Harvard Library recently digitized and shared one of Virginia Woolf's photography albums covering a period from approximately 1890 through her death in 1941. She was an dedicated photographer who started in her teens and continued through her entire life. The albums are full of portraits (including E.M. Forster and Yeats), travel photos, and some wonderful landscapes.
One photo from the collection stood out to me--a portrait of Sophia Farrell. Knowing nothing of Sophia Farrell, I only assumed this was a servant of Woolf's, and one who seemed strong and at ease in front of her employer's camera.
It turns out that a lot has been written about Sophia. From joining the Stephens family when Virginia was only 4, to her work for the Woolfs after Virgina was married, all the way through her £10 a year pension she received after she retired. This portrait led me to discover articles and books written about Woolf's wider relationship to her staff and the tension of publicly advocating for poor women while continuing a lifestyle that demanded servants and female laborers. There is an entire book dedicated to Virginia Woolf's relationship with her staff authored by Alison Light entitled Mrs. Woolf and The Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury.
I also found another undated photo (not created by Woolf) of an older but no less formidable Sophia Farrell. To me, these two portraits alone tell a story of hard work, dedication, sacrifice, and resolve. Being able to read so much more about her life only brings more detail and meaning to the photographs. For example, she never spent any of her annual retirement pension from Virginia Woolf, and lived frugally with another former maid after she retired. Having no children of her own, she left her pension money to a niece.
Portraits can be a wonderful window into the world. And while I am intrigued by Virginia Woolf's photos of her lovely estate, surrounding landscapes, and talented friends, the portrait of the woman who had cooked countless meals for her seems like the gem of the collection.
More from Virgina Woolf's private photography collection courtesy of Harvard Library.