When Virginia Woolf first published her experimental novel Jacob’s Room in 1922, reviewers recoiled at the cover.
Her older sister—the painter Vanessa Bell—designed it. Featuring a pair of open curtains, a vase of flowers, and loopy hand-lettering, Bell’s wood-cut seemed to have nothing to do with the actual contents of the book itself.
The dust jacket, complained Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s husband, didn’t show “a desirable female or even Jacob or his room.” As the co-founder of the couple’s Hogarth Press, he was hoping for something with more commercial appeal. In fact, the design was “universally condemned amongst booksellers,” Leonard continued in his diary, noting how critics found it too decorative and crafty, and not in line with the modernism that Hogarth Press espoused. The Woolfs were understandably concerned: they didn’t want their publishing house to be seen as “a home-made hobby,” in the words of one critic.
Despite the bad reviews, Bell continued to design nearly all of Virginia Woolf’s book covers, creating 38 dust jackets for Hogarth Press over roughly 30 years. Leonard despaired, calling one set of them “the worst printed books ever published.” So why did Bell continue to create dust jacket designs for Woolf’s books? The story behind Bell’s covers is less a story of cunning marketing and more one of sisterly collusion; it’s a tale of two women artists supporting one another and using the space of a book’s cover to connect and collaborate in a deeply personal, familial way.
As both writer and publisher, Woolf was in the unique position of being able to commission the dust jackets of her own books—something that today, most authors can only dream of. Together with her husband, Virginia founded Hogarth Press in 1917, naming the publishing house after their home in Richmond, London, where they had begun printing books by hand in their basement.
As well as publishing significant writing by the likes of T.S. Eliot, Sigmund Freud, and Katherine Mansfield, Hogarth Press became known for commissioning and printing work by luminary artists such as Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, Dora Carrington, and, of course, Bell, who was a painter and interior designer. It was Bell who designed the imprint’s logo: a wolf’s head in profile, a clear pun on the founders’ last name. The sisters enjoyed puns, and this was to be the first of many ways that Bell smuggled personal references into the design of Hogarth Press.
In May 1917, Woolf first wrote to Bell saying, “I want your advice about covers.” She and her husband notoriously minimized the importance of a book’s appearance, but they also recognized that covers had important marketing value. For Bell, the physicality of a book held many happy memories: “Certainly books are wonderful things,” she had written in 1904, “Even I… get to feel a great affection for the scrubbiest and most backless volume. I suppose it’s from living in a book loving family. I feel happy and contented sitting on the floor in an ocean of calf.” Woolf chose to commit to Bell as her primary designer, sending her sister checks in the mail as soon as her books sold enough copies and began to make money.
Bell’s covers often featured simple imagery or still life arrangements rendered in black-and-white or a limited palette of earthy colors. Some designs were descriptive, such as To the Lighthouse, The Waves, and Three Guineas, while others were purely decorative, like Jacob’s Room and The Years. What most of Bell’s covers had in common was their hand lettering, often in lowercase, which gave them a distinctively craft-like feel.
While the sisters’ correspondence suggests that Bell sometimes didn’t read Woolf’s books before designing them, many scholars believe that the sisters exaggerated. Looking at the covers themselves—and Bell’s numerous sketches for them—actually reveals a very deliberate and thoughtful design process, refuting claims that Bell’s designs were empty of meaning. In fact, many of her covers seem to respond to Woolf’s writing, or even to intellectually further it.
On Being Ill, for instance, clearly expresses the emotions of Woolf’s essay about the loneliness and “tremendous spiritual change” that comes with bouts of sickness. Featuring a gray grid over a luminous yellow and white circle, the design abstractly conjures the image of a sun streaming through a screened window; you can almost imagine watching the sun fade from view as you lie sick in bed for days.
The cover “describes the otherworld of illness,” wrote author Mary Cregan in the Financial Times in 2008, “its isolation and strange states of mind, where perception is filtered through the haze of the body’s distress.” A cross-hatched spine heightens the mood of entrapment even further. And the choice of clean, all cap typography is a huge departure from Bell’s other cover designs. It evokes a sense of clarity, reflective of the strange insight that Woolf says comes from being ill, a time she refers to as “the great confessional.”
Bell filled an entire sketchbook with ideas for A Room of One’s Own, Woolf’s infamous 1929 essay about women’s lack of freedom for creative expression. One option featured a square framing device, but Bell’s final cover depicts a simple clock set against a dark blue arch. Woolf famously declared that women need their own space to make art; with her cover, Bell added that women also need time of their own. As some scholars have noted, by depicting a clock, Bell’s artwork adds to Woolf’s message—and thus a dialogue between the two siblings plays out on the dust jacket.
On the cover of A Room of One’s Own, small circles dot the arch’s border and deliberately gender the space: they look like carefully sewn decorative pearls lining a pillow. This, too, seems significant. In her seminal essay, Woolf invents a fictional sister for Shakespeare, describing how a woman with Shakespeare’s gifts would never have had the opportunity to become a playwright. Instead, Woolf imagines how Shakespeare’s sister would have sat at home and mended socks all day. Understanding that women were historically given a needle rather than a quill, perhaps Bell’s craft-like covers held special significance to Woolf. While critics disparaged the dust jackets as domestic and cozy, Woolf may have wished to elevate these historically gendered motifs to a space of literary importance.
When Woolf first saw Bell’s design for A Room of One’s Own, she wrote a letter to her sister. “I thought your cover most attractive,” she said, “but what a stir you’ll cause by the hands of the clock at that precise hour!” Sitting between 10:00 and 2:00, the hands form a definitive “V”—the siblings’ shared initial, which Bell often included in both her own self-portraits and paintings of Woolf. With this small detail, Bell smuggles a personal homage into her design. And as academic Jenni Råback points out, she could also have been referring to Vita Sackville-West, with whom Virginia was having a romantic relationship at the time. Either way, the reference was a deeply personal one—a secret message unintelligible to most readers, but one that the two sisters instantly recognized.
One of the last covers that Bell created for her sister was for the posthumously published The Death of the Moth, released in 1942, a year after Woolf committed suicide by drowning herself. Art historian Hana Leaper has written how the huge amount of sketches produced by Bell “reveal this work as a deeply private, yet highly visible monument to her sister’s talent and their creative relationship.”
The wispy foliage on the cover unmistakably references a tree found in family photographs of Monk House, the Woolfs’ cottage in Sussex where Virginia’s ashes were buried under an elm. And, the cover’s final detail in the bottom right hand corner—so small that it’s easy to overlook—is an abstracted V-shaped moth, placed as if resting under the tree. Here, again, Bell signifies the sisters’ long-term collaboration by signing the cover with the shared letter “V.” The moth itself doesn’t simply allude to the essay’s title, either; moths held deep significance to the sisters, who as children were both fascinated by lepidoptera, the order of insects that includes moths and butterflies. Bell finds in Woolf’s texts something that intimately binds the two of them together, yet again using the public space of a cover to conduct a private dialogue with her departed sister.
One can find intimate references over and over again throughout Bell’s designs: To the Lighthouse most likely features a lighthouse on its cover not only because it’s the name of the book, but also because it reminded the siblings of their mother. Bell even decorated the tiles of the central fireplace in Woolf’s Monk House bedroom with a lighthouse in homage to their parents; the lighthouse was a shared motif from that life spent “living in a book loving family” together. For the sisters, a book cover wasn’t a marketing tool: it was a celebration of joint memories, an acknowledgement of their shared artistic origins, and an embrace of familial collaboration.
After Bell designed the dust jacket for To The Lighthouse in 1927, Woolf wrote: “I wish you’d signed your cover.” An artist’s name doesn’t typically appear on the front of a book, but Bell’s often did, usually as initials. Woolf’s insistence speaks volumes, as did her decision to ignore the widespread complaints about Bell’s designs coming from both booksellers and her husband.
“Your style is unique, because so truthful,” Woolf wrote to her sister in response to criticism, “and therefore it upsets one completely.” Bell’s dust jackets were monuments to the sisters’ shared life, to their years in conversation, and also to Virginia’s long-standing devotion to female artists. It was something worth fighting for.