the split personality structure of Mrs. Dalloway. In addition, individual pages of Jaynes book often dealt with
topics such as the nature of consciousness, schizophrenia, aural hallucinations, and ancient Greek religions which had
fertile possibilities of connecting with Woolf’s novel. Each student then made a two-page spread of their passage, and
these were pasted into the foundation text in more or less chronological order. Some of the students took the book home
and created their pages using words and images from the foundation text. Other students just handed me the collage to
be pasted in later.
Altered magazines and magazine pages are another possibility, Slide 39: New Yorker, one I am thinking of using in
my Women’s Studies class, but which would also be useful in any class teaching critical analysis of media. And there is
yet another craft genre that is just springing up, Artist’s Trading Cards, Slide 40: ATC. Which is even more manageable.
Sized like regulation playing cards, these tiny collages could be used as a form of concept mapping or to present quick
emotional reactions to materials. The possibilities are pretty endless.
|A Bloom of One’s Own:
Altered Books as Visual Learning Enhancements
The Assignment | Definition | Brief History | Lighthouse Sample | Adaptations