Brainstorm: How a Cornwall lighthouse inspired Virginia Woolf’s fictional icon Virginia Woolf

For the large plate of blue water stood in front of her; the gray lighthouse, distant, stern, in the middle; and on the right, as far as the eye could see, the green sand-dunes, with the wild-flowing grasses upon them, fading and falling in soft, low folds, always seeming to flee to a moonland uninhabited by man.

Virginia Woolf. Photo: George C Beresford/Getty Images

Almost a century after Virginia Woolf wrote those words for her 1927 novel To the lighthouseA plaque is to be placed on the house in the Cornish town of St Ives where she spent her childhood summers and was inspired by the view of Godrevy Lighthouse in the bay.

It’s the result of years of campaigning and fundraising by Professor Maggie Humm, Deputy Chair of the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain, who says the property, Talland House, is a “crucial part of the Woolf story”.

Humm, who lives in London, said that after four years of pressure from City Council, local MPs and heritage groups in St Ives, it was finally agreed that a permanent marker should be placed on Talland House. It is scheduled to be unveiled on September 11th.

“Twenty years ago the founding members of the Woolf Society made initial attempts to put a plaque on the property but nothing came of it. About four years ago I started the campaign again. Then the City Council finally came along and they’ve shone ever since,” said Humm.

To the lighthouse is a modernist novel in which the Ramsay family and their eight children rent a summer house on the Isle of Skye – reflecting Woolf’s own early life – with the ever-present promise of a visit to the lighthouse off the island as a narrative thread Woolf pierces the thoughts and observations of the Mother, Mrs. Ramsay, together.

Woolf considered it “by far the best of my books” and it sold all of her earlier works when it was published in 1927 by Hogarth Press, run by Woolf and her husband Leonard. That New York Times called it “a brilliantly ambitious analysis of domestic psychology”. The lack of any real plot has led to the book being widely considered unfilmable, although there was a BBC TV adaptation in 1983 starring Rosemary Harris, Michael Gough and a young Kenneth Branagh.

Bay of St Ives.
Bay of St Ives.

Crowdfunding has raised nearly £4,000 for the plaque through donations from Woolfians around the world, particularly in the US and Europe. The plaque design is similar to the Blue Plaque scheme operated by English Heritage in London but is in the colors of the Cornish flag in black and white and states that Woolf spent every summer at the house between 1882, her year of birth, and 1894.

Talland House was bought by Woolf’s parents, Julia and Leslie Stephen, and they began holidaying there the year she was born. “They went every year until Woolf’s mother died,” Humm said. “You can imagine traveling from Paddington in London to St Ives every summer with eight children and all their luggage.”

Talland House overlooks Porthminster Beach and across the bay three miles away stands Godrevy Lighthouse, built in 1858 to warn shipping of the treacherous Stones Reef. When Woolf was a child it was manned by lighthouse keepers, but the 26-metre tower was automated in the 1930s and has been entirely solar powered since 1995.

Even though To the lighthouse Set in the Hebrides, it is Godrevy on which the lighthouse is based and to which young Woolf would have looked every day from Talland House during the summers her family spent there. Talland House is now apartments but is a place of pilgrimage for Woolf fans. The gardens have recently been restored by Polly Carter, a heritage gardener, to look exactly as they would have looked in Woolf’s day.

A spokesman for St Ives Council said: “While St Ives is known for its association with the visual arts and important painters and sculptors of the 20th century, this will mark our association with important writers who also shaped West Cornwall .”

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